Tim Newman, Campaigns Assistant, International Labor Rights Forum
Last week, workers at the world's largest meatpacking plant, located in Tar Heel, North Carolina, voted to unionize with the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW). Wanda Blue, one of the Smithfield workers who was quoted in The New York Times, said, "It feels great... It's like how Obama felt when he won. We made history... I favored the union because of respect... We deserve more respect than we're getting. When we were hurt or sick, we weren't getting treated like we should."
This is a truly historic victory for many reasons. There has been a union campaign at this plant for 15 years and it is exciting that workers are finally able to join a union. The company had waged a major campaign to try to stop the workers from organizing, but last week's victory means that now the workers will have a chance to collectively bargain with the management. Also, union organizing in North Carolina and in the meatpacking and poultry sector has historically been extremely challenging. I was reminded of this fact when I recently listened to a story on This American Life called "A Pastor and his Flock" about an organizing campaign at a poultry plant in North Carolina. Not to mention that these workers definitely need a union because these jobs are often very dangerous. A report by Human Rights Watch detailed many of the abuses in meat and poultry plants in the US, including Smithfield. The victory is also another example of the importance of community solidarity with workers. The workers' campaign was supported by many organizations and activists all across the country.
ILRF sponsored a Wal-Mart Food and Agricultural Workers speaking tour in April 2007 that featured Lorena Gomez, a former Smithfield worker from Lumberton, NC -- you can read a blog post from Lorena here.
It is very exciting to see victories like the Smithfield campaign and the Republic Windows and Doors workers in Chicago, but last week also showed labor rights advocates that there are still major battles to be won. It was extremely disappointing to see that a few Republican senators and some people in the media were blaming auto workers for the situation facing the Big Three car companies seeking a bridge loan from the US government. There have been a number of great articles and blog posts exposing some of the hypocrisy behind these attacks on workers, so I won't go further on that issue, but it's clear that some members of Congress are going to use any excuse in the coming months to attack organized labor. In fact, a widely reported memo that was circulated among Republicans last week recommended that "Republicans should stand firm and take their first shot against organized labor, instead of taking their first blow from it."
So, let's use the positive energy from these recent victories for workers and keep building the movement for labor rights -- we have a lot of work to do!