Smithfield protesters picket NC grocers

by Amy Kingsley

More than 50 activists clad in yellow union T-shirts picketed the Harris Teeter on Market Street on March 30 to protest labor conditions at Smithfield, the company that supplies pork products to the supermarket chain.

The event, which started at 11 a.m. and ended an hour and a half later, coincided with about a dozen similar actions planned in North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. Representatives from United Food and Commercial Workers International Union and the North Carolina branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People organized the demonstrations to promote a boycott of Smithfield products, which are also sold as Harris Teeter brand. Smaller protests aimed at pressuring the chain to stop carrying Smithfield products occurred last December and July to no avail.

Smithfield Foods operates the largest pork plant in the world in Tar Heel, NC, where the company employs about 5,000 workers. The Food and Commercial Workers union has been trying to organize workers and improve factory conditions for years. Workers have complained that management has threatened them with deportation (almost half the workforce is Latino) and routinely ignored injuries suffered on the job. Roberto Castro, a former employee, said he was run over by a truck at the Tar Heel plant, and that he was interrogated at length before receiving treatment.

“If you don’t answer questions the way they want you to, they will fire you,” Castro said.

Castro, who has an infant with disabilities, said he received demerits from the company for taking days off so his son could receive medical care at the children’s hospital in Chapel Hill.

Castro, union organizers and community activists received support from the Rev. William Barber, president of the state NAACP, and Guilford County Commissioner Carolyn Coleman.

“Jericho walls do fall down,” Barber said. “I’m glad that you’re here. We’re going to stay here until justice comes to Tar Heel.”

After his speech, Barber and a delegation of protesters presented the store manager with a stack of petitions requesting that the store stop carrying Smithfield products. In a polite, brief exchange, the store manager pledged to send the documents to his higher-ups.

“He commended us on our representation,” Barber said. “And he assured us he would deliver the letters to those in the position to grant our request.”

Barber urged the protesters to join hands in solidarity and offered a benediction. Shortly afterwards the picket line disbanded and business returned to normal.