Transcript - December 15, 2006
BRANCACCIO: Welcome to NOW.
Think unions in America and you probably still think of middle class steel-workers or well paid airline pilots. but as we all know, those jobs have been disappearing.
as the country's manufacturing power has declined, so has union membership... from around a quarter of the workforce in 1979 to little better than 12% now, according to the census dept.
But some unions are trying to turn things around by mobilizing the poorest of American workers, like janitors or food workers. So NOW decided to go to the front lines of the new labor movement.
Maria Hinojosa and producer Peter Meryash have spent the last three months looking at how that union effort is playing out at the world's largest pork plant... the Smithfield foods facility in .North Carolina... one place where unions have never had much of a presence.
And even if you have no business in that part of the country, you should take a moment to watch what some see as the pendulum swinging back for organized labor.
HINOJOSA: Keith Ludlum is out doing what he really loves to do ... hunting quail in eastern North Carolina.
A patriotic young man, Ludlum served a tour of duty in operation desert storm. After the war, in the spring of 1993, he moved to this quiet corner of the state. He hoped to get a decent job ... and leave the fighting behind.
Instead ... it was back in the states ... that Keith Ludlum's biggest battle began.
LUDLUM: Don't spend your hard earned money on a company that is abusing workers every day. Not in the United States of 2006.
HINOJOSA: Ludlum and fellow workers are taking on their employer ... Smithfield foods, the world's biggest pork producer. It has a corporate office here in New York City ... where these pork plant workers came to make their case.
LUDLUM: We need a union contract. Not just for better pay, but for better working conditions; to have a voice. And to be recognized as human beings.
HINOJOSA: They've been trying to unionize the company's largest meat processing plant for the past 12 years. You might not have heard about it, but it's one of the longest-running labor fights in the country.
SIMMONS: We want to be treated fairly. We want our voice heard. And we're gonna get our voice heard.
HINOJOSA: These low-wage workers say they are fighting for the kinds of benefits unions won for most middle class Americans decades ago. And as unlikely as it seems, these folks from the anti-union south have now found themselves on the front line of the American labor movement.
HINOJOSA: Which brings us to the worker's small town of Tar Heel, North Carolina...
It's here, two hours away from the nearest big city ... that Smithfield opened the largest pork processing plant in the world.
That was in 1992. And ever since, the UFCW ... the United Food and Commercial Workers Union ... has been trying to organize it. Gene Bruskin is the union's man in charge.
BRUSKIN: We're talking the largest packing plant in the world. We're talking North Carolina. We're talking one of the biggest manufacturing plants—in the South.
And we're talking—low-wage, black and Latino workers uniting for a union.
HINOJOSA: Keith Ludlum started working at Smithfield soon after it opened ... herding hogs into the plant.
One day, a colleague was injured at work, says Ludlum ... the first of many injuries he would hear about.
LUDLUM: They value the hog and the processing of that hog more than they do the safety and the well-being of their employees.
HINOJOSA: You feel that Smithfield right now is—is not protecting its workers in terms of health and safety?
LUDLUM: No, no. Their attention isn't to safety; it is to making a profit and processing as many hogs as possible.
HINOJOSA: Which is why, Ludlum says, the workers need a union ... to voice their demands for safer working conditions, better treatment, and improved benefits.
The battle to unionize the plant has been a contentious one. Here, at a rally in front of a North Carolina supermarket, religious and labor groups recently turned up the heat ... calling for a national boycott of products from Smithfield's plant in Tar Heel.
The company dismisses this as part of a smear campaign orchestrated by the union.
Dennis Pittman is Smithfield's director of corporate communications.
HINOJOSA: So how difficult is it for Smithfield when you're facing possible boycotts. You've got religious leaders coming in now and saying that perhaps human rights are being violated in this plant. You've got a lot of people targeting you.
PITTMAN: We have. But we've really not seen any effect from it. It's not made an difference to our business. Our customers are very supportive of us.
HINOJOSA: Even so, the company is working its own public relations effort.
For the first time in the plant's 14 year history, they did something they've never done before ... allow a television camera to see what goes on inside the plant.
It's an enormous operation ... more than five thousand people work here ... slaughtering more than thirty thousand hogs a day ... that's about six hogs every ten seconds. The line rarely stops. Workers cut ... and slice ... and package the meat for shipment all over the world.
This area is called the cut floor. And it's the only part of the process our camera was allowed to record.
It is cold here ... the drone of the line so deafening, workers must get yearly hearing tests. The smell comes in waves ... with notes of raw meat, blood, bleach.
By any measure, this is grueling work.
Most here are on their feet six to seven hours a day with two, 30-minute breaks. Some lift heavy slabs of meat. Others use sharp, two-handed knives to separate the loins from the skin and bones.
These workers make it look easy... but it is repetitive ... strenuous ... Dangerous work. In fact, the government ranks meat packing as one of the most dangerous jobs in America today.
LUDLUM: Basically you have employees that are working shoulder to shoulder. Working in extreme heats, extreme colds, for long durations of time. And they're—they're getting injured, you know.
HINOJOSA: These are photos of injured workers from the Tar Heel plant, says the union. And it claims injuries have been on the rise there ... over the past three years.
Smithfield says worker safety is their number one priority ... and claims the injury rate at the plant is below industry average.
PITTMAN: If you don't provide a safe, healthy working environment with good pay and good benefits, you won't get employees, you won't keep employees. Employees vote with their feet. They're not happy; they tend to go somewhere else.
HINOJOSA: So what is the essence of why the unionization of this Smithfield plant, in your eyes—
HINOJOSA: —has been so difficult for the past several years?
PITTMAN: Because the employees don't want it. It's just that simple.
HINOJOSA: To help make that point, the company introduced us to three employees there. Two of them, Barbara Lee and Nora Gamero, told us they have no interest in the union.
LEE: For me, voting for a union would mean that I—I wouldn't be able to stand up and talk for myself. Not only here, anyplace you go. You've got to be able to talk for yourself.
HINOJOSA: James Jones says the company treats him well ... And says the pay ... which for most workers at the plant can be twenty to twenty five thousand dollars a year ... is good for these parts.
JONES: This probably the best thing could've happened to this side of the Carolinas, Amen. 'Cause was a lot of—textile and tobacco and places like that. And a lot of those places are closed down. So, this—this place here, it was just a—really a blessing.
HINOJOSA: But other workers see the company in an entirely different light.
It's 5:30 in the morning ... Jessica Silva's husband telephones from his job to wake her up.
Today, like every other work day, Jessica will spend about seven hours handling hog stomachs.
She slips on her heavy work boots ... wakes up her 8 year old daughter Susana.
She drives her down the street to her mom's trailer ... It's 6 o'clock, and Silva has just enough time to get to work.
I tell Silva what Dennis Pittman told me ... that Smithfield employees are treated well.
She says workers have no paid sick days or personal days ... so how can they say they really care?
SILVA: If my daughter gets sick, and I take her to the doctor and I get a doctor's note for her, they won't accept that, and they dock me for the day. That's not compassionate and understanding for your workers.
HINOJOSA: If she's a minute late, she says, Silva will get a half a point on her record. 12 points and an employee is fired ... company policy.
So she hustles into the plant just as the sun is rising.
We weren't allowed to film where Silva works. It's called the kill floor .... Where she does the heavy work of sorting and packing thousands of hog stomachs a day.
SILVA: We have to pull them towards us. And me, well you know, I'm short, so I can't reach the table. So I have to climb in order to pull them. My shoulders hurt. My back hurts. But I don't go to the clinic because there they simply put a little ice over it, a hot water bag, and will send me back to work.
HINOJOSA: Silva has worked inside this plant for the past four and a half years. And the union says, workers have been making the same kind of complaints since the plant opened in 1992.
So the union stepped in to organize ... And a vote was held in 1994. But Smithfield repeatedly harassed and intimidated pro-union workers, they say ... even firing some ... Like Keith Ludlum , who had been getting co-workers to sign union authorization cards.
LUDLUM: Well, I had been telling my fellow workers that they were protected by federal law. you know, that you couldn't be fired for—for what I was—what I was doing. And—and, lo and behold, the company fires me and makes an example of me, you know, in front of the other employees, you know. So I was—I was discouraged because they basically made me out to be a liar to my fellow employees, you know.
HINOJOSA: What do you mean make an example of you? An example of you for what to the employees?
LUDLUM: Because the fact that I was, you know, pro-union and trying to organize, you know, the employees to have a union in the plant.
HINOJOSA: The union lost that vote ... and then lost a second vote three years later. In that one, the union charged ... not only were some supporters harassed and threatened ... At least one was maced and even beaten.
The union protested both elections. And after years of court battles ... an administrative judge, the national labor relations board, and even a federal appeals court ... all found that Smithfield had repeatedly broken the law.
LUDLUM: You can't win anything if one party is—if the other party's cheating, you know. You can't win a football game, you can't win a chess game, and you're certainly not gonna win a union election if the other part is cheating and violating the law.
HINOJOSA: The appeals court wrote: "... Smithfield had been exceptionally hostile to union organizing ..." at the plant ... where "... intense and widespread coercion [by the company was] prevalent ..."
PITTMAN: We as a company, we didn't agree with those. We made several appeals. But you reach a point, whether it be in a civil case, a criminal case—at some point, why bother? You're better off to go ahead and accept what they said. It costs way too much money to continue the appeal process, even if you're right.
HINOJOSA: But just to be clear—because when you have federal officials that Smithfield essentially intimidated workers, coerced workers, used threats of layoff, even physical violence—how much of that are you prepared to say we were at fault? We as a company were at fault?
PITTMAN: I think that there were some things said to people and some things handled that could have been handled better. That's as much as that—that I can say that happened in that situation. Regardless, that's ten years ago. Today we have an atmosphere here that I think is very open, very friendly, very honest. We feel good about our folks. I think most of them feel good about the company.
However, if they want union representation, we have no problem with that. We'll be glad to hold an election, as long as we can get the notification out and start the process.
BRUSKIN: That's a song and dance that has worked for them since 1994, when they had the first election. And in which they were found to be violating the law, and they said, let us have another election. We promise—they put it in writing. We promise to obey the law.
And that was the second election. And where they totally violated—the laws, they were off the chart. They then appealed that for a decade. And now they're turning around like the man that beat his wife for ten years and says, 'I'll stop now. Do you trust me?' And the workers' answer is, no way.
HINOJOSA: For now, it's a stalemate ... both sides unable to agree on how to conduct the next vote.
The company wants the same kind of vote system used in the past. But the union is pushing for an election with more safeguards ... which it says, would prevent abuses and avoid long appeals like those following the first two elections.
And while the company and the union have been deadlocked on this ... just last month, another issue erupted at the plant ... a spontaneous walk-out. It caught the union and the company by surprise.
It began when the government notified Smithfield that hundreds of workers at the tar heel plant had problems with their work papers. The company had given those workers two weeks. Then, it began to fire those who hadn't produced the proper documentation in time.
As word of that spread through the plant, three to four hundred workers or more ... mostly Latino, put down their knives, dropped the raw meat ... and walked out in protest. Keith Ludlum walked out too ... to lend support.
The union soon showed up ... with water, food and advice for the protesters ... one of whom was ... 4- foot-8, 25-year-old Jessica Silva. The woman who had told us about spending her days sorting hog stomachs ... Had taken on the role of an impromptu leader.
On the second day of the walk-out, we returned to interview her.
HINOJOSA: You say that this was not planned... What are they...? What are they saying now? What are they saying now?
SILVA: "Sí se puede".
HINOJOSA: What does it mean?
SILVA: "Sí se puede" means that we will achieve a goal. Our goal is, first, that all the people that have already been fired, are re-hired. That those that are to be fired, are not.
HINOJOSA: But, are you trying to use this to create a union? Is this part of an action to create a union or no?
SILVA: The union already exists. The union is all of us, our unity. That is the union.
HINOJOSA: Silva was talking about workers' unity ... a show of strength. In fact, now on day two of the walk-out, there seemed to be no let up. With thanksgiving looming, the company had been forced to slow the production line.
By evening, management met with some of the workers and agreed to terms. Those who had been fired would get their jobs back for now ... and everyone would have more time to get work papers straightened out.
The next day, when we showed up at the union organizer's meeting, there was a sense that something big had just happened.
ORGANIZER: I got really, really excited. I mean it was just the fact that they took it upon themselves to go out there and do what needed to be done and then they got a response from the company.
HINOJOSA: The way union folks saw it, workers at the Tar Heel plant had stood up to management ... and management blinked.
Eduardo Pena is the union's top guy on the ground.
PENA: We're not in New York City, we're not in Chicago. I mean we're in one of the least unionized states in the nation.
HINOJOSA: In a lot of ways, this was an action by workers around immigration issues. How does this play into the broader issue of the labor organizing at this plant?
PENA: All the workers are acknowledging that, if you stand up for your rights, and if you do it in an organized way, if you do it in a peaceful way, but if you stand up for your rights, the company will come to you, and sit down with you and hear what you have to say. And in this case agree to some terms.
HINOJOSA: But for many Latino workers, it may well have been only a brief reprieve.
Smithfield says, the company must follow the law ... which requires valid social security numbers to match people's real names.
PITTMAN: Hopefully, the folks can fix whatever's wrong with their no match.
If they can't, though, if they cannot end up with a situation that shows they are eligible to work in the United States, we will not be able to continue to employ them.
HINOJOSA: A week and a half after the walk-out ended, Jessica Silva received a letter from the company ... She had a problem with her work papers. This time, Silva was given 60 days, but says ... nothing can be resolved with social security in that period. She's convinced she will lose her job.
For many immigrants, it's a constant fear. Just this week, immigration officials raided the meatpacking plants of one of Smithfield's competitors, arresting more than twelve hundred workers in six states.
It's this very situation that Smithfield says it was trying to avoid when it partnered with the government in its employment verification program.
As far as the walk-out at Smithfield ... Pittman says the union is only using it and the immigration issue ... as an opportunity to organize workers.
PITTMAN: The UFCW took what was a very unfortunate situation with these folks and tried to turn it into a rally for their cause.
HINOJOSA: The union's Gene Bruskin says ... it's the company which has been using immigration issues for its own purpose. He points out that Smithfield has been cited in the past ... for threatening workers with arrest by immigration officials ... a charge the company denies.
But during this walk-out, Bruskin says, workers united and stood up to the company ... and that sends a powerful message.
BRUSKIN: This showed there is hope—on the horizon. And this is what the labor movement is trying to grab a hold of right now.
Our country, through our trade policy, through our economic policies has created massive industries of low-wage workers, in hotels, in meat packing plants—in—among the janitors. We're now talking of millions and millions of—of workers doing these low-wage jobs. And these folks deserve a union. And the labor movement is gonna organize them.
HINOJOSA: And Keith Ludlum is still trying to help in that effort.
Remember, Ludlum had been fired by Smithfield 12 years ago for his union activities. He ended up getting a better paying job.
But earlier this year, the court ordered Smithfield to re-hire Ludlum and nine other union supporters who had been fired.
HINOJOSA: You had a job that was paying you maybe twice as much money?
LUDLUM: Yeah, three times as much.
HINOJOSA: Three times as much money. And you make a decision to back and work at Smithfield.
LUDLUM: Yeah. Yeah, my wife thinks I'm crazy too. Yeah.
HINOJOSA: "Why? Why go back?"
LUDLUM: Well, first of all, because they did break the law and they did violate my rights and my fellow employee's rights. But, also, because in our history is people that take a stand when things are wrong to make it better for the next Generation, you know. And there's—you know, there's children that were in kindergarten when they fired me that are now working out at that plant. So there's a whole Generation, you know, That's—starting to work out there and continue to be violated and abused.
HINOJOSA: Keith Ludlum has pretty much become Smithfield's worst nightmare. When he can, he's busy trying to convince his fellow employees they need the union.
LUDLUM: The only way that—that workers can get protection in a large company like this is that they actually have a—a union contract, and actually sit down at the table with management, you know, on equal basis, you know. And not just be dictated to that you're gonna take this and—and this is the way it is.
BRANCACCIO: Before we leave you, we would like to welcome a corporate funder to our broadcast—Calvert. Calvert runs one of the country's oldest socially responsible investment funds. And we are please to welcome them aboard.
And that's it for now, from New York, I'm David Brancaccio. We'll see you again next week.