090111 Immigration Raids Helped Union At Smithfield Plant

January 5, 2009

By Kristin Collins, Charlotte Observer

Organizers fought for 16 years to unionize workers at the world's largest pork plant.

But immigration raids may have finally sealed the union's victory last month, when the approximately 5,000 workers at Smithfield Foods' Tar Heel plant voted in a union election. The 2007 raids purged the Bladen County plant of illegal Hispanic workers, and left behind a majority of native workers more likely to support unionization.

According to the company, the share of Hispanic workers has shrunk from about half in early 2007 to one quarter today. Black people now make up 54 percent of the plant's work force.

Lidia Victoria, a 13-year employee who is a U.S citizen born in the Dominican Republic, said she worked for years to convince Latino workers of the union's benefits. But she said the immigration crackdown left many, even those in the country legally, too frightened to speak up for unionization.

"At the end, they turned their back to the union," Victoria said this week. "The union won because black people went to vote yes."

Labor experts say blacks are traditionally more supportive of unions than other races or ethnic groups. And some say the shift to a majority-black work force at Smithfield could have helped give the union its victory, by a margin of only 162 votes - especially at a time when fear among immigrant workers has reached a peak.

"With this real crackdown on immigration that we've seen, it's been very intimidating," said Richard Hurd, a professor of industrial and labor relations at Cornell University in New York. "There were a lot of things at play in the situation at Smithfield, and that's one aspect of it."

Marion Crain, a labor law expert at Washington University in St. Louis, said African-Americans' strong support of unions stems from a sense of racial unity, stretching back to the days of slavery. Throughout history, most notably during the civil rights movement, blacks have rallied to create collective strategies for change, Crain said.

Mattie Fulcher, a Smithfield employee of nine years who is black, said she has been a lifelong supporter of unions because they give workers the freedom to speak up without fear of losing their jobs. "You should be able to speak your opinion," she said.

Fulcher said union supporters worked hard to build unity between the plant's black and Hispanic workers. And she said that, at least before the raids, many Hispanics did become vocal supporters of the union.

Then, in January 2007 and again in August 2007, federal immigration agents arrested illegal workers in the plant. Other employees were taken from their homes, and many were sentenced to prison terms for identity theft. They had bought others' Social Security numbers to use on their job applications.

At the same time, the company began firing hundreds of workers whose Social Security numbers didn't match federal records. Even immigrant workers who were not caught up in the raids began fleeing the plant in droves, worker advocates said at the time.

Claims of threats

Fulcher says plant managers stoked the fears of immigrants. Supervisors "scared a lot of them, telling them that they could be deported if they voted for a union."

Smithfield officials say they sanctioned no such threats, and never heard complaints of any.

"We have no knowledge of that ever taking place," said Dennis Pittman, communications director for Smithfield Foods' 13 packing plants across the country.

Both company and union officials said they doubted that the racial makeup of the plant influenced the election results.

Pittman pointed out that in a previous union election in the plant in 1997, in which the union lost, the work force was also majority black. Hispanics made up only about 30 percent of workers at that time. The results of that election were thrown out after a judge ruled that the company harassed and fired union supporters.

Strength in unity

Jim Papian, a spokesman for the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, which now represents the Smithfield workers, said the key to the union victory was not the exodus of Hispanics, but bridging the divides between races.

"Without the unity of all the workers at that plant, there's no way they would have voted for union representation," Papian said.

Most agree that the plant's racial breakdown was far from the only cause of the union victory in the vote Dec. 10 and 11.

Hurd said the most important factor was probably close scrutiny by the courts. The company and the union had become embroiled in a federal lawsuit, and they hammered out the terms of the election as part of a settlement.

Others, including Crain, said that, despite the recent immigration crackdown, unions can also be successful with Hispanic workers, even those in the country illegally.

Baldemar Velasquez, head of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, an Ohio-based farmworker union, has built his career organizing illegal immigrants. He said the union could have won even in a plant with an immigrant majority.

"It does make it more difficult, but it's not impossible," Velasquez said. "The victory at Smithfield really had to do with the persistence of that union. They let everyone know that they were in it for the long haul. When you give the people hope, and that hope is not going to go away, people tend to side with you."