[Marxism] Slaughterhouse hiring woes after xenophobic crackdown

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Oct 12 07:34:12 MDT 2007

NY Times, October 12, 2007
Crackdown Upends Slaughterhouse’s Work Force

TAR HEEL, N.C. — Last November, immigration officials began a crackdown 
at Smithfield Foods’s giant slaughterhouse here, eventually arresting 21 
illegal immigrants at the plant and rousting others from their trailers 
in the middle of the night.

Since then, more than 1,100 Hispanic workers have left the 
5,200-employee hog-butchering plant, the world’s largest, leaving it 
struggling to find, train and keep replacements.

Across the country, the federal effort to flush out illegal immigrants 
is having major effects on workers and employers alike. Some companies 
have reluctantly raised wages to attract new workers following raids at 
their plants.

After several hundred immigrant employees at its plant in Stillmore, 
Ga., were arrested, Crider Poultry began recruiting Hmong workers from 
Minnesota, hiring men from a nearby homeless mission and providing free 
van transportation to many workers.

So far, Smithfield has largely replaced the Hispanics with American 
workers, who often leave poorly paid jobs for higher wages at the plant 
here. But the turnover rate for new workers — many find the work 
grueling and the smell awful — is twice what it was when Hispanics 
dominated the work force.

Making Smithfield’s recruiting challenge even harder is the fact that 
many local residents have worked there before and soured on the 
experience. As a result, Smithfield often looks far afield for new 

Fannie Worley, a longtime resident of Dillon, S.C., a largely 
African-American town of sagging trailers and ramshackle bungalows, quit 
her $5.25-an-hour, part-time job making beds at a Days Inn motel four 
months ago to take a $10.75-an-hour job at Smithfield. But Ms. Worley 
remains ambivalent.

“It pays a lot better,” she said. “But the trip is too long.”

Around 1 p.m. each day, C. J. Bailey, a Smithfield worker, picks up Ms. 
Worley and 10 other employees in his big white van. They arrive at the 
plant around 2:15, and he drops them back home after 1 a.m.

Several of the newly hired workers in the van — they pay $40 a week for 
the ride — said they were thinking of quitting, unhappy about having to 
commute so far and work so hard. At the plant, where the pay averages 
around $12 an hour, many spend hour after hour slitting hogs’ throats, 
hacking at shoulders and carving ribs and loins. At the end of their 
shifts, many workers complain that their muscles are sore and their 
minds are numb.

Employee turnover has long been a problem at Smithfield and other 
meat-processing plants, but the problem has grown worse recently. Dennis 
Pittman, a Smithfield spokesman, said 60 percent of the new workers quit 
within 90 days of being hired, compared with 25 percent to 30 percent 
two years ago when many new employees were illegal immigrants.

“I’ve heard officials from a couple of other meat processors say they’ve 
never seen such high turnover with new workers,” Mr. Pittman said.

Several Southern companies have raised wages to attract new workers 
after immigration raids. “But that’s not the first thing that employers 
are going to do,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center 
for Immigration Studies. “They’re going to try to cast their net wider 
before they do something that will raise costs.”

Smithfield, for example, has run a flood of television advertisements 
boasting that the company is a good, safe place to work. The 
advertisements aim to persuade Carolinians to apply for jobs and to 
counter arguments made by a union trying to organize the plant that 
Smithfield jobs are high stress and unsafe, with stingy benefits.

One of the toughest challenges, Mr. Pittman said, has been training new 
employees to handle the highest-skilled jobs at a plant that processes 
30,000 hogs a day.

“The big problem is we lost a lot of people who were there a long time,” 
Mr. Pittman said. “We have been facing difficulties in hiring for a 
number of years, because as the economy got better, the labor market 
became much tighter.”

When the plant opened in 1992, the area’s jobless rate was high because 
tobacco was in retreat and textile mills were closing. Early on, most 
employees were black. That changed with an influx of Hispanic 
immigrants, most of them Mexicans, in the mid-1990s.

Chris Kromm, executive director of the Institute for Southern Studies, 
said the Hispanics should not be viewed as shoving blacks aside, because 
the plant had such high turnover.

“It’s not as if these jobs were stable sources of employment for 
creating a black middle class,” Mr. Kromm said.

The way Hector David, a longtime worker from Mexico who quit in 
February, sees it, Smithfield had been eager to hire Hispanics because 
they worked so hard. “The Americans just don’t work as well,” Mr. David 
said. “In Mexico, we work from the age of 5 in the corn fields. We’re 
used to working hard.”

The New York Times wrote about the sometimes uneasy relations between 
blacks and Hispanics at the Smithfield plant as part of a 2000 series 
that examined race relations in the United States.

Mr. Pittman said Smithfield did its best to ensure that immigrant 
employees had legitimate documentation. But many workers said Smithfield 
did not look too hard at the paperwork.

Last November, the company notified 640 employees that their identity 
information did not match government records. In January, federal agents 
arrested 21 workers at the plant, and in August, helped by information 
the company provided, agents arrested 28 more, many at home.

Mr. Pittman said cooperating with immigration officials “serves our goal 
of 100 percent compliance 100 percent of the time.” But for many 
families, the cooperation has come at a price.

Tears came to Maritza Cruz’s eyes as she described the scene when 
immigration agents banged on her trailer door at 3 a.m. and arrested her 
husband, Alejandro, who faces deportation. “Everyone is very scared, 
especially after they arrested people at their homes,” said Mrs. Cruz, 
who has four children and is on maternity leave from the plant.

The company and its employees are not the only ones affected by the 

Since the enforcement actions began, said Jazmin Gastelum, owner of a 
local Christian bookstore, La Tierra Prometida, business from Hispanic 
customers has plunged 40 percent at her store and two nearby Hispanic 
groceries. “A lot of people are going back to Mexico,” Ms. Gastelum 
said. “And a lot who haven’t moved are scared to go outside.”

As for the workers who remain at the plant, many wonder why so many new 
employees come from South Carolina. Gene Bruskin, the director of the 
unionization campaign, sees a simple explanation.

“Thousands and thousands of workers from North Carolina have come 
through the plant, and they left, saying, ‘No way,’ because they were 
injured or didn’t want to work in such an oppressive atmosphere,” Mr. 
Bruskin said. “This plant burned up a large number of people, and the 
word got around about their bad experiences.”

Mr. Pittman said Smithfield had hired many workers from South Carolina 
because the counties close to the plant had a low unemployment rate.

The immigration arrests have also created problems for the union, the 
United Food and Commercial Workers Union, which has spent 15 years 
seeking to organize the plant.

“A lot of the people who left or were detained were strong union 
supporters,” said Gabriel Lopez Rivera, a Smithfield worker.

Mr. Bruskin, the union official, added, “It’s extremely difficult for 
workers to stand up for their rights when they’re threatened with arrest 
or deportation.”

The Tar Heel workers voted against unionizing in 1994 and 1997, but the 
National Labor Relations Board ruled that Smithfield had broken the law 
by intimidating and firing union supporters.

The company has called for a new election, but the union instead wants 
Smithfield to accept unionization through a majority sign-up, a process 
that would give management less opportunity to pressure workers.

In recent months, union organizers have adopted a new role, rushing to 
the trailers of immigrant workers facing arrest to ensure that someone 
can care for their children.

Union officials recently organized educational forums at a Roman 
Catholic church in Red Springs, where immigrant workers were advised, 
among other things, to sign power of attorney forms designating someone 
to take care of their children, finances and homes if they were arrested.

“I think all this turmoil is helping unionization,” said the Rev. Carlos 
Arce, the priest there, “because people feel alone and unprotected, and 
they see that the union, along with the Catholic Church, is the only 
organization that is trying to help them.”

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