For the past 15 years, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) has tried to organize the 5,500 employees at Smithfield Foods’ Tar Heel, N.C., plant. After negotiations broke off this October for an agreement on an election at the plant, Smithfield brought a civil racketeering lawsuit against the union, charging it with conducting a public smear campaign. Smithfield spokesman Dennis Pittman, based in Clinton, N.C., discusses where his company stands today with union representation.
NP: Smithfield has unionized and non-unionized plants across the country with strong safety records and low turnover rates. In general, what is the status of unionization today with Smithfield’s plants?
Pittman: More than 50 percent of Smithfield’s plants are covered by collective bargaining agreements. We have a good relationship with the UFCW, Labors and Teamsters. Recently, our Clayton, N.C., plant had an election, and our employees voted in favor of the Steelworkers Union. There were no charges filed and no objections raised to how that election campaign was conducted. So we are negotiating a contract with the union. We’re not anti-union. We don’t think employees need one, but we’re not against them.
With the Tar Heel plant, we welcome a new election. Twice before, these employees have voted against forming a union. We’ve met with the union — allowing them unprecedented access to our employees [and] meetings in the plant, and the union turned it down. We wanted this over with, so we took unprecedented actions. We’d love to see an election as soon as possible. If they win, we’ll negotiate with the union.
NP: Regarding Smithfield’s Tar Heel, N.C., plant, why is Smithfield proposing that these employees have a secret ballot vote on establishing a union instead of a card check?
Pittman: In my opinion, the union doesn’t think they can win with an election. Our employee benefits and treatment are as good as any that the union can facilitate. What good does it do for employees to pay union dues? We try to keep our plants competitive. Our starting wage is $9.60 per hour, and the average is over $12 an hour. And we have an excellent benefits package: complete family coverage for $100 a month. We are one of the few companies anywhere that has built a brand new medical facility right across the street from the plant, which is dedicated for use by our employees and their families.
This union campaign is not really about the employees at Tar Heel. The union is trying to get a foothold in the Southeast and the meat-processing industry. They want to make an example out of Smithfield. In other words, they want to be able to say to other companies, “Look what we did to Smithfield. Unless you give in, we will do the same thing to you.” So, in a sense, whether they actually get into the Tar Heel plant is irrelevant, because now they can try to get unions established at other companies that can’t withstand this type of corporate attack. These smaller companies will let them in without a challenge, so they don’t have to face the same attack.
NP: This October, after weeks of negotiations with the UFCW International Union and days after it rejected Smithfield’s plan for a union election at Tar Heel, Smithfield filed a racketeering lawsuit against the UFCW and its agents. What inspired the lawsuit and what does the timing say about Smithfield’s intentions while negotiating with UFCW?
Pittman: The lawsuit was about trying to protect our business. The UFCW was continuing to attack our company, and said if we didn’t let them in they would continue doing this. Either we let them into our plant, or they would continue to try to destroy our company. We know it didn’t matter what the employees wanted because the union ignored letters from more than 3,000 of them asking for a vote. The union would rather see us out of business than union-free.
The timing of the lawsuit has nothing to do with the other. We’re looking into how to stop their efforts — such as trying to get consumers to stop buying our product. We want them to cease and desist on destroying our business. We have no objections to them trying to organize our employees at the plant, but their attack on the company itself and trying to harm us is what’s covered under the lawsuit.
NP: Legal rulings have found that Smithfield meddled in past elections, and the union contends that these practices are continuing. How do you satisfy critics that you’re an honest negotiator with unions?
Pittman: Well, that was 10 years ago. The employees have changed and so has much of management. For example, we have a new plant manager. We didn’t agree with the 1997 ruling but accepted it so we could move forward. We will accept whatever the courts want us to do — meetings, elections, the National Labor Board’s suggestions — to move forward. And, as an example, we just held an election in Clayton that the union won. So we obviously have fair elections.
We have offered, for well over a year, to participate in an election run by the federal government so our employees could vote on the question. The union said the election couldn’t be run fairly, so we told the union that they could hold meetings with the employees in the plant, that they could attend any meetings we held, that we would limit our campaign to those meetings and that we would agree for a third party to review any communication to employees by either side in advance to be sure what was said was true. We offered up the Jimmy Carter Center as that third party. The union turned us down. I don’t know what else we can do. It seems the union thinks it gets more mileage out of making us the poster child.
NP: How does Smithfield plan to move forward with positive, constructive relations with the community and labor relations?
Pittman: We have a wonderful relationship with the community. Any attacks you read about our Tar Heel plant are not from local ministers or groups, or from anyone who has visited our plant with an open mind. We just want to let our people vote and decide.