Stung by a labor board ruling against it and a $1.1m settlement, Smithfield Foods has been forced to announce it will allow workers to hold a new vote on unionisation at its giant plant in Tar Heel, North Carolina.
However the Union Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) International said no election can be scheduled becauseSmithfield Packing, a company subsidiary, is still not compliance with the law and faces outstandinghearings on allegations of unfair labour labor practices. The union vowed to bar the election untilthe issues are resolved.
When the vote is eventually held it will be the outcome of a 15-year battle to unionise theplant, one that involved walkouts, and that accusations that immigration raids last week were partof a company campaign to remove organisers from its workforce. The meat and poultry processingsectors are major employers of immigrant employees -- and has been pinpointed by federal regulatorsas among the top sectors hiring illegal workers.
The announcement on the vote was made after Smithfield Packing said last week it had finalized anagreement with the National Labor Relations Board to pay $1.1m in back wages, plus interest, toemployees who were fired by the company during two previous attempts at union elections, held at theplant in 1993 and 1997.
Joe Luter IV, Smithfield Packing's president and chief operating officer said even though thecompany disagrees with the labor board's findings it would comply with the court's decision. Smithfield has offered to pay for half the cost of an independent observer to oversee the election.
"I hope the union will work with us to schedule a secret ballot election as soon aspossible," he said in a statement. "We believe our employees should have the rightto vote on whether they want to be represented by a union. It's time to let the employeesvote."
In response the UFCW said the statement indicated the company showed no remorse after US Court of Appealshad found Smithfield had physically assaulted an employee and union organizer, threatened workers with bodily harm,and unlawfully fired and intimidated others.
UFCW also claimed the company agreed to pay $1.5m to fired workers, including interest, not $1.1 million as stated by Smithfield.
The union's outstanding Unfair Labor Practices (ULPs) filings allege Smithfield had beaten, fired, falsely arrested and threatened to call immigration
authorities on workers who walked out in 2003 to protest abusive working conditions.
"Elections cannot go forward while ULPS are pending because they indicate the conditions necessary to hold a free and fairelection do not exist," the UFCW claimed.
The immigration issue is a particularly sore point for the union. On 24 January federalimmigration authorities arrested 21 workers at the Tar Heel plant. The Immigration and CustomsEnforcement (ICE) agency said the individuals would face various charges.
The union and an employee protest group accused Smithfield of using immigration to get rid ofunion organisers. Smithfield has also said it will fire up to 600 people next month, primarily those who walked out in protest last November over the firings ofemployees who it said did not comply with immigration law.
"Smithfield has a history of using threats of arrest by immigration authorities to intimidate workers and this is a continuation of thatpattern," said Gene Bruskin head of the Smithfield Justice Campaign, a coalition ofworkers..
Since May of last year, Smithfield has been working toward membership in ICE Mutual Agreement BetweenGovernment and Employers (Image), a federal enforcement program designed to help manufacturerscomply with immigration laws. Manufacturers must show that they are attempting to keep illegalimmigrants out of their workforce.
"In the course of becoming a member of the Image program, we were notified that federal authorities had identified specific individuals forfocused interviews and arrests, if appropriate," the company stated. "We have cooperated fully inthat process."
The company said it had been working with the immigration agency since July to verify that all 5,200 employees at the plant had legal employment and immigration documents.
Parent company Smithfield Foods calls itself the world's largest hog producer and pork processor, with revenuesof $11 billion in fiscal 2006. The company raises 14 million hogs domestically each year for a 13 percentUS market share, and annually processes 27 million hogs, representing 26 per cent of the domestic market.
Smithfield owns subsidiaries in France, Poland, Romania and the UK, and has joint ventures or major investments in Brazil, Mexico, Spain and China.
Last week US president George Bust promised reforms to the US immigration system to ensure thesupply of workers to meat and poultry processors -- and help them avoid problems with the law.
The planned reforms would allow immigrants into the US under a temporary work permit system,create a tamper proof identity card for them, while at the same time increase fines againstemployers who hire illegal workers.