Power of Labor
On November 16, the workers at Smithfield Packing Company in Tar Heel, North Carolina scored a victory as over 1,000 black and Latino workers went on strike to defend immigrant workers fired because of problems with their documents. Since the beginning of the month, the company had dismissed 75 immigrant workers charged with providing “false information” because their Social Security numbers didn’t match up. After a two-day walkout, amid chants of “si no hay solución no hay producción” (if there is no solution, there won’t be any production), workers won back the jobs of the fired workers along with promises of no disciplinary action against those who walked out and more time to resolve Social Security issues. The successful walkout at the non-union plant was fueled by mounting frustration over the harassment, degradation and horrendous working conditions all workers at the plant endure. It reverberated nationally, showing that it is possible to resist the federal government’s anti-immigrant witch-hunt, as a flood of “no-match” letters have gone out aimed at terrorizing workers into submission.
The dramatic wildcat strike shook up the Smithfield bosses and set off alarm bells in the media. “The workers’ rebellion ignited like a brush fire on Thursday morning,” reported Newsweek (18 November) in an article titled, “Thanksgiving Rebellion.” It noted that in addition to Latino workers (two-thirds of the workforce), white and black workers joined in the protest. The Tar Heel plant is the largest pork-processing plant in the world, with 5,500 workers slaughtering 32,000 hogs daily. The company is known for its brutal repression. It was notorious as the only meatpacking plant in the United States to have its own private police force. More than modern-day Pinkertons, the Smithfield Special Police had arrest powers from the state, and arrested about 100 workers since 2001. The head of the force, former chief of plant security, was found guilty of violating the 1871 Ku Klux Klan law after beating union activists in 1997. In November 2003, these company cops broke a spreading walkout by night-shift cleaning workers, causing a panic by announcing that “immigration agents were waiting outside to deport them” (Port Folio Weekly, 5 July 2005).
The plant has been the scene of a bitter union organizing drive since it was opened in the early 1990s. This recent firings come amid an intensified unionization drive by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW). Playing by the bosses’ rules, the union lost union-representation elections organized by the National Labor Relations Board at the plant in 1994 and 1997. However, the results of those votes were thrown out by an NLRB administrative law judge who ruled that Smithfield goons had engaged in “egregious” violations including threatening, intimidating, firing and even beating workers involved in the union drive. Human Rights Watch issued a report, Unfair Advantage (August 2000) which documented numerous instances of the bosses’ terror: confiscated union literature, union supporters spied on and suspended, threats to close the plant if a majority of the workers voted for the union, threats to deny pay raises and promotions and fire workers who voted for the union; threats to force a strike, fire strikers and blacklist them in the industry, etc.
Workers Protest Deadly Working Conditions
At the plant, workers have been fighting against conditions which seem to fly out of the pages of Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle, written a hundred years ago in 1906 on the inhuman environment workers were subjected to in the Chicago meatpacking plants. Following chapter after chapter describing the horrendous working conditions, the floors covered with blood, the freezing temperatures workers had to endure, the killing pace of the processing line leading to knife injuries and even death, Sinclair writes of the struggle to organize the workers in unions:
“…what the unions were really trying to do was to put a stop to murder. For murder it was that went on there upon the killing floor, systematic, deliberate and hideous murder – … They were slaughtering men there, just as certainly as they were slaughtering the cattle; they were grinding the bodies and souls of them and turning them into dollars and cents.”
–Upton Sinclair, The Jungle. The Uncensored Original Edition. (See Sharp Press, 2003 )
When Sinclair first tried to get his book published, the slaughterhouse companies got his publisher, Macmillan, to drop publication. He turned to another publishing house, Doubleday, which demanded that he excise whole passages and turn the book into a muckraking piece. But as Katherine De Grave, author of the introduction to the unexpurgated version noted, “Sinclair did not mean to write a reformist book but a revolutionary one.” The Jungle is now officially celebrated as responsible for the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act. But a century later, most plants are still not unionized, and meatpacking is still hell.
In an account on the UFCW’s website, one former Smithfield worker, Denise Walker, a black woman, describing the conditions and degradation she endured, said people were cut, falling down on floors, always sick and sometimes killed:
“One time I was inside the building and the plant was on fire. They had us still in there working…I'm only 23, but my hands are hurt pretty bad. When I worked at Smithfield, I hurt my hands as well as my back, developed pneumonia, and had a miscarriage from standing too long on the job. I also had to deal with sexual harassment from the managers; they could touch you and make nasty comments and there wasn't nothing you could do unless you wanted to lose your job.”
The North Carolina plant was notorious as
the only packing house with its own company cops, the Smithfield
Special Police. (Photo: UFCW)
Edward Morrison, another black worker, spoke of the murderous speeds at which workers have to operate at Smithfield: “That speed is what starts a lot of people’s demise because people get hurt when you move that fast. Just like slave driving to me. They set up conditions to injure people.” From workers getting stabbed with carving knives to women getting sexually harassed on the job, the conditions at Smithfield packing house are horrendous. But they are not exceptional.
Last year another report was issued by Human Rights Watch, titled Blood, Sweat, and Fear (January 2005) documenting how the reported injury rate in meatpacking was four times that of industry as a whole, with one worker in five suffering serious injury and illness every year. The report quoted a string of descriptions from OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) documents uncovered by the Omaha World Herald in 2003 special investigative report on conditions in Nebraska slaughterhouses:
“Cleaner killed when hog-splitting saw is activated.”
“Cleaner dies when he is pulled into a conveyer and crushed.”
“Cleaner loses legs when a worker activates the grinder in which he is standing.”
“Cleaner loses hand when he reaches under a boning table to hold meat from chain.”
“Hand crushed in rollers when worker tried to catch a scrubbing pad that he dropped.”
In 1906 and 2006 alike, a large percentage of the workers in this deadly dangerous industry are immigrants, and particularly undocumented workers without legal rights who are doubly fearful of resisting near-slavery conditions in the plants, running the risk not only of losing their jobs but also of being deported. About three-quarters of packinghouse workers are reportedly Latin Americans, and many of the rest are Southeast Asians with very few U.S.-born workers. This past June, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) division of the Department of Homeland Security sent out circulars to employers demanding that businesses gather names, Social Security numbers and other data on workers across the nation as part of its racist “war on terror,” which is really a war to terrorize the world’s peoples and working people in the U.S. into submission. In the post-9/11 hysteria, Democrats and Republicans pushed through laws demonizing immigrants. But the walkout in Tar Heel, North Carolina showed that through the mobilization of labor’s power these terror tactics can be defeated.
Since our inception, the Internationalist Group has called for united working-class struggle in defense of immigrants and immigrants’ rights. In a 1996 leaflet we wrote:
“What’s needed is an internationalist struggle uniting the black, white, Hispanic and Asian working people and youth in the U.S. with their class brothers and sisters abroad who are oppressed by a common enemy: capitalism. Class-conscious workers and defenders of the rights of the oppressed must fight for full citizenship rights for all immigrants!”
This mobilization must necessarily be political, we stressed, and it must be directed against both the partner parties of American capitalism. “To defeat such powerful forces we need to mobilize real social power, and that is the power of millions of workers and minorities whose labor makes the wheels of capitalist society turn.”
Bosses Seek to Divide
At the Smithfield plant and throughout the history of the United States, one of the ways in which the bosses kept and continue keeping the workers in submission is through race division. The bourgeoisie tries to get black workers to think that immigrant workers will “steal their jobs,” by working long grueling hours at low wages while asking for no benefits. In turn, the bosses try to convince immigrant workers that black workers have a “bad work ethic” because they fight for higher wages and better conditions. Class-conscious workers and fighters for immigrant rights must consciously fight against these stereotypes promoted by the capitalists in order to pursue their “divide and conquer” strategy. Our watchword must be: “Workers of the world, unite!” And in the United States, particularly in former slave states like North Carolina, what this boils down to is that the key to defending immigrant workers is the struggle for black liberation through socialist revolution.
At Smithfield, the company has consciously tried to set black and Latino workers against each other, as well as whites and native Americans. A few years ago, as part of a series on “How Race Is Lived in America,” New York Times journalist Charlie Leduff decided to get a firsthand experience at what goes on at the Tar Heel packing plant. He found that management systematically separated the workforce according to skin tone:
“Whites, blacks, American Indians and Mexicans, they all have their separate stations.
“The few whites on the payroll tend to be mechanics or supervisors. As for the Indians, a handful are supervisors; others tend to get clean menial jobs like warehouse work. With few exceptions, that leaves the blacks and Mexicans with the dirty jobs at the factory… There are English and Spanish lines at the Social Security office and in the waiting rooms of the county health clinics.”
–“At a Slaughterhouse, Some Things Never Die,” New York Times, 15 June 2000
Le Duff noted that “The hierarchy of power was summed up on a plaque that hangs in the courthouse commemorating the dead of World War I. It lists the veterans by color: ‘white’ on top, ‘Indian’ in the middle and ‘colored’ on the bottom.” “But as reds and blacks began to make progress in the 1990’s,” he goes on, “the Latinos began arriving.” The segregation of workers into different stations at the plant is a conscious tool used by the bosses to smash multiracial unity of the workforce. Racial slurs and stereotypes are fanned to spread the flames of mistrust among the workers. All this with the same effect: profits for the bosses and wage slavery for the workers.
Writing on similar racial divisions within the working classes of Europe 135 years ago, Karl Marx remarked:
“Every industrial and commercial center in England now possesses a working class divided into two hostile camps, English proletarians and Irish proletarians. The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life. In relation to the Irish worker he regards himself as a member of the ruling nation and consequently he becomes a tool of the English aristocrats and capitalists against Ireland, thus strengthening their domination over himself. He cherishes religious, social, and national prejudices against the Irish worker. His attitude towards him is much the same as that of the ‘poor whites’ to the Negroes in the former slave states of the U.S.A. The Irishman pays him back with interest in his own money. He sees in the English worker both the accomplice and the stupid tool of the English rulers in Ireland. This antagonism is artificially kept alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers, in short, by all the means at the disposal of the ruling classes. This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organization. It is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power. And the latter is quite aware of this.”
–Karl Marx, Letter to Sigfrid Meyer and August Vogt, April 1870
The significance of the victorious walkout of the 17-18 of November was enormous. For the first time in years the workers showed what can be done to overcome the boss’s racist war of division and deportation. By uniting black and Latino workers in defense of the most vulnerable sector, immigrant workers accused of lacking the documents that the government now demands, workers at Smithfield meat packing plant at Tar Heel showed that racist attacks can be defeated. But this was only a limited victory. The bosses backed off, but didn’t agree to negotiate workers’ grievances, and particularly not with the union. They only agreed to extend the deadline for documentation for 60 days. In a subsequent meeting between management and worker representatives, workers complained that the bosses weren’t taking them seriously and further action might be necessary.
Mobilize Labor’s Power
Smithfield workers have taken the first step. Now it’s up to the unions to bring the power of the organized workers movement to bear. While Tar Heel is in North Carolina, notorious for government union-busting, it is not far from the Norfolk-Hampton Roads-Newport News area, a center of unionized industry. The union leadership, however, is calling for an impotent consumer boycott of Smithfield meat products. This is conscious avoidance of the need to bring out workers’ power through industrial action and mass mobilization. Ever since UFCW tops sold out the 1984-85 Hormel meatpacking strike in Austin, Minnesota, even setting up a new local (P-10) to scab on the P-9 strike, they have avoided real union struggle. Instead they look to the Democrats in Congress to pass legislation making it possible to unionize workers with a simple “card check” registering the number of workers who had signed union cards. It would take a sea change in American bourgeois politics to bring that about, and even then it won’t win decent wages, benefits and working conditions.
In the media commentaries on the Tar Heel, North Carolina walkout, a liberal web site, TomPaine.com, laid out the “strategy” of appealing to the Democrats: “The good news is that now we have a government in place that can help the workers at Smithfield and other workplaces demand rights without fear. Days after the Democrats swept the midterm elections, the labor group, American Rights At Work, sent out an action alert calling on the Speaker-to-be Pelosi to put workers’ rights at the top of her agenda.” Yet the Democratic Party is no friend, and Nancy Pelosi is not going to fight for workers’ rights. Labor’s battles have to be won the old-fashioned way, though hard class struggle. And that struggle cannot be limited to the U.S.: the fight against Smithfield, a U.S. firm with global operations, must be fought internationally, including at its plants in Poland, France, Great Britain, Mexico and Poland.
While Smithfield workers have shown great willingness to struggle, what’s missing is a class-struggle leadership that can unite and mobilize the multiethnic and multinational working class in common struggle. Such a leadership must educate immigrant labor in the need to join their struggle with the emancipation of the black worker. As Marx wrote in his book Capital around the time of the American Civil War “Labor cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded.” At the same time, revolutionaries combat the anti-immigrant chauvinism fanned by the bosses among native born black workers. As we wrote in 1996:
“An internationalist leadership would fight to win Latinos to the crucial understanding that the black question is central to the American socialist revolution. While today in many areas, undocumented Latin American and in some cases Asian workers are among the lowest paid and most brutally exploited, historically the black question is key to all political and social questions in racist America. The capitalists, in their perennial effort to set one sector of the oppressed against another, will always try to pit blacks versus whites versus Hispanics in a struggle for crumbs from a shrinking pie.”
–“Full Citizenship Rights for All Immigrants!” The Internationalist No. 1, January-February 1997
The attack on immigrant labor and blacks is an attack led by both parties of American capitalism, the Republicans and the Democrats. The post 9/11 roundups of immigrants were in no way an improvisation by the Bush government. In fact the blueprints were drawn up years before. It was Bill Clinton’s 1996 “Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act” which made it legally possible to deport hundreds of immigrants after the World Trade Center attack. The precursor to the 700-mile wall along the Mexican border that Congress just voted for was Clinton’s Operation Gatekeeper, which led to over a thousand deaths of immigrant workers forced cross the scorching deserts. Under Bush, the Democrats overwhelmingly supported the U.S.A. PATRIOT Act and voted for the “Real ID” Act to deny drivers licenses to undocumented immigrants. The recent Kennedy-McCain “guest worker” program would reestablish indentured servitude.
In the original text of his novel, The Jungle, Upton Sinclair introduced a character, a Polish socialist, Comrade Ostrinski, who denounced the “futility” of making “an alliance with the capitalists,” and argued for “the great purpose…the organizing of the working-class for the revolution” and not to “beguile” the workers with schemes like “municipal ownership and ‘reform’.” Today, we of the Internationalist Group and League for the Fourth International warn against allying with any capitalist party or politicians and call on the working class, blacks, immigrants and all the oppressed to break from the Democrats and forge the nucleus of a class-struggle workers party dedicated to fighting workers governments in the U.S. and around the world. This is the challenge posed to all of us by the courageous workers in Tar Heel, North Carolina. n
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