Victory at Smithfield: An Independance Day Symbol

One of the ugliest fights for worker justice has taken place in Tar Heel, North Carolina, which is about 80 miles south of Raleigh. For 17 years, thousands of workers, who labor under some pretty brutal conditions in the largest pork processing plant, have sought a modicum of justice and dignity. And they just got it.

After a two-day vote, the workers approved the first-ever union contract at the Smithfield Foods plant. Here are the details via the United Food & Commercial Workers:

The new contract includes:

* Wage increases of $1.50/hour over the next four years. * Continued company-provided affordable family health care coverage. * Improved paid sick leave and vacation benefits. * Retirement security through protection of the existing pension plan. * Continued joint worker/management safety committee, including company funded safety training for workers. * Guaranteed weekly hours that protect full-time, family supporting jobs in the community * A system to resolve workplace issues. * Three working days of paid funeral leave following the death of immediate family members.

“This contract will completely transform our workplace,” said Orlando Williams. “This is the biggest four-year wage increase Smithfield workers have ever had and it will make a real difference for our families and in this community. We could never have gotten that increase without a chance to bargain with the company. We will finally have a sense of security on the job because through our union we can make sure we have a safe place to work, and that everyone’s treated fairly.”

The first thing to note is that the UFCW deserves a lot of credit. It stuck with this organizing campaign over 17 years through, among other things, a racketeering suit Smithfield filed against the union because of a very persistent corporate campaign waged by the union. In two previous union representation elections, the company brutally harassed the workers, and in particular, the union supporters, to the point that the National Labor Relations tossed out the results of the elections. Finally, last December, the union won overwhelmingly in an election that was more fair then anything in the past.

Which brings us to this point: when workers have a chance to vote for a union–free of intimidation and threats–they will do so. And certainly one step in that direction will come with the passage of the Employee Free Choice Act.

The point that I think is valuable to remember is this one:

Workers and union officials say that perhaps the most important change is that workers will be allowed to voice concerns and challenge management decisions through a formal grievance process. In the past, many workers have said they were treated disrespectfully by their supervisors and fired after speaking out or being injured.

“We really did accomplish something with this union,” said Mattie Fulcher, a 10-year employee who helps usher pigs to their deaths. “We might not have gotten the raise that we wanted, but that will come in time. This is our first contract, and it is a start.”

Too often, in the public sphere, and among the talking heads, the focus on union jobs is about wages and benefits. No doubt, that is important. But, what the workers at Smithfield gained was some POWER over how they will be treated.

Independence Day is about a lot of symbols–patriotism, flag-waving and I suppose mostly, now, a long weekend at the beach. But, it is also about gaining power and the triumph over tyranny. It is always ironic and sad to me that, too often, we assert that triumph by showcasing the very instruments of power that we now use to the detriment of other people around the world.

But, I forget that when I sit back and think, for a moment, what these workers went through–the struggle, the fight, the commitment that held them together over so many dark days–this is the America that inspires me. They have triumphed over tyranny, they have gained back the power they deserve to shape their lives. That’s what Independence Day means to me.

Jonathan Tasini: Jonathan Tasini is the executive director of Labor Research Association. Tasini ran for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate in New York. For the past 25 years, Jonathan has been a union leader and organizer, a social activist, and a commentator and writer on work, labor and the economy. From 1990 to April 2003, he served as president of the National Writers Union (United Auto Workers Local 1981).He was the lead plaintiff in Tasini vs. The New York Times, the landmark electronic rights case that took on the corporate media’s assault on the rights of thousands of freelance authors.

This article originally appeared on Working Life on July 3, 2009 and is reprinted here with permission from the author.

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.