Hispanic walkout at N.C. slaughterhouse could help the union gain a foothold
By ERIN GARTNER , Associated Press writer
TAR HEEL, N.C. — For Hector Pizzaro, it wasn't the rigors of a bloody workday spent slicing freshly killed hogs along an assembly line that led him to walk off the job. It was the chance he might lose that job.
The Mexican immigrant was among about 1,000 mostly Hispanic employees who staged a two-day walkout in November, upset that Smithfield Foods Inc. fired 50 or so people in a crackdown on undocumented workers at the world's biggest hog slaughterhouse.
Pizzaro, speaking in Spanish, warned that if Smithfield fires any more workers, "we'll go again."
Union officials who have struggled without success for more than a decade to organize the plant quickly threw their support to the Hispanic workers, recognizing that the crackdown and others like it around the country represent a new opportunity for the labor movement to boost membership.
"It is interesting that they're taking this on and doing it in such a way, sort of out there as the defender of the undocumented worker," said Richard Herd, a professor of labor studies at Cornell University. "They're looking for a way to get more members, and this may be a way for them to make an effective challenge."
Much of the recent immigration boom in North Carolina and other states is driven by jobs like those at Smithfield. In 2003, the latest year for which numbers are available, 42 percent of meat and poultry workers in the U.S. were Hispanic, and about a quarter of those were non-citizens, according to a government report.
The slaughterhouse jobs are demanding and can appear brutal to an outsider.
Dashawn Johnson said he gets paid $12 an hour to stun hogs. Another worker stabs the animals in the neck to kill them and sends them down an assembly line where co-workers hook, de-hair, slice, refrigerate and package 32,000 hogs a day.
"I didn't expect all the blood, getting on my face and stuff," said Johnson, pointing to dried blood spots on the chest of his heavy jacket and above his calf-high rubber boots.
The workers are bunched tightly, 25 to a side around the assembly line, working with both regular and electric knives, said Gene Bruskin, an organizer with the Food and Commercial Workers union. The speed of the line demands hundreds of cuts per hour, made with same precise motion, he said.
"There's wet meat on the floor that isn't cleaned properly," Bruskin said. "If it falls on the floor, it makes the floor slippery. So if you're holding a giant electric knife and you fall down on the floor, you're in trouble."
For years, the union has called those conditions unsafe. But the more than 5,000 workers at the plant in this little town about 85 miles southeast of Raleigh twice voted against forming a union in the 1990s. On yesterday, the company said it would help pay for an outside observer to monitor a new union election at the plant — an offer it has made before.
Eduardo Pena, a union organizer who goes door-to-door here and in nearby towns in an effort to build a rapport with Spanish-speaking workers and interest them in joining the Food and Commercial Workers, said the immigrants have only recently started to trust him enough to seek advice about problems at the plant.
"That was four years in the making," Pena said after visiting Pizzaro at a mobile home where he lives in nearby Red Springs. "Before, they wouldn't have opened their doors. Now, they're sitting down and talking to you."
Unions have had recent success organizing immigrants elsewhere. In November, the Service Employees union reached an agreement with five major cleaning companies in Houston, ending a monthlong strike. The union organized the 5,300 janitors last year, and the recent agreement guarantees higher wages, medical benefits and more work hours.
Unions traditionally regarded immigrants as a competitive threat to American workers, said Cecilia Munoz, vice president for public policy at the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic civil rights group. But after seeing their membership plummet in recent decades, unions have come to regard immigrants as a source of recruits.
"That is a big, big shift," she said. "The unions see it as a longer-term strategy that can both win immigration status for these workers and change working conditions for all workers."
At the Smithfield plant, spokesman Dennis Pittman said the company reviewed its employment records on the advice of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, which had raided a Smithfield plant in Virginia and arrested several undocumented workers.
Smithfield said 500 to 600 employees in Tar Heel had Social Security numbers, names and other information that could not be verified. About 50 of them were fired, and employees feared the others would soon lose their jobs, too. The union rallied to their cause and drew widespread attention to the walkout that began Nov. 16.
Pizzaro was among those whose background information could not be verified, but he insisted his documents are legitimate.
To resolve the walkout, the company agreed to rehire the fired workers and gave employees 60 days to provide new documents that meet the government's requirements.
Pittman said Smithfield has been getting hundreds of e-mails from anti-illegal immigration groups upset the company let the workers back at all.
"We made everybody mad," he said. "We're kind of stuck between a rock and a hard spot."
Similar enforcement actions have led to turmoil at other slaughterhouses.
In September, officials at a Crider Inc. poultry plant in Stillmor, Ga., went through the same process and discovered about 700 employees might be illegal immigrants. After they were asked to prove they came to the U.S. legally, only about 100 were able to keep their jobs.
Having lost half its work force, Crider was forced to boost starting wages by $1 an hour to help recruit new workers.
Pena said Smithfield's efforts were designed to intimidate immigrants, especially undocumented ones. Pittman disputed that.
"We would prefer to have a legal way to keep these people here," he said.
On the Net:
United Food and Commercial Workers union: http://www.ufcw.org
National Council of La Raza: http://www.nclr.org