RALEIGH, N.C. - Union activists trying to organize the world's largest hog slaughterhouse planned to picket grocery stores in eight states this weekend, expanding a decade-long effort to mobilize workers at the massive North Carolina facility.
Protesters were set to target 22 Harris Teeter locations Saturday to urge the supermarket chain to remove from its shelves all pork produced by Smithfield Packing Co.
The union said it planned to protest in Tennessee, but it was not immediately know which locations would be picketed. The chain has two locations in Nashville and one in Brentwood.
Other protests were planned in North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, New York, Massachusetts, Illinois and Indiana.
The protesters said they're upset with working conditions at the Smithfield-owned plant but acknowledge their efforts are part of a larger push for unionization.
"Smithfield is not listening, so we're going to have to go after their pocketbook," said Leila McDowell, a spokeswoman for the Smithfield Justice Campaign, an organizing effort by the United Food and Commercial Workers International union.
The union has been pulling supermarkets into the fight, pressuring grocers to dump Smithfield products. Matthews-based Harris Teeter has been particularly targeted, though grocer officials said the dispute rests between the union and Smithfield.
The union has been working for more than 10 years to organize the now 5,500 workers who slaughter up to 32,000 hogs daily at the Smithfield plant, located in tiny Tar Heel about 80 miles south of Raleigh. The plant has become a rallying point among labor groups looking to make inroads to the Southern manufacturing industry.
"Many people regard this as one of the most important, if not the most important, labor struggle going on in the United States," said Gene Bruskin, the Smithfield campaign director for the union. "Organizing in the South is really critical to the future of the region."
Smithfield officials have repeatedly offered union organizers a vote at the Tar Heel plant, but union officials have said the plant's atmosphere isn't conducive to a fair vote.
Company spokesman Dennis Pittman accused union officials of trying to take away the right of workers to decide, saying the union was trying to make Smithfield a "poster child" for sidestepping secret ballot votes. "If our employees want a union, we welcome an election at any time," Pittman said, adding that he had no concerns about Saturday's protests. Union workers have ramped up organizing efforts over the past year. The union quickly rallied behind about 1,000 workers who walked off the job in November to protest the firings of 50 workers accused of providing false personal information. The company warned between 500 and 600 other workers they could be next because of Social Security numbers, names or other personal information that couldn't be verified. Amid the outcry, Smithfield rehired the 50 workers and offered each employee 60 days to verify their personal information. Both sides have been posturing ever since. When federal agents arrested 21 people inside the plant on immigration charges, union officials accused the company of using the arrests to intimidate employees who were willing to organize. When 200 workers failed to show up that night, stalling production the next day, company officials accused the union of enflaming fear among immigrant and Hispanic workers. Tensions between the company and the union run back more than a decade. A federal appeals court found that Smithfield meddled in two union elections held in 1993 and 1997 during which employees voted against organizing. In a settlement reached this year, Smithfield agreed to pay $1.1 million in back wages, plus interest, to workers fired as part of the dispute. Since then, union workers have been asking supermarkets to stop selling Smithfield products. The union claims Harris Teeter meat managers have started to replace Smithfield products, but company spokeswoman Jennifer Panetta denied that the grocer has a policy to limit Smithfield pork. In a statement, the company said "any issues that may arise between Smithfield, their employees and labor organizations must be resolved between and among those respective parties." AP-CS-03-30-07 1901EDT