[Marxism] Article on meatpacking/immigrants

Bonnie Weinstein giobon at sbcglobal.net
Tue Feb 6 12:19:38 MST 2007

Here are some more articles on the subject. They can be found at:


Some articles from the current issue:

The Smithfield Strike Victory
By the Editors
Meatpacking Hell: Blood, Cold, Heat, Gore
By Jane Slaughter
North Carolina Smithfield Workers Win Against the Odds
By Scott Marshall
Why Unions Must Support The Immigrant Rights Movement
By Karega Hart
That Our Children May Have Peace
By Gregg Shotwell

The Smithfield Strike Victory
By The Editors
Socialist Viewpoint

It would be difficult to overstate the importance of the strike victory by
the more than 5,000 workers employed by Smithfield Corporation, at its
meatpacking plant in Tar Heel, North Carolina‹the largest hog-slaughterhouse
and processing plant in the world.
The strike erupted on November 16 and ended on the morning of the 17th, when
the company asked for a meeting and made important concessions to strikers¹
demands. The ramifications of this stunning victory go far beyond this one
plant, one company, one industry, or one small part of the American working
Highlighting the extraordinary importance of this walkout is the unusual
reason why they walked‹to demand that Smithfield¹s bosses reinstate over 75
allegedly undocumented workers. No less remarkably, 1,000 of the company¹s
5,000 workers, 60 percent of whom are immigrants and 30 percent Black, along
with the white minority, stuck together and forced Smithfield bosses to
reinstate those fired‹and to make further concessions as well. Here are the
most important:
€ The Company agreed to reinstate those workers who had been fired.
€ There is to be no more firing.
€ No disciplinary actions of any kind will be taken against those employees
who participated in the walkout.
And to top off their acceptance of the first three demands of the strikers:
€Smithfield also agreed to meet with a 14-member committee, to be elected by
the workers on the basis of one from each of the 14 departments on both
shifts, to deal with ³concerns² raised by the workers‹a diplomat¹s euphemism
for the 12-year-long struggle for better wages and working conditions, union
representation, and an end to the dangerously inhuman pace at which
employees are compelled to work.
Although these concessions testify to the intrinsic power of organized
workers to force their employers to come to terms, the big issues for which
these workers struck‹wages, hours, safer working conditions, and their
longstanding demand for a union contract‹have yet to be resolved.
Even so, striking workers have profoundly shifted the balance of power from
Smithfield bosses to these newly empowered workers. The latter had twice
filed petitions with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) for union
certification elections, once in 1994 and again in 1997, and lost both
elections. But only because Smithfield fired, harassed, and beat up enough
union supporters to edge out a majority vote against the union.
But workers learned a valuable lesson from the first two attempts.
Consequently, on their third try, they decided to follow the old-fashioned,
direct-action route to union organization by marching and picketing outside
instead of working inside.
Moreover, they were able to keep secret their planned action long enough to
catch their bosses by surprise with the sudden appearance of 500 chanting
and marching militant pickets outside, and that many fewer workers inside to
begin the slaughtering and processing of more than 30,000 hogs in the next
24 hours. When the second shift arrived, another 500 workers joined the
marching pickets.
But this part of the strike scenario needs to be explained for the reader to
fully appreciate its impact on Smithfield¹s bottom line.
Surprise, of course, is an important factor in wars between nations and
classes‹and a strike is, indeed, class battle. In this case, because the
logistics of planning such a complex operation involving 30,000 pigs and
5,000 packinghouse workers, and the scores of trucks and drivers needed to
transport the finished product to their varied destinations around the
country, means that the surprise and impact of 1,000 missing workers caused
far more than a loss of only one-fifth of production on the first day. More
worrisome yet to Smithfield management is the uncertainty of how many
workers will show up on following days.
This is the equivalent of strikers throwing a legal ³monkey wrench² into a
very complicated machine with thousands of moving parts.
Now, no matter how this battle turns out in the end, Smithfield strikers
learned two lessons that they are not likely to forget and that will greatly
improve their effectiveness in the months and years to come. They learned
that workers can only get what they¹re strong enough to take
But let¹s take a closer look at why direct action by the workers themselves
is a far better road to follow than relying on an election organized and
controlled by the indisputably pro-capitalist, anti-worker government of the
United States.
What you can get from direct action that you can¹t get from an NLRB election
Winning union recognition via direct action has two big advantages over a
government organized and controlled election. First, bosses can steal such
an election, but they can¹t steal a victory over a strike‹they have to
overpower and crush striking workers and their strike! The fact that the
company didn¹t try to do this demonstrates that they had reason to believe
that the strike would continue snowballing when the time came for each
subsequent shift to come to work.
And second, if workers win a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election,
the employer is compelled only to go through the motions of negotiating a
final settlement. But it is under no compulsion to make anything more than
token concessions to prove that it is indeed negotiating.
But by winning the right to collectively bargain over wages, hours, and
working conditions by strike action, workers have also gone more than
halfway toward winning an acceptable labor contract. They have forced a
reluctant employer to recognize their union by hitting them hard where it
hurts most‹in the pocketbook. The union also has sent a convincing message
that now, with the confidence gained by their first strike victory under
their belts, workers are sure to fight longer and harder for the kind of
contract they think they deserve and can get.
Smithfield strikers are now in a stronger position than if they had filed
for and won an NLRB election. Nevertheless, they still have not yet achieved
their goal of improved wages, benefits, and significantly safer working
conditions. In other words, though they have convinced Smithfield bosses
that these seemingly powerless workers are a force to be feared and
respected, the final outcome of this struggle still hangs in the balance.
However, Smithfield Corporation and its workforce are not the only
combatants. Also intimately involved in this struggle is capitalist America
on one side, and working-class America on the other. Therefore, which way
the struggle in Smithfield¹s Tar Heel plant goes, for or against its
rebellious workforce, depends to a great extent on how capitalist America
and its government on one side, and the U.S. working class and its unions on
the other, respond to the challenge.
The capitalist government counterattacks
Not quite a month had passed before the inevitable happened. As Smithfield
bosses had confidently expected, the U.S. government came to their rescue.
On December 12, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff retaliated
against Smithfield¹s striking workers and the United Food and Commercial
Workers International Union (UFCW), whose organizers had helped them
coordinate their strike. Chertoff launched simultaneous dawn raids on six
Swift & Company meatpacking plants, in six states‹all of which were under
contract with the UFCW.
The federal government¹s Homeland Security cops swept across the six plants,
arresting nearly 1,300 UFCW members on the charge of illegally living and
working in the United States. To further demonize these workers in the eyes
of the public, he charged them with having stolen the identities of American
citizens. But nothing was stolen. Because undocumented workers are unable to
get real Social Security numbers, all they need to do when applying for work
is to simply put down a fictitious nine-digit number. Thus, some of these
fake numbers coincided with real Social Security numbers owned by real
people. But nothing is stolen. In fact, the Social Security and income taxes
deducted from the paychecks of undocumented workers are automatically
credited to the real owners of the Social Security numbers.
But all of this begs the question: How did 11 million undocumented
immigrants get to be living and working in the USA?
It all started in 1917 after the United States entered the First World War.
That¹s when the so-called ³guest worker² program was first introduced in a
treaty signed by the Mexican and American governments. Guest workers were a
brand-new kind of immigrant invited to come live and work in this country,
but only for a specified time and only for the lowest-paid jobs, mostly in
Its temporary nature was the beauty part of this scheme cooked up by your
typical money-hungry capitalists to create an ever-expanding army of
superexploited and doubly oppressed workers. This new category of
third-class workers is an updated version of colonial America¹s indentured
servants. But unlike the originals in the 13 colonies, who gained the right
to be free workers after serving the required time bonded to their masters,
the latest version of de facto chattel slaves are obligated to pack up and
go home, and worse for these church-mouse-poor workers‹under their own power
and at their own expense!
Just imagine
Now, picture this: Imagine that you are one of those desperately poor
workers who had earned minimum wages or below for one or two harvest seasons
as legal temps. Another employer offers you a job as a now illegalized
worker‹but with no time limit. Remember, too, while you¹re imagining, that
you probably have loved ones in your homeland that depend on you for
survival, so that a part of your meager wages must of necessity go to them.
Maybe you were ready to bum your way back home, but someone offers you a job
as an illegalized worker. Let¹s also suppose you ask around to find out what
happens if you stay and work illegally and get caught. And you are told that
you might not get arrested for some time or maybe ever‹depending on how
badly the farmers and other employers in the region need cheap and
trouble-free workers who don¹t dare complain to the authorities if they are
cheated or otherwise mistreated.
So what would you do if you were in such a pickle? If you knew that if you
stayed and got caught by the immigration cops you¹d be picked up and jailed
for an uncertain period, but eventually given a free ride home‹albeit in
handcuffs? The odds heavily favor your grabbing the opportunity of a job
that let you feed yourself and your family for a little whileŠor even a
whole lot longer.
That in a nutshell is how the 11 million undocumented workers got here; and
it¹s how another 11 million will probably get here too, if the present
rotten setup is allowed to continue.
Now put yourself in the shoes of one of the many indigenous American workers
who are competing for the same jobs doing the same kind of work as the 11
million illegalized workers. Well, if you know your way around trade-union
and socialist circles, you understand that the intensified competition means
that the wages of all those taking such jobs will tend to decline, according
to the capitalist economic law of supply and demand. But you also would know
that when the average wage of the lowest-paid workers declines, the wages of
all those higher up on the economic ladder will also fall!
Let¹s now imagine that you find yourself in the shoes of such a worker, who
is also class conscious and militant‹as are a very large number of workers
born and raised in Mexico or almost any other country south of the border.
If you were this kind of worker, you would know that workers in practically
all other countries are far more likely to be class conscious and familiar
with what the class struggle is all about. Well, in that case, you would
also know that if workers stick together they can win, and would have
learned a thing or two about the right and wrong way to organize and fight
for your rights. You¹d probably follow the example set by at least those
1,000 Smithfield workers in Tar Heel, N.C. who walked and the other 4,000
who would probably have followed if the bosses hadn¹t come to terms after
the first day.
Nationalism, class consciousness and the working class
Now we come to another lesson that can be learned from the recent events in
Smithfield¹s Tar Heel plant. We refer to the Latino immigrant majority and
the second-largest grouping there, the African American workers‹both of whom
are oppressed nationalities as well as being doubly exploited and oppressed
members of the working class.
Not all nationalisms are the same. In fact, the nationalism of the oppressed
and the nationalism of the oppressor are diametrically opposed. But like the
slave and the slave owner, the two are organically intertwined. An
understanding of the interaction between capitalist exploitation and
oppression is the high road to a deeper understanding of the laws of the
class struggle in America and the world that were played out in the struggle
in Tar Heel, N.C.
It can also be said, however, that there is a difference between how class
consciousness is perceived by the two oppressed national minorities, African
and Latin American. While African Americans see their superexploitation and
oppression as a product of white ideology, Latin American immigrants
perceive it as just an extreme expression of the class exploitation and
oppression they experienced in their homeland, where they could clearly see
it as class-based since they were a part of the ethnic majority and not a
But that¹s not all that differentiates the perception of the source of their
problem by each of these nationalities. Immigrants from south of the border
could clearly see that they suffered social, economic, and political
injustices because they were exploited wage workers. Whereas, African
Americans, who have never been treated as equals by workers with a lighter
skin color, perceive their problem as racial primarily, and class
That¹s why it was the Latino workers who initiated and led the workers¹
rebellion in Smithfield¹s Tar Heel plant in North Carolina. But it is to the
credit of black workers that they could empathize with the victimization of
another superexploited nationality and were among the first to walk out in
support of a strike to reinstate the 75 fired workers‹with many
union-conscious white workers joining because of class, not nationalist
But all this is entirely in accord with the inexorable tendency of working
people toward class consciousness and class solidarity, irrespective of
race, religion, or national origin. It happens to be the most reasonable,
logical, and natural response to the divide-and-conquer strategy and tactics
of the capitalist class. What¹s good for the working class is also in the
best interests of all the exploited and oppressed‹who together constitute as
much as four-fifths or more of the human race.
We need to make one more clarification of where we stand on the question of
nationalism. There¹s no qualitative difference between the nationalism of
the oppressed and the class consciousness of the workers. This is because
oppressed nationalities are mostly workers and their superexploitation and
double­oppression generates working-class consciousness. It can also be said
that the condition of the oppressed in capitalist society is an objective
force making them more class conscious than the rest of us.
The outcome of the Smithfield strike inspires an optimistic perspective on
the coming rise of mass class consciousness and a militant working class
fighting side by side with Latino, black, and all other victims of
capitalist social economic and political injustice. This takes us to our
final question: What needs to be done to maximize the possibilities opened
up by the Smithfield strike victory?
ŒThe art of politics is knowing what to do next¹ 1
We saw a good example of what a high level of class consciousness and class
solidarity can produce in the Smithfield strike victory. But we also saw an
excellent example of capitalist class consciousness and solidarity on the
part of the ³executive committee of the capitalist class,² the capitalist
owned and controlled United States government!
But what about the executive committee of the working class‹the General
Executive Boards of both labor federations, the American Federation of
Labor, and Change to Win. How did they respond? Not at all like their
counterparts in the ruling class. The leaders of both federations pretty
much did what the UFCW leadership did when faced by this mortal attack on
their union. Unlike the leaders of American capitalism, who ordered their
army of Homeland Security cops into action against their class enemy, the
workers and their unions, the union officials saw ordering their lawyers to
seek injunctions from the courts as ³what to do next.²
There¹s nothing wrong with using the courts against the system when you can,
but if that¹s all that the official leaders of the American working class
have done or will do, then they have failed the acid test of working-class
But it¹s not too late. Far from it. The job of the left wing of the economic
and political institutions of the working class is to get the high and
mighty leaders of the unions off their hind ends, to do their duty by their
dues-paying members. That is exactly what United Mine Workers president and
founding president of the CIO told the official leaders of the AFL and CIO
when those bureaucrats failed to mobilize the 32 million members of the
labor movement at the time for mass action against what all agreed at the
time was the ³slave-labor² Taft-Hartley Act.
To be sure, old John Lewis was a high-handed bureaucrat, but he strongly
believed in giving union members their money¹s worth; and best of all, more
often than not, he practiced what he preached.
Who will start building a fire, as hot as possible, under these
far-too-comfortable and self-satisfied labor fakers who proudly assert their
partnership with corporate America? There is a force that is fully capable
of getting such a fire burning, and burning higher and hotter as we go
We refer to the tens of thousands of militant trade-union activists, the
more worker-friendly bureaucrats, and last but not least, the vanguard of
the working class. They must begin working overtime to establish
collaborative relations with the rank and file, with the leaders of the
Latino and black civil-rights movements, and most importantly, with the
already stirring rank and file that recently fought the good fight inside
the UAW for a program of class struggle against the ever-increasing
capitalist offensive.

1³The art of politics is knowing what to do next.²‹James P. Cannon, a
working-class fighter and leader who had served his apprenticeship in the
Socialist Party of Eugene V. Debs, the Industrial Workers of the World of
Big Bill Haywood and Vincent St. John, and later became a founding leader of
the U.S. Communist Party and a founding leader of the Trotskyist, Socialist
Workers Party.

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