As editor of this newspaper, I’m sort of stuck between a rock and a hambone when it comes to telling the story of Smithfield Packing Co., in Tar Heel.
On the one hand, I spent an enjoyable day a few weeks back touring the state-of-the-art facility, and I have to admit I was knocked out by the technology and the order and the efficiency of the place.
While it was difficult at first to watch hogs go from breathing and kicking swine one instant to lifeless pork on the hoof the next, I accepted this as I am a huge fan of bacon and realize the packing and processing of meat is not some bloodless fairy tale where the pigs go to hog heaven, flying upon gossamer wings.
The slaughter of the meat that makes it to our tables is deadly, brutal, nasty business. If you don’t like it, there are always veggie burgers.
I was also impressed by the processing plant’s employees, who did their job in rapid motion, slicing and dicing pig parts like assembly line Samurai. The employees looked content enough with their jobs and I did talk to a couple of long-time workers who seemed genuinely happy to have a job that pays very, very well by Bladen County standards, and which also offers benefits, including a health clinic across the street from the main plant that serves patients for just $10 a pop.
Critics may say — and have said — that I was shown only the sanitized version of Smithfield. Recently, several pro-union individuals visited me in my office to tell me their side of the Smithfield story. I listened and was appalled by some of the stories I was told. However, after talking with a top official at Smithfield about these anecdotes, I came to doubt the veracity of some of what I was told by these former Smithfield employees — one of whom Smithfield claims it has no record of ever having worked at the plant.
So, I decided to print the story these Smithfield critics told me ... on the opinion page. I don’t want the Bladen Journal to go the way of the Fayetteville Observer, which rarely offers objective news about the Smithfield unionization struggle, having shown with many articles that it has firmly thrown its weight to the side of the union.
Remember, as you read the following words, these are all folks who are incredibly critical of Smithfield — especially Smithfield’s resistance to creating a union at its Tar Heel plant. This is by no means objective journalism, but it was the only way I knew to do it.
Lenora Bailey, of Dillon, S.C., says she worked at Smithfield for about three years. She says that the constant pulling and lifting of heavy sides of pork caused her to have tendentious which turned into carpal tunnel syndrome, which kept her from working. She also says her brother contracted cancer on the job and that Smithfield dismissed it, saying he must have become inflicted because of smoking.
“They treated the hogs better than us,” Bailey said. “We are humans and we are better than hogs.”
Bailey, who’s husband still works at Smithfield, also says the company pitted African-Americans against Latinos in the work place in an attempt to fracture the formation of a union at Smithfield.
“Latinos are told that African-Americans won’t cooperate with them (in forming a union) because the Latinos are taking their jobs.”
She says this animosity between African-Americans and Latinos is promoted by not allowing anyone to work “together.”
“Your job is done when your job is done, not when your shift is done,” said Bailey. “If someone is running behind on their line, you’re not allowed to help them out.”
Ta’shara Williams is Bailey’s niece and also lives in Dillon. She says she started working at Smithfield in 2001, but after working at the plant for about a year-and-a-half, she slipped on a wet spot and suffered an injury when she fell. When she reported to the plant nurse, she said the nurse told her, “You’re just somebody else trying to get some money.”
“She told me to go back to work .... That I wasn’t getting anything for free.”
Williams said the nurse gave her Tylenol and sent her back to the line, where her injuries got worse. She said a later visit to a doctor revealed she had deep contusions to her bones from the fall. Also, she said she developed a severe facial infection from the constant cold of working inside what is essentially a giant meat locker.
Williams says she was fired because her doctor put her out of work and she’s been unable to get any sort of restitution from Smithfield.
“I still have trouble,” said Williams. “I still have a problem sometimes lifting my baby.
“Their lawyer wanted to know how much compensation I wanted. I told them I just wanted to go to the doctor and get some medication. But I got no compensation.”
Tending his flock
The Rev. Gregory Taylor is the pastor at First Baptist Church in Bladenboro. He estimates about 20 of his church members work at Smithfield.
He said that when the news first came that Smithfield was going to locate the world’s largest pork packing plant in Tar Heel, he was ecstatic about what it meant for the economy of Bladen County. And he says no one can argue with the positive economic impact Smithfield has brought to the area. However, he says Smithfield leaves much to be desired in how it treats its employees. He believes the formation of a union at the Smithfield plant would cure many of the perceived ills.
“They should be good corporate citizens,” Taylor said. “There are some good things there (at Smithfield), but my concern are the unheard voices. Everyone has a story, but those stories are not heard. I don’t believe all the stories I’ve heard of serious injuries on the job are an anomaly. These injuries have been documented. And I’ve seen my church members injured.
“Just because Smithfield has a positive economic impact doesn’t mean we should do away with justice ... It is the people who will suffer.”
The Rev. Marvin L. Morgan talks a lot about “justice.”
A representative of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union Eastern North Carolina Workers Center, he says Smithfield is denying its workers “justice” by denying them a union.
He says the union has invoked a higher power in its fight against Smithfield by enlisting churches to ask Smithfield to capitulate to the “campaign for justice.”
“I’m encouraged that local churches are being more vocal in support of the workers at Smithfield,” said Morgan. “Our experience has been that when the religious community gets behind this sort of thing, it is successful.
“Smithfield has other plants that are unionized and are successful. The problem is they don’t think North Carolina is sophisticated enough to have a union.”
So, there it is. You be the judge. Smithfield has been a good corporate citizen that has done many positive things for Bladen County economically, as well as donating significant sums to the county’s schools and various civic organizations.
But no company is perfect. There are abuses at the smallest and biggest of companies.
Our final word is this: if you’re unhappy with the way you perceive Smithfield treats its employees, then vote with your pocket book by not buying Smithfield products. And if you think they’re a bad employer, seek work elsewhere. Life is no fairy tale and neither is working at what is, in effect, a giant slaughterhouse.
But remember that not every big bad wolf is wicked, and not every Little Red Riding Hood is a princess.
— Tim Wilkins is the editor/general manager of the Blade Journal. He can be reached at 862-4163, or via e-mail at email@example.com.