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Workers at huge NC pork plant vote for union
Source labornet@labornet.org
Date 08/12/15/14:12

www.businessweek.com
Workers at huge NC pork plant vote for union
By EMERY P. DALESIO

RALEIGH, N.C.--Workers at the world's largest hog processing plant have voted to bring in a union to represent them.

About 4,600 of Smithfield Packing Co.'s 5,000 employees in the tiny North Carolina town of Tar Heel were eligible to vote over two days of balloting overseen by the National Labor Relations Board.

The United Food and Commercial Workers has tried since the plant opened 16 years ago to win the right to represent the Tar Heel workers.

The election comes as part of a settlement in a racketeering lawsuit the company filed against the union last year.

The plant processes up to 32,000 live hogs a day into plate-ready pork.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. AP's earlier story is below.

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) -- Workers at the world's largest hog processing plant weighed in Thursday on whether to unionize in a vote that could end a dispute waged for years at one of North Carolina's largest industrial sites.

About 4,600 of Smithfield Packing Co.'s employees in the tiny, rural town of Tar Heel were completing two days of voting overseen by the National Labor Relations Board. The plant, which employs about 5,000 people, processes up to 32,000 live hogs a day into plate-ready sliced pork and larger loin segments.

The United Food and Commercial Workers union has tried since the plant opened 16 years ago to win the right to represent the Tar Heel workers. A federal court ruled two years ago that Smithfield's conduct during two elections in the 1990s unfairly skewed the votes, both of which the union lost.

"There's been a long, long history of tension between the union and Smithfield," said Jeffrey Hirsch, a law professor at the University of Tennessee who specializes in labor relations law and used to work at the NLRB. "Problems often equal workers being in favor of unions."

The election comes as part of a settlement in a racketeering lawsuit the company filed against the union last year.

The union had organized marches and prayer meetings, urged boycotts of Smithfield's products and targeted both grocery stores and celebrity chef and company spokeswoman Paula Deen.

The company said the union's tactics also included spurious complaints to state and federal safety regulators. And last year, its Smithfield, Va.-based parent, Smithfield Foods Inc., fired back with a federal lawsuit contending the union's economic and political pressure amounted to a criminal conspiracy bent on extortion. Smithfield estimated the cost of the negative publicity at $900 million.

Workers said major issues were pay, workplace safety, compensation for on-the-job injuries and brusque treatment by some managers.

Smithfield acknowledged that the jobs are tough, but denied it runs an unsafe workplace. The company said hourly pay at its Tar Heel plant ranges from $10 to $15.75 and that starting pay at Smithfield Packing's three unionized plants near its corporate headquarters is $9 to $10.

Union supporters said the pay at the Virginia plants is better than at the Tar Heel operation.

Only about 3 percent of North Carolina workers belonged to a union in 2007, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, while the national average was 12.1 percent.

Smithfield works with unions at eight of its 13 U.S. pork processing plants and distribution centers.

Nearly 24,000 of Smithfield's 35,300 employees in its pork segment were covered by a collective bargaining agreement as of April, according to the company's annual report, though many work for subsidiaries other than Smithfield Packing, which runs the Tar Heel plant.

While Hirsch and other observers think a union victory could set an example within the meatpacking industry or to workers in the little-unionized South, one industrial site, even one this size, is "not big enough to cause ripples in the economy, broadly," Hirsch said.

"I think it would be a symbolic victory for the union," he said. "Certainly for the workers it would matter."

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