Think pork. Sizzling bacon and breakfast sausage. Juicy chops and ribs and robust holiday hams.
The pork capital of the planet is this tiny town in the Cape Fear River basin, not far from the South Carolina border. Spending a few days in Tar Heel and the surrounding area – dotted with hog farms, cornfields and the occasional Confederate flag – is like stepping back in time. This is a place where progress has slowed to a crawl.
Tar Heel’s raison d’être (and the employment anchor for much of the region) is the mammoth plant of the Smithfield Packing Company, a million-square-foot colossus that is the largest pork processing facility in the world.
You can learn a lot at Smithfield. It’s a case study in both the butchering of hogs (some 32,000 are slaughtered there each day) and the systematic exploitation of vulnerable workers. More than 5,500 men and women work at Smithfield, most of them Latino or black, and nearly all of them undereducated and poor.
The big issue at Smithfield is not necessarily money. Workers are drawn there from all over the region, sometimes traveling in crowded vans for two hours or more each day, because the starting pay – until recently, $8 and change an hour – is higher than the pay at most other jobs available to them.
But the work is often brutal beyond imagining. Company officials will tell you everything is fine, but serious injuries abound, and the company has used illegal and, at times, violent tactics over the course of a dozen years to keep the workers from joining a union that would give them a modicum of protection and dignity.
"It was depressing inside there," said Edward Morrison, who spent hour after hour flipping bloody hog carcasses on the kill floor, until he was injured last fall after just a few months on the job. "You have to work fast because that machine is shooting those hogs out at you constantly. You can end up with all this blood dripping down on you, all these feces and stuff just hanging off of you. It’s a terrible environment.
"We’ve had guys walk off after the first break and never return."
Mr. Morrison’s comments were echoed by a young man who was with a group of Smithfield workers waiting for a van to pick them up at a gas station in Dillon, S.C., nearly 50 miles from Tar Heel. "The line do move fast," the young man said, "and people do get hurt. You can hear ’em hollering when they’re on their way to the clinic."
Workers are cut by the flashing, slashing knives that slice the meat from the bones. They are hurt sliding and falling on floors and stairs that are slick with blood, guts and a variety of fluids. They suffer repetitive motion injuries.
The processing line on the kill floor moves hogs past the workers at the dizzying rate of one every three or four seconds.
Union representation would make a big difference for Smithfield workers. The United Food and Commercial Workers Union has been trying to organize the plant since the mid-1990’s. Smithfield has responded with tactics that have ranged from the sleazy to the reprehensible.
After an exhaustive investigation, a judge found that the company had
threatened to shut down the entire plant if the workers dared to organize, and had warned Latino workers that immigration authorities would be alerted if they voted for a union.
The union lost votes to organize the plant in 1994 and 1997, but the results of those elections were thrown out by the National Labor Relations Board after the judge found that Smithfield had prevented the union from holding fair elections. The judge said the company had engaged in myriad "egregious" violations of federal labor law, including threatening, intimidating and firing workers involved in the organizing effort, and beating up a worker "for engaging in union activities."
Rather than obey the directives of the board and subsequent court decisions, the company has tied the matter up on appeals that have lasted for years. A U.S. Court of Appeals ruling just last month referred to "the intense and widespread coercion prevalent at the Tar Heel facility."
Workers at Smithfield and their families are suffering while the government dithers, refusing to require a mighty corporation like Smithfield to obey the nation’s labor laws in a timely manner.
The defiance, greed and misplaced humanity of the merchants of misery at the apex of the Smithfield power structure are matters consumers might keep in mind as they bite into that next sizzling, succulent morsel of Smithfield pork.
Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company