Grocer urged to drop Smithfield as labor campaign builds

by Jordan Green

Upwards of 50 people supporting a union effort to organize workers at Smithfield Foods’ Tar Heel slaughterhouse gathered on Dec. 2 outside a Greensboro Harris Teeter store on West Market Street to urge the grocer to remove the company’s products from its shelves. Similar rallies were planned for 10 other North Carolina cities.

Organizers in the community-labor coalition supporting the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union effort to organize the plant contend that employees endure unsafe working conditions and face intimidation and termination if they complain. Last month more than 500 mostly Latino employees walked off the job at the Tar Heel plant to protest a company move to check the workers’ immigration status. Smithfield Foods is the world’s largest hog producer and pork processor.

“We talked to a beautiful Latino woman who told us how a 200-pound frozen carcass of a pig fell on her and broke her shoulder,” said the Rev. Nelson Johnson, a cofounder of the Southern Faith, Labor and Community Alliance. “She couldn’t work and when she went to the company they wouldn’t give her her benefits, and she was terminated.”

On Monday a Smithfield Foods spokesman said he could not directly address the allegation.

“We have five thousand people here,” Dennis Pittman said. “If we made a mistake with someone we will look at it. I do not know if it happened.”

Since United Food and Commercial Workers began its efforts to organize the Tar Heel plant in 1994, the union has lost two elections. Smithfield Foods has proposed that a third election be set up to settle the dispute. The union has argued that the company should simply accept a card check that shows a majority of employees want the union.

“We welcome an election at any time,” Pittman said. “We would gladly pay half of the cost of bringing in a third party to monitor the election.”

He added: “You talk about intimidation: We’ve had employees come to us and say people have come to their home and said they wouldn’t leave until they signed one of those cards.”

Johnson said if Harris Teeter and other grocery stores took Smithfield products off their shelves, it would “contribute to Smithfield accepting that the majority of the workers want a union. They are planning to take people through a torturous and fraudulent election process that the court has found two times were riddled with fraud.”

Johnson and two other pastors met with Harris Teeter store manager Ed Tibbits to ask him to stop selling Smithfield products. The North Carolina conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People issued a resolution in support of the campaign this summer. The Greensboro rally included parishioners from Faith Community Church, New Light Baptist Church and Shiloh Baptist Church; students from Guilford College, NC A&T University, Bennett College and GTCC; and activists from the NAACP, the Labor Party and the Greensboro Justice Fund.

“It’s going to force Smithfield to take account that there is a community and that people care about where their food comes from,” Erica Bratz, the union’s statewide community organizer, said of the growing coalition.

Reached by phone at Harris Teeter’s corporate headquarters in Matthews on Monday, spokeswoman Jennifer Panetta referred to a Nov. 30 company statement that “any issues that may arise between Smithfield, their employees and labor organizations must be resolved between and among those respective parties” and “it would be inappropriate for Harris Teeter to insert itself in that process.”

It was difficult to gauge shoppers’ reactions to the protest on Nov. 2 in Greensboro. Two people said they plan to continue buying Smithfield products, and a third said she doesn’t buy ham.

Antonio Avilar, a 33-year-old landscaper, said he sympathizes with the workers in Tar Heel.

“They’ve got a good point,” he said. “My friend got injured and the company fired him instead of taking care of him. We come for jobs because we want to support our families. I don’t know why people want to discriminate against us.”

To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at