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Why Smithfield Workers Want a Union

The Smithfield Foods' meatpackers struggle to form a union began in 1994, when workers sought union representation with the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW)  to address the poor conditions in the Tar Heel, North Carolina factory.  Injuries are a regular occurrence with the fast assembly line and the use of sharp knives. 

lorena_jorge_ramos_small.jpg The plant in Tar Heel has been cited with 74 OSHA violations in the past four years.1  A New York Times reporter went undercover to work in the Tar Heel plant and described his firsthand account of the dangers of the work and its toll:  "The work burns your muscles and dulls your mind.  Staring down into the meat for hours strains your neck.  After thousands of cuts a day your fingers no longer open freely.  Standing in the damp 42-degree air causes your knees to lock, your nose to run, your teeth to throb."2 

Julia Garcia3 worked at Smithfield from 1996-99, and after damaging her hand on the job the company fired her.  "Now I have a big bump on my hand.  I have pain everyday and some days it is worse than others.  I can't lift anything heavy and I can't push anything."  Another former Smithfield worker, Carlos Martinez,4 recalled the dangerous pressure he was under on the assembly line: "I was working with this electric saw and they were pushing us to work so fast and I cut my finger.  I never saw a doctor.  They gave me first aid right there and said get back to work…and told me to work with one hand." 

Given the intense and dangerous work, it's no surprise that 5,000 quit and 5,000 are hired each year.5   The idea of forming a union represents the hope for Smithfield workers of improving their plant conditions, wages, and gaining job security-so those who are injured on the job or speak up about safety problems will not fear losing their jobs. 

Additional Resources

1. For an in-depth analysis of how the law has failed the Tar Heel Smithfield workers, see Human Rights Watch's report, Unfair Advantage: Workers' Freedom of Association in the United States Under International Human Rights Standards.

2. Read our fact sheet, How Unions Make Workplaces Safer.

3. Check out our companion edition of Workers' Rights Watch: Eye on the NLRB.  Read our October 2004 case:  Labor Law Leaves Meatpackers Vulnerable to Employer Attacks.


1. U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Safety & Health Administration, Establishment Search of OSHA Inspections, 1994-2004.
2. LeDuff, Charlie. "At a Slaughterhouse, Some Things Never Die: Who Kills, Who Cuts, Who Bosses Can Depend on Race," The New York Times, June 16, 2000.
3. Name changed to protect worker from retaliation.
4. Name changed to protect worker from retaliation.
5. LeDuff, Charlie. "At a Slaughterhouse, Some Things Never Die: Who Kills, Who Cuts, Who Bosses Can Depend on Race," The New York Times, June 16, 2000.