Ham-Handed At Smithfield
November 17, 2006
Yesterday, hundreds of workers walked off the job at the world's largest pork-processing plant in Tarheel, N.C. The spontaneous protest against Smithfield Foods involved as many as 1,000 workers, who were protesting the company's practice of retaliating against employees who stand up for their rights. The Tarheel workers' struggle is depressingly common. As longtime labor activist Nathan Newman put it to TomPaine, "What Smithfield workers face is what 20,000 workers face every year—illegal retaliation and firings for standing up for their legal right to form a union."
The plight of workers at Smithfield—famous for its hams which will grace many Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner tables this year—embodies the struggles facing American workers today: obstacles to joining a union, and employers who exploit immigrant workers to degrade the standards of the U.S. workplace. As former Congressman David Bonior noted in a recent piece for TomPaine, "Every 23 minutes, a worker in this country is fired or discriminated against for exercising the basic human right to form or join a union."
True, Smithfield employees have it especially tough. Human Rights Watch singled out the plant in 2005 as "a poster child for worker rights abuses, including brutally dangerous working conditions; retaliatory firings for workers who speak out; even hiring private security guards to harass and assault suspected union activists," according to Facing South, a blog about progressive politics in the South.
Pictured above are two Smithfield employees who have suffered under the extreme working conditions at the plant, which processes 34,000 hogs a day. Hector David Rodriguez led a walkout of his line because of its excessive speed. His wife, Wanda Torres, was injured at work. Smithfield refuses to offer compensation to employees injured on the job. Almost half of the plant's workers are immigrants and the threat of firing or deportation is a powerful weapon management uses to discourage employees from organizing for better conditions.
The good news is that now we have a government in place that can help the workers at Smithfield and other workplaces demand rights without fear. Days after the Democrats swept the midterm elections, the labor group, American Rights At Work, sent out an action alert calling on the Speaker-to-be Pelosi to put workers' rights at the top of her agenda. Pelosi, along with many other Democrats, is a co-sponsor of the Employee Free Choice Act, which offers protections for workers trying to organize to protect their rights on the job. In 2005 and 2006, the Republican majority prevented a vote on the bill. Smithfield workers are bravely standing up for themselves. Will Democrats use their power to stand up for all U.S. workers?