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Board Silent as Employer Violence Against Workers Continues
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Written by Erin Johansson   
September 30, 2004

North Carolina meatpackers have endured grisly working conditions, unfair pay, and a decade of attacks on their right to organize.  So why has the NLRB failed to rule on their case for four years?  

The deck has been stacked against workers at Smithfield Foods’ hog-processing plant in Tar Heel, NC.  Their desire to form a union began soon after the plant opened, and their employer has spent the last decade fighting their efforts every step of the way.  Yet this story is not simply about meatpackers struggling to form a union at an anti-union company.  It is about the failure of the U.S. government to enforce the right to organize. 

Smithfield’s Opposition to Worker Organizing

Smithfield employs 5,500 meatpackers at the Tar Heel facility, the largest hog-killing plant in the world. For over ten years at this meatpacking plant, workers have fought to form a union to overcome poor working conditions and inadequate pay . The workers’ organizing drive paved the way for two union representation elections—one in 1994 and one in 1997.  It comes as no surprise that the workers failed to obtain majority support in favor of union representation in either election, given the level of anti-union conduct and rampart violations of labor law by the company.

Thwarting Unions Through Violence

While Smithfield has repeatedly engaged in typical unionbusting activities during the organizing effort, one startling event stands out:  Violence erupted immediately after the 1997 union election.  At the Tar Heel plant, Smithfield operates its own armed police force with the authority to arrest and detain workers on its property.  Although federal labor law says workers have the right to participate in a union election free from fear, coercion, and intimidation, this company police force—heavily armed and dressed in riot gear—surrounded the plant on the day of the election.  After the vote count, union supporters were physically assaulted and falsely arrested by the Bladen County Sheriff’s Deputies, who were called in by the company to supplement its own private police force. 

Smithfield Found Guilty of Violating Law

On December 15, 2000—many years after charges were filed—Smithfield workers were led to believe that justice was at last served.  They thought the federal government was going to protect their freedom to form a union against fierce resistance by the company.  On that day, a judge with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) found Smithfield guilty of egregious violations of federal labor law.  The Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) issued a 400-page opinion in which he found that Smithfield engaged in repeated labor law violations over the course of the organizing attempts.1   In addition to ruling that Smithfield spied on and fired pro-union employees, the ALJ found that Smithfield used the Sheriff’s Deputies to create an intimidating environment, and that Smithfield was responsible for orchestrating the violent clash at the 1997 election. 

The ALJ ruled that the results of the 1997 election should be set aside because the company "engaged in such egregious… misconduct as to demonstrate a general disregard for employees’ statutory rights."  The judge recommended that a new election be held in a neutral voting place away from the plant in order to prevent "unfair labor practices and objectionable conduct (that) were so numerous, pervasive, and outrageous" during the 1994 and 1997 organizing drives.

Justice for Smithfield Workers Shortchanged, Shortlived

Despite his stern language, the ALJ could only reorder improvements in election conditions and remedies for the workers who were assaulted and fired.  The ALJ could not punish Smithfield for its blatantly illegal and anti-worker activities.  The law does not even allow for the imposition of fines on companies which violate labor law, even though such a penalty could deter further illegal conduct. 

Yet after waiting years for the decision, the ALJ ruling was a small victory for the workers who needed closure and a fair shot at organizing. But before Smithfield meatpackers could celebrate, Smithfield immediately appealed the decision.  And nearly four years later, the appeal still awaits a decision by the five-member NLRB.  Given the delay, it’s likely that many of the workers whose rights were violated have since left the plant during this time.  The assaulted and fired workers are without justice and have yet to receive the backpay they were awarded as the ALJ’s judgment sits on appeal.  And the consequences of this delay are dire for the workers who remain at the plant and wish to organize.  The new election has been put on indefinite hold.  Worse yet, if workers wanted to hold another election before the appeal is decided, they must risk enduring the same intimidating conditions under which they voted in 1994 and 1997.

Weak Labor Law Enables Repeat Offenders 

The employees of a contractor at the Smithfield Tar Heel plant decided to take the risk to organize before the ALJ’s remedies could be implemented, and the results were predictable.  In early 2004, maintenance workers employed by QSI, a Smithfield contractor, tried to address their concerns about working conditions.  After a supervisor who was sympathetic to their cause was fired, 250 QSI workers walked out of the plant in protest.  When workers attempted a second walk out after more coworkers were fired, Smithfield’s police force assaulted and falsely arrested them, and threatened to have immigration authorities arrest them.  On July 30, 2004, the NLRB General Counsel charged Smithfield with many of the same violations of labor law—including assault, false arrest, threats and intimidation—it committed in the 1990s at the Tar Heel plant.2   

The workers affected by the most recent charges may have to wait several more years for closure in this case.  And Smithfield can continue to be a repeat offender of labor law as long as the law’s weak remedies fail to impact the company’s bottom line, and the appeals process allows the company to stall charges against it for years.

No rationale can suffice for why the five-member Board has failed to make a ruling, leaving the workers in limbo.  This delay is well above average for cases pending at the Board, and calls into question their system of prioritizing major cases that impact thousands of workers. 

With such a poor track record, why would Smithfield workers ever trust the government to protect their rights?  The law failed to protect them even before they started to organize, as the weaknesses inherent in federal labor law created little disincentive for the company to refrain from violating it.  When Smithfield workers did attempt to organize, they were met with intimidation, coercion, threats, interference, discrimination, assault and false arrest.  And finally, when Smithfield workers sought justice with the federal government for the violation of their rights, the NLRB has been sitting on their case for nearly four years.  Clearly, there is no meaningful right to organize in this country when the government fails to protect and enforce this right.

Read more:

Endnotes

1. Decision of an Administrative Law Judge before the National Labor Relations Board Division of Judges, The Smithfield Packing Company, Inc., Tar Heel Division and United Food and Commercial Workers Union, Local 204, AFL-CIO, December 15, 2000.  Smithfield Packing Company, Inc., NLRB Case No. 11-CA-15522 et al. (ALJ Dec. 15, 2000).

2. Order Consolidating Cases, Complaint, and Notice of Hearing, National Labor Relations Board Region 11, Cases 11-CA-20241 and 11-CA-20281, July 30, 2004.

 
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