Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered while trying to help Black sanitation workers in Memphis form a union. Dr. King understood that the treatment of Black workers in the South since slavery had always depended upon violent tactics of intimidation, splitting us up, and keeping us from forming any kind of organization to protect our integrity and our earnings. He knew we need strong organizations to protect ourselves and the fruits of our labor. I believe the same.
The treatment of over 5,000 Black and Brown workers at the Smithfield hog slaughterhouse near Fayetteville in Bladen County is based on the same kind of intimidation, physical threats, and splitting tactics inherited directly from the plantation fields of yesterday. This summer, I led a delegation of North Carolina ministers to the slaughterhouse for a meeting I had scheduled. We wanted to try to get talks started about how to ensure a fair and respectful process for a union election. Management called its company police to escort us off the property.
A month later, however, signs of hope emerged. After a massive demonstration at the Smithfield stockholder’s meeting, its managers started talking with the Union about what a truly fair election would look like. Because Smithfield’s policies and practices toward its workers in North Carolina are different than those at its plants in Iowa, Nebraska and Massachusetts . . . because 13 years of unlawful coercion of its Brown and Black workers in North Carolina has created great distrust . . . all of us who care about justice hoped that good faith discussions might help the North Carolina Smithfield managers prove they cared about fairness by letting their workers exercise their rights – without interference or intimidation from management.
I was dismayed, but not surprised, that Smithfield shut down these talks last week. In many of its other plants across the country, Smithfield recognizes workers’ unions, and bargains with the workers regarding their rights and their pay. But here in North Carolina . . . here at the largest hog slaughterhouse in the world . . . here in the isolation of the beautiful Bladen countryside. . . here where the company plays on the economic desperation of over 5,000 Black and Brown workers who need jobs to feed their families . . . here where workers drive for hours a day to stand in puddles of bloody hot entrails, killing and slicing the hogs for North Carolina’s famous barbeque and bacon. . .here in North Carolina Smithfield has chosen to play hard-ball.
Since 1994, when the Tar Heel workers began trying to form their union, Smithfield has engaged in, and been found guilty of assaulting, threatening, intimidating, harassing, illegally firing and hurling racial epithets at workers. Last year, the federal courts ordered Smithfield to pay over $1 million in back wages to workers it had unlawfully fired during two previous union campaigns. Smithfield managers continue to insist they have done nothing wrong. And they continue their daily campaign of harassing and intimidation against workers who are brave enough to exercise their legal right to form a union. Even though the Courts hammered them for these illegal actions, Smithfield management brazenly fired several pro-union workers.
Our hopes were misplaced. While some of Smithfield managers held talks with the Union, others showed slick anti-union films to segregated Spanish-speaking audiences on the clock and continued the 13-year campaign of harassing union activists. The managers talked out of both sides of their mouths. This is no way to build trust.
This past weekend the North Carolina Conference of 100 NAACP Branches held its Convention in Wilmington and re-elected me to serve two more years as the State President. Union rights for the Smithfield and public service workers are centerpieces of our 14-point agenda for justice and peace in N.C. Our agenda is simple. Justice for the poor and oppressed people of North Carolina. Our calling is also simple. To give unwavering support to Our Black and Brown sisters and brothers at Smithfield and other places of injustice and to talk moral and economic sense to all citizens of good will.
Smithfield would never engage in the anti-union policies and practices they use here in other sections of our nation. The fact they believe they can stay below the political radar in N.C. with these illegal tactics is both socially arrogant and economically ignorant. The people of North Carolina, in l868, three years after the end of the worst system of worker coercion ever devised by one part of the human race against another part, put it plainly:
We hold it to be self-evident that all persons are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, the enjoyment of the fruits of their own labor, and the pursuit of happiness. --Article I, Sect. 1, The equality and rights of persons, N.C. Constitution.
We call on every statewide elected leader from Governor to the Treasure, to investigate Smithfield’s actions here, as opposed to how they act in Iowa and Massachusetts. Investigate how their tactics of intimidation affect North Carolina’s economy. And consider how these actions affect our vision of One North Carolina. Let us join in the words of the prophet. “Come. Let us reason together.”