Smithfield Foods, UFCW Settle; Corporate Campaign Ends

Smithfield LettersCorporate campaigns, by intent, make headlines. Their resolution can be far less dramatic. Such was the case with the United Food and Commercial Workers’ campaign against Smithfield Foods. Since 2006, the UFCW had been waging a full-fledged war against the company. Its picketing, boycotting, leafleting and media event-staging were the culmination of a 15-year effort to organize roughly 5,000 workers at its Tar Heel, N.C. pork processing plant, about an hour and a half’s drive south of Raleigh. The campaign became so intense (or abusive, depending on how one looks at it) that Smithfield last October filed a federal civil racketeering and extortion lawsuit against the union, accusing it of willfully disseminating misleading information designed to destroy the company’s stock price and sales. Now, suddenly, peace has broken out.


On Monday, October 27, Smithfield and the UFCW issued a joint statement indicating they had reached an out-of-court settlement. The statement read as follows:


  • Smithfield and the UFCW have agreed on what both parties believe to be a fair election process by which the employees at Smithfield’s Tar Heel plant can choose whether or not to be represented by the UFCW.


  • Smithfield and the UFCW have agreed to establish a Feed the Hungry Program to be jointly funded and administered by the UFCW and Smithfield.


  • The UFCW agrees to end its public campaign against Smithfield.


  • The parties have agreed there shall be no further public statement about this settlement until the election referenced in paragraph one above has been concluded.


The settlement came on the eve of the trial in Richmond, Va. No date was announced as to when the election would be held. Smithfield agreed to pay half the cost of an independent election overseer.


So who won? On balance, the union did, though Smithfield, a company with annual revenues approaching $12 billion, appears positioned to absorb any losses. The United Food and Commercial Workers will get the vote it has sought. Yet this battle didn’t necessarily have to be dragged out. Twice before, in 1993 and 1997, workers voted down proposals to join the union. The union in each case saw the results as invalid, charging the company with illegally influencing the outcome. Not only did management fire workers who were likely to join, alleged the union in unfair labor practices complaints, it also physically assaulted an employee and a union organizer, and threatened other workers with bodily harm. A federal appeals court eventually sided with the union. Smithfield agreed last year to a $1.1 million settlement (plus interest) to compensate fired workers. At the same time, the company maintained it never sought to suppress elections. The union’s real intent, it noted, was to demand a card check in lieu of a secret-ballot election. With Obama entering the White House (see above), it might get what it wants anyway.

Smithfield Foods, based in Smithfield, Va., is the largest pork producer in the world, raising some 14 million hogs a year for slaughter. Killing livestock for consumption is a grim business, producing a health and safety nightmare for humans, never mind animals. In 1997, the Environmental Protection Agency fined the company $12.6 million for violations of the Clean Water Act. Yet the biggest corporate violation, ironically, was one the union never raised: the use of illegal immigrant labor. In January 2007, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arrested 21 illegal immigrants employed at the Tar Heel plant. Since then, more than 1,100 Hispanic workers left the plant – the world’s largest. ICE agents later arrested several hundred illegal workers at Smithfield’s Stillmore, Ga. plant. Management seeks to find permanent replacements. A good idea would be to hire Americans, who are more likely than the foreign-born to complain about poor wages, benefits and working conditions; they, unlike immigrants (especially those illegally here), have no fear of deportation. It is to the debit of the UFCW, with some 1.3 million members, that it couldn’t bring itself to denounce the company’s flouting of immigration law. Such lawbreaking contributed heavily toward the conditions that led to the corporate campaign in the first place. (, 2/1/07; New York Times, 10/12/07; Triangle Business Journal, 10/27/08; United Food and Commercial Workers, 10/28/08; Associated Press, 10/28/08).