Smithfield Foods Files Civil RICO Suit against UFCW

Smithfield LettersOrganizing workers can be a time-consuming, nerve-wracking and confrontational activity. The main purpose of labor law is to prevent the process from degenerating into open warfare between employer and union. Thus, there are ground rules for conduct. Just as an employer may not prevent a union from organizing or individual workers from joining, neither may a union make false and inflammatory statements about an employer in order to persuade workers to join. Unfortunately, there are no guarantees either side will play by the rules. Such allegedly has been the case with the campaign by the United Food & Commercial Workers (UFCW) to organize more than 5,000 workers at the massive pork-processing plant of Smithfield Foods, Inc. The facility, located in the town of Tar Heel, N.C., about 80 miles south of Raleigh, has been the focus of a bitter labor dispute for more than a decade. And thanks to recent legal action, it’s likely to become more acrimonious.       


On October 17, Smithfield Foods, named after its base of Smithfield, Va., filed a civil racketeering suit in Richmond federal court against the UFCW, accusing the union of disseminating misleading information designed to undermine the company. The lawsuit alleges the union made fraudulent accusations of regulatory violations and provided false statements to stock analysts aimed at depressing the company share price. This isn’t the first time the union has targeted a firm in a corporate campaign. The UFCW spent much of the Nineties engaged in a multi-pronged attack against nonunion Food Lion, accusing the grocery chain, among other things, of knowingly selling spoiled food. In the Smithfield case, the union has denied all allegations. Gene Bruskin, chief organizer of the Tar Heel plant and one of the defendants, declined to address specific charges, saying he hasn’t had enough time to read the whole suit. But he says the timing of the action shows the company has been negotiating in bad faith.   


Smithfield filed the RICO suit only two days after it called off talks over a pending worker election on whether to unionize. The UFCW argues that Smithfield, the world’s largest hog producer and pork processor, has a history of meddling in past representation elections. The union’s concern is not without basis. Earlier this year, the company reached a settlement with the National Labor Relations Board, agreeing to pay $1.5 million in back wages and interest to employees it illegally fired during the campaigns of 1994 and 1997. And in 2006, a federal appeals court threw out the results of the latter election, concluding the company had engaged in “intense and widespread coercion” against the union. 


But there is a story within a story here: the possible joint circumvention by the company and the union of the nation’s immigration laws. National Legal and Policy Center last year published a Special Report explaining why business, labor and ethnic leaders, though for different reasons, have become mass-immigration enthusiasts, each fighting for the “right” of illegal workers to receive amnesty. Business wants cheap labor; labor unions want dues-paying members; and Hispanic and other ethnic activists want political clout. The last thing any of the three factions want is diligent enforcement of immigration law. Unfortunately for them, that’s what they’ve gotten lately, especially at meat processing plants.


Hispanics constitute about 60 percent of Smithfield’s Tar Heel plant work force, a figure that probably would be higher were it not for last November’s raid by federal immigration agents resulting in the arrest of 21 illegal workers at the worksite, plus a number of employees living in nearby makeshift trailers. It is inconceivable that the company and the union had been unaware there were illegal workers there. And it is hard to accept the notion that those arrested constituted the whole of the illegal work force, certainly not in the wake of the estimated 1,100 or more Hispanic workers who since have left. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at the time also cracked down on other processing plants. ICE agents arrested nearly 1,300 illegal employees at a half-dozen Swift meatpacking plants in Colorado and elsewhere. Additionally, they arrested more than 100 illegal workers who worked at the Crider poultry plant in Stillmore, Ga.; an estimated 700 of that plant’s roughly 1,000 workers were in this country illegally. Nobody said replacing non-returning workers would be easy. But exploitation of illegal workers is very real. And as long as they are here illegally, they will continue to be vulnerable to employer whims, knowing that a complaint could mean deportation. The alternatives to cracking down – i.e., doing nothing or legalizing the workers’ illegal status – is bad policy as well as politics. As any number of research papers published by the Center for Immigration Studies has shown, high levels of legal immigration, coupled with a failure to enforce the law, produces major negative economic, fiscal, cultural and political consequences.               

Smithfield Foods is not running a glamorous business. It’s about gore and death. Each day, its Tar Heel plant slaughters around 32,000 hogs. Health and safety risks to workers, to say nothing of the damage to the environment caused by runoff of animal feces and unused body parts, are severe. One would think that if Smithfield wants to cultivate an image as a good corporate citizen, it would hire more American citizens, or failing that, legal immigrants. But as long as they enjoy access to a large pool of uncomplaining illegal workers from Latin American countries, that’s not likely to happen. Tough immigration-law enforcement can be seen as a last-ditch effort to improve wages, benefits and working conditions – in other words, to bring about the sorts of conditions that the UFCW seeks. The irony is that this and other unions, in promoting mass immigration from the Third World, are fighting against their own long-run interests. (Rolling Stone, 12/14/06; Rural Migration News, 4/07; New American Media, 5/7/07; New York Times, 10/12/07; Associated Press, 10/17/07).