This article has been corrected.
When immigration agents raided Smithfield Food's huge North Carolina slaughterhouse two years ago, union organizer Eduardo Peña compared the impact to a "nuclear bomb." The day after, people were so scared that most of the plant's 5,000 employees didn't show up for work. The lines where they kill and cut apart 32,000 hogs every day were motionless. "Workers think it's happening because people were getting organized," said Vargas at the time.
Yet on Dec. 11, 2008, when the votes were counted in the same packing plant, 2,041 workers had voted to join the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), while just 1,879 had voted against it. That stunning reversal set off celebrations in house trailers and ramshackle homes in Tarheel, Red Springs, St. Pauls, and all the tiny working-class towns spread from Fayetteville down to the South Carolina border.
Relief and happiness are understandable in North Carolina, where union membership is the lowest in the country. But Smithfield workers were not just celebrating a vote count. They'd just defeated one of the longest, most bitter anti-union campaigns in modern U.S. labor history. Their victory was the product of an organizing strategy that accomplished what many have said that U.S. unions can no longer do -- organize huge, privately owned factories.
In 1994 and 1997, Smithfield workers voted in two union-representation elections and rejected the UFCW both times. In 1997 the head of plant security, Danny Priest, told local sheriffs he expected violence on election day. Police in riot gear then lined the walkway into the slaughterhouse, and workers had to file past them to cast their ballots. At the end of the vote count, union activist Ray Shawn was beaten up inside the plant. Three years later, Priest, while still head of plant security, became an auxiliary deputy sheriff, and plant security officers were given the power to arrest and detain people at work. The company maintained a holding area for detainees in a trailer on the property, which workers called the company jail. (Smithfield gave up its deputized force and detention center in 2005.)
Management used such extensive intimidation tactics that both elections were thrown out by the National Labor Relations Board. In 2006 the NLRB forced Smithfield to rehire workers fired in 1994 for union activity and pay them $1.1 million. That was a victory for the union, but workers on the line could also easily see that Smithfield lawyers kept union supporters out of work for over a decade, in violation of the law.
In 2003 contract workers for QSI, a company that cleans the machinery at night, finally challenged that atmosphere of fear. According to Julio Vargas, a QSI employee, "The wages were very low, and we had no medical insurance. When people got hurt, after being taken to the office, they made them go back to work and wear pink helmets [to humiliate them]. We were fed up." Led by Vargas, the cleaning crew refused to go in to work. The company negotiated, and workers won concessions. The following week, however, those identified as ringleaders, like Vargas, lost their jobs.
Nevertheless, a new group of UFCW organizers understood the importance of that work stoppage. The union set up a workers' center in nearby Red Springs, holding classes on English and labor rights. Vargas and other fired workers went to work for the UFCW, organizing discontent over high line speed and its human cost in injuries. Workers began to stop production lines to get the company to talk with them about health and safety problems.
In April 2006, as immigrant protests spread across the country, 300 Smithfield workers stayed out of work and marched through the streets of nearby Wilmington. On May 1 they paraded again, this time by the thousands.
Those heady days, however, were followed by a series of immigration-enforcement actions orchestrated between the company and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents. On Oct. 30, 2006, the plant's human resources department sent letters to hundreds of immigrant workers, saying the Social Security numbers they'd provided when they were hired didn't match the government's database. Managers gave them two weeks to come up with new ones.
"On November 13, over 30 were escorted out of the plant," recalled Peña. The following Thursday, more than 300 workers walked out in protest. They met at a local hotel, came up with a list of demands, and got church leaders to intercede with the company. Smithfield agreed to rehire the terminated workers for 60 days. "It's hard to imagine how empowered people felt," Peña recalled.
The success of the workplace action impressed African American workers, who at the time made up about 40 percent of the work force. Union supporters collected 4,000 signatures asking the company to give employees the day off on the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday. A delegation took the petitions to the human resources office, but a company vice president refused to accept them. When they were denied the holiday, 400 workers didn't come in anyway and virtually shut down the plant again.
"Unity between immigrant Latino and African American workers was essential to organizing a union," said Gene Bruskin, then the director of the UFCW's Justice at Smithfield campaign, and the drive's principal strategist. In the earlier campaigns, divisions between the two groups contributed to the union's defeat.
Nine days after the Martin Luther King Day action, ICE agents came out to the plant in their first raid. After they arrested 21 people for deportation and questioned hundreds more in the factory lunchroom, fear grew so intense that most workers didn't show up the following day. A few months later, a similar raid took place.
The percentage of immigrants began to decline as many Latino workers were forced out of the plant. Eventually, the ratio between blacks and Latinos was reversed. The immigrant work force shrank to about 40 percent, while the percentage of African Americans rose to 60 percent. At that point, however, African American workers became more active in the unionization campaign. Union workers eventually collected the signatures of about half the plant's employees, demanding that the company agree to recognize the UFCW. Meanwhile, UFCW organizers began using the violation of workers' rights to mobilize customer pressure against Smithfield. Union and community activists collected thousands of signatures on petitions asking store chains to find another pork supplier, and the city of Boston stopped purchasing Smithfield products.
Inside the plant, militant activity began to rise again. One key moment came when Juan Navarro wrote "Union Time" with a felt pen on his helmet. Supervisors called him in and took away his helmet. Navarro worked on the kill floor where a majority of the workers are black. When he went back to the line, the other workers decided to back him up. "Union Time" appeared on their helmets, too, and eventually spread throughout the plant, becoming the slogan of the union campaign. Smithfield was even forced to apologize to Navarro.
In the back room of the tiny Mexican market down the road from the plant, the union committee started meeting before and after work. Black and Puerto Rican activists would then take leaflets and union newsletters into the plant and walk through the halls and into the break rooms, handing out the information to their co-workers.
When Martin Luther King's birthday approached in 2008, the union passed out a leaflet telling workers to "hold the date." This time, the company not only gave Tarheel workers the holiday but also let workers take the day off in every nonunion Smithfield plant. One union activist observed that the increased activity among African American workers gave a kind of cover to the Mexicans, allowing them to regain some of their former activism without feeling they had a target painted on their backs. At the same time, Puerto Rican workers also became more vocal, giving the union another voice in Spanish from workers who aren't immigrants at all.
The company responded to rising pressure both inside and outside the plant by filing a racketeering suit against the union. It demanded the same kind of NLRB election it had won in 1994 and 1997 and accused the union of being anti-democratic when it would not agree to repeat the bitter experience of the past.
As a trial grew close, the union and the company agreed to an election procedure that workers and organizers felt would keep Smithfield from using the old bare-knuckle tactics. The union won the right to access the plant premises, and organizers were able to walk the halls themselves and to sit in the lunchrooms and talk with workers, explaining the potential benefits of unionization. The company was able to hold a limited set of "captive audience" meetings, which workers were required to attend, where they heard management's anti-union speeches and watched anti-union videos. But the union also won the right to limit those speeches, keeping out threats and overt intimidation.
In the meantime, the lunchrooms became hubs of union activity, with "Union Time" visible on helmets, leaflets, and buttons. To union activists, visibility inside the plant meant that, in the eyes of workers, the union had some power. Coupled with concessions on things like the King holiday, and a history of protest over accidents and line speed, it became clear the union could actually win changes. At the same time, workers were the union's visible leaders. Despite the firings and immigration raids, many veteran union supporters stayed active in the campaign. Union organizers spent countless hours with those leaders, talking about tactics and helping make decisions about the course of the campaign.
And when the ballots were counted, the union won.
Efforts by the modern U.S. labor movement to organize factories the size of the Tarheel plant have not been very successful for the last two decades. In fact, private-sector unionization has fallen below 8 percent of the work force. The giant electronics plants of Silicon Valley have an anti-union strategy so intimidating that unions haven't even tried to organize them for years. Japanese car manufacturers have built assembly plants and successfully kept workers from organizing, despite efforts by the auto union.
The price for the lack of a successful strategy to organize those Japanese plants became clear in December's congressional debate over the auto bailout proposal, when Southern Republican senators demanded that the United Auto Workers agree to gut its union contracts to match the nonunion wages and conditions at Nissan, Honda, and BMW. The presence of the nonunion plants now threatens to destroy the union. The same dilemma exists in industry after industry.
To get out of the box, today's labor movement pins its hopes on the Employee Free Choice Act. This proposal would require a company like Smithfield to negotiate a union contract if a majority of workers sign union cards. It would avoid the kind of union election that took place in 1997, where the idea of voting freely became a farce in an atmosphere of violence and terror. EFCA would also put penalties on employers who fire workers for union activity. At Smithfield, the company was only obliged to pay fired workers for their lost wages, and even then was allowed to deduct any money they'd earned during the decade their cases wound through the legal system. EFCA would substantially restrict the kind of anti-union campaign Smithfield mounted for 15 years.
But EFCA by itself will not build strong unions, which workers can use not just to win elections but to make substantial changes in the workplace itself. The union at Smithfield wasn't created on election day by a fairer legal process. Workers had already organized it in the battles that preceded the vote. They did much more than sign union cards, go to a few meetings, and cast ballots. They had to lose their fear, show open support for the demands they'd chosen themselves, and learn to make management listen to those demands by slowing down lines, circulating petitions, and forming delegations to demand changes. Those battles hardened the leaders who survived.
And if African American and Latino immigrant workers hadn't found a way to work together, the union drive would have ended with the immigration raids. Immigration enforcement was used to attack the union drive, and for months after the no-match letter and the two raids, the organizing campaign was effectively dead. At Smithfield and elsewhere, enforcement of immigration law itself has become a way to punish workers when they try to improve conditions. It was only when the African American workers who'd fought the first battle for the King holiday became the core of a new generation of leaders that the struggle to build the union could continue. Immigration raids didn't help black or other citizen workers -- they increased the fear, reduced the activity, eliminated leaders, and added months, if not years, to the time needed to rebuild. In the end, both African Americans and immigrant workers found a common interest in better wages and working conditions. But they also had to agree to defend the right of each worker to her or his job -- any unfair firing was an attack on the union, whether the victim was black, Mexican, or Puerto Rican. If the company and ICE had been successful in convincing half the plant that the other half really had no right to work because of their immigration status, workers would have been unwilling and unable to defend each other.
The root of the problem lies in employer sanctions, the provision of federal law that prohibits employers from hiring undocumented workers. The law, in effect, makes working a crime for people without papers and hands employers a weapon to fight their own work force. When unions decided at the AFL-CIO convention in 1999 to call for repeal of sanctions, they recognized that changing immigration law was just as necessary for organizing unions as passing reforms like EFCA.
Outside the Tarheel plant, the union grew roots in working-class communities. It organized a permanent coalition with churches and community organizations, not just a temporary arrangement of convenience. It became part of workers' lives. They met in its office, took English classes there, and marched in demonstrations for civil rights. And that coalition was able to turn the company's anti-labor activity against it, exposing its record in the place where Smithfield was most vulnerable -- in the eyes of consumers.
Without pressure from workers and their communities, Smithfield had no motivation to reach an agreement on a fair election process. The election result, therefore, was the product of a long-term organizing effort and commitment. Smithfield workers and the UFCW have shown that with a similar commitment, organizing is possible, no matter how big the plant or anti-union the employer. But it takes a strategy based on building a real union in the workplace and community. And with changes in labor and immigration law, workers won't have to conduct a 15-year war to do it.