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020641 UFCW Exposes Smithfield on Capitol Hill

June 29, 2002

Washington - Sherri Buffkin sat before a panel of United States Senators and admitted she fired people at Smithfield Foods who were trying to organize a union. Buffkin is the first supervisor ever to testify on behalf of workers and blow the whistle on the illegal union-busting campaign at Smithfield.

In testimony before the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee Sherri told the packed room, "Smithfield Foods ordered me to fire employees who supported the union, telling me it was either my job or theirs."

Sherri was a supervisor at the world's largest hog processing plant in Tar Heel, North Carolina during a union campaign in 1997 in which Smithfield waged an extensive, systematic, illegal campaign to suppress its workers' voices to join the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW).

Smithfield promoted racial tension to separate workers. Sherri testified that, "Smithfield keeps Black and Latino employees virtually separated in the plant with the Black workers on the kill floor and the Latinos in the cut and conversion departments. The word was that black workers were going to be replaced with Latino workers because blacks were more favorable toward unions."

Senators Paul Wellstone (D-MN) and Tom Harkin (D-IA) thanked Buffkin for exposing one of the nation's most disgraceful and undemocratic situations-a company-sponsored union-busting campaign that destroyed the lives of hundreds of hard-working people.

LaTasha Peterson, a former Smithfield worker, sat in the crowd with Buffkin's eleven-year-old daughter to support Buffkin's testimony. Peterson was part of the "A-Team," a group of workers who were paid by Smithfield to spy on their co-workers and campaign against the union.

"I earned twice as much money campaigning against the union and I didn't have to do any work," said Peterson. "I know what I did was wrong. I have union representation at my job now and I can see its better to have a union at work."

In 1999, Buffkin and Peterson courageously testified against Smithfield Foods in a National Labor Relations Board trial in which their testimony blew the whistle on the company's egregious acts against its workers. In December 2000, an Administrative Law Judge of the NLRB issued a monumental 400-plus page ruling against Smithfield for massive violations of federal law, finding that Smithfield conspired with law enforcement to instigate violence at the vote count.

The NLRB Judge's decision contains some of the strongest language in recent labor history against a company's flagrant disregard for the law. The Judge found that Smithfield attorneys suborned perjury during the NLRB trial. The Judge also ruled that company witnesses "lied under oath" throughout the decision and that Smithfield managers conspired with the local Sheriff Department to physically intimidate and assault union supporters.

Senator John Edwards (D-NC) met briefly with Buffkin before she testified and thanked her for coming to Washington, DC to tell her story. Buffkin encouraged him to visit Tar Heel and see for himself the atrocious conditions the 5,000 workers endure every day.

"I'm here to spread the truth and to ask you to go see for yourself. The workers at Smithfield need your help," Buffkin told Edwards.

Yesterday's hearing, chaired by Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA), was the first such hearing in 14 years about what happens to workers when they try to exercise their federal right to form a union.

When asked about a recent judgment against Smithfield Foods for civil rights violations during the union campaign in which one former worker and the estate of a UFCW representative were awarded $750,000 by a federal jury, Buffkin responded, "That judgment is great for those two people, but what about the other 5,000 workers at Smithfield? They deserve justice too."

SOURCE: United Food and Commercial Workers International Union


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