Smithfield Unionizes After 16 Years Of Rancor

Workers at the largest hog-processing plant in the world voted to unionize, ending a 16-year battle that made it all the way to the U.S. Court of Appeals. Kristin Collins of the Raleigh News and Observer talks with host Jacki Lyden about the workers' efforts at the Smithfield Packing Co. in Tar Heel, N.C.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

JACKI LYDEN, host:

This week, after 16 years of rancor, workers at the Smithfield Packing Company in Tar Heel, North Carolina voted to unionize. Labor expert Marion Crane of Washington University told the Raleigh News and Observer that the vote was, quote, "an important, symbolic win for the labor movement in the South." Kristin Collins wrote the story for the News and Observer, and she's on the line with us right now. Hello there, Kristin.

Ms. KRISTIN COLLINS (Reporter, Raleigh News and Observer): Hi. Thanks for having me.

LYDEN: Would you give us a little description of Smithfield? We know it's the biggest hog processing plant in the world. What goes on there?

Ms. COLLINS: Well, everything from the hog being killed all the way until it's packaged and ready to go to the grocery stores.

LYDEN: And how many people work there?

Ms. COLLINS: About 5,000, including management.

LYDEN: So, it's like a small city?

Ms. COLLINS: It is. It's - and it's out in an extremely rural area. And it's just this massive, massive plant, almost in the middle of nowhere.

LYDEN: Kristin Collins, what is it about this decision to unionize that makes it so important symbolically?

Ms. COLLINS: From what experts have told me, meat-packing plants moved out of the Northeast and into the South to escape unions. And so, I think that unions have been trying to show them that they can't escape, and this was their way of doing it. North Carolina has the lowest rate of unionization in the country so it really was coup to win here.

LYDEN: Now, this has been a saga that's lasted, you know, the better part of 20 years. The first attempt to join the United Food and Commercial Workers Union started 16 years ago, when the plant first opened, and I guess the obvious question is, what took so long?

Ms. COLLINS: There were two union elections in the 1990s, both of which the union lost. But they appealed, and there were rulings that came down from the courts that the company had harassed and fired union supporters, even in one election forced an employee to stamp dead hogs with the words, vote no. So those elections, the results were thrown out, and it was just years and years in the court system and then more years of union campaigning until we finally got to this point.

LYDEN: Have immigration patterns changed in North Carolina around Tar Heel?

Ms. COLLINS: Absolutely. The plant drew huge numbers of immigrant workers. But in the past year or so, there have been two big immigration arrests at the plant. And as a result, a lot of the immigrant workers have now left. So that could have been a factor.

LYDEN: So, it may have changed the vote because presumably, the people who were illegal immigrants weren't voting.

Ms. COLLINS: Yes. But the other elections were held in the '90s, before we had our huge wave of illegal immigration to the state. So I'm not sure at that time how many were illegal immigrants.

LYDEN: So you've been talking to workers since the results. What are they saying?

Ms. COLLINS: A lot of workers said to me that they felt that the union could help them have more power over their jobs. They complained about, you know, working schedules that they didn't like. They complained about pay that they thought wasn't high enough or a lack of respect from their managers. And I think they think the union will help them with those things.

LYDEN: So what happens now for these workers and for management at Tar Heel's Smithfield Plant?

Ms. COLLINS: It's still a long process from here. They have a year to come to a contract agreement. I guess everyone hopes it won't take that long, but it will probably be two to three months before they even pick their leadership for the local union and sit down and start negotiating.

LYDEN: Kristin Collins writes for the Raleigh News and Observer. She joined me from her home in North Carolina. Thanks very much, Kristin.

Ms. COLLINS: Thank you.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: