Boycott of Smithfield products urged

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Tar Heel, N.C., is 341 miles from the nation's capital.

But a group of Washington-area religious and political leaders focused their attention June 19 on a Smithfield Meats pork processing plant in Tar Heel -- the world's largest such facility -- to urge a boycott of Smithfield meat products until the company stops what they said is unfair treatment of its workers.

"The Washington region is one of the biggest consumers of Smithfield products," said the Rev. Donald Robinson, senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Washington and emcee for a rally on a triangular patch of land across the street from his church.

There should be "one sense of fairness, one goal of fairness, one standard of fairness" at Smithfield, he added. "There shouldn't be two standards of fairness."

A couple of former employees at the rally said that, like many others, they were fired by Smithfield because they were injured on the job. But according to Smithfield spokesman Dennis Pittman, who spoke to Catholic News Service the next day, the real issue for those calling for the boycott is not working conditions but getting union representation at the plant.

The United Food and Commercial Workers union has been trying to organize the plant in Tar Heel, 80 miles from Raleigh, N.C., since it opened in 1992; it lost votes for unionizing in 1994 and '97 amid charges of company misconduct during the election campaign.

Tom Shellabarger, domestic policy adviser for the U.S. bishops' Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development, did not address the Smithfield issue directly in a June 19 telephone interview with CNS, but said "the concern for working Americans is something the bishops have certainly been concerned about."

"How a company responds to workers' efforts to organize is not just something the bishops are concerned about, but a matter of law. That law has been stretched and overlooked far too often in the recent past," he said.

Rally participants held a banner with the names of close to 800 workers injured on the job in 2006 and '07, a fact Smithfield admitted to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

A 2006 report by Research Associates of America, a union-funded nonprofit, showed injury rates in Tar Heel 2.5 times higher in 2006 than in 2003, and higher than comparable unionized Smithfield operations in the Midwest.

One former worker, Sade Morris, 22, worked eight months at the Tar Heel plant. "I started suffering from severe hand pains," she said at the rally. Company doctors gave her heating pads, Aspercreme and ice packs, she said. When they didn't ease the pain, Morris went to her own doctor, who diagnosed carpal-tunnel syndrome.

"The company fired me two days before I was supposed to have my surgery," she said.

"The (production) line is so fast, you have to keep up. If you don't, you're fired," Morris said. An estimated 32,000 hogs a day are butchered at the plant, which employs 5,500 workers.

"I have to find a job regardless of whether I'm in pain or not. And I can't even lift 15 pounds," said Morris.

Charlene Moore, who cut pork tenderloins six days a week in Tar Heel, said she suffered from shoulder pain. When the company doctor gave her a heating pad and Icy Hot cream, the combination of the two "burned a hole in my back," she said. Moore, too, was fired. "I've been abused, and other workers have been abused," she said. "We need your support."

In 2005, Human Rights Watch issued a report citing Smithfield's plant as violating international human rights standards and being an example of severe workplace abuses.

The National Labor Relations Board in 2004 cited Smithfield for illegally firing more than 10 employees, threatening employees with bodily harm, refusing to pay employees for work performed or to give them their vacation benefits, and threatening employees that they could lose their jobs if they voted for a union.

Pittman, who is Smithfield's director of corporate communication and former human resources director at the Tar Heel plant, told CNS the company has been the target of a coordinated campaign over the past two years.

Activists followed cable television cooking show host Paula Deen, a Smithfield spokeswoman, around the country as she made appearances for the firm. Other campaigns had been launched in Chicago, San Francisco and Atlanta.

"Over 60 percent of our employees (companywide) are represented by union contracts, and we've had very good relations" with unions, including the UFCW, Pittman told CNS in a June 20 telephone interview.

He added Smithfield and the UFCW, following the failed 1997 representation election, engaged in a "battle (that) went back and forth for several years" with the NLRB. "We made a decision we would not continue to appeal," he said.

Pittman added that Smithfield is willing to have a neutral party, "like the Carter Center," examine company literature for truthfulness in a future representation campaign and let journalists sit in on company meetings.

Last November, the County Council in Maryland's Prince George's County, a Washington suburb, unanimously passed a resolution condemning the situation in Tar Heel.

An aide to District of Columbia Councilmember Phil Mendelson said at the rally that Mendelson was drafting a similar "sense of the council" resolution for action by his colleagues. Councilmember Marion Barry, a former mayor of the district, attended the rally.

The rally kicked off a 10-week campaign that will include recorded phone calls from actor Danny Glover calling for justice for workers at Smithfield, bus advertisements and leafleting at Washington-area subway stations.

Copyright (c) 2008 Catholic News Service/USCCB.

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