In 2008, meatpacking workers at the Smithfield plant in North Carolina won a union. Their win marked the largest private sector victory in the South in the past two decades.  

There are clear differences between a union drive at one meatpacking plant and the global struggle to organize Amazon or other megacorporations. Amazon has more than twice as many employees as the entire meatpacking industry, and exerts influence over the national and global economy in ways that no single meatpacking firm could. For their part, meatpacking plants need to be located near hog, poultry, and beef farms, making it much more difficult to close plants and offshore production. 

But dig a little deeper, and similarities emerge. Consolidation in the meat industry has doubled since the 1970s, with just four hog-processing firms controlling 66 percent of the market today. This monopoly power has driven rapid inflation of meat prices. Concentration is even starker at the local level, creating monopsony power that drives down pay to workers and suppliers. In fact, during the course of the meatpackers’ campaign, Smithfield merged with Premium Standard Farms to operate three of the four packing plants across Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina. 

Looking at the lessons of the Smithfield campaign can help us think more sharply about how to organize megacorporations like Amazon — and how to grow the labor movement in the South more broadly.

The Smithfield campaign employed all of the best practices I learned as an organizer: map out the plant and build a strong committee that is truly representative of the workforce, take actions inside the plant to win on the issues and make the union visible, connect the fight of the workers to broader issues in the community, and hit the corporation’s brand and the stores where its product is sold. 

It’s possible that Amazon’s model — with its intensity of worker surveillance and high rates of turnover — will make it impossible to build a solid majority, even if we do deploy these strategies. But I still believe that the best way to win a union is to build leadership and visibility inside the worksite, well before a certification election. In this regard, there is much we can learn from the Smithfield campaign about how to win at Amazon. 

To learn more about how Smithfield workers overcame huge obstacles to win the biggest union victory in the South this century, I sat down with the campaign director, Gene Bruskin. We talked about how workers forged interracial solidarity, fought back against state violence, and brought the whole community into their fight. The interview has been edited and condensed. 


Smithfield is a global company worth $10 billion, with a major plant in the rural South. The union had lost two elections in the previous decade. Most people would say that victory was impossible here.

By the time I met the workers in 2006, Smithfield was the biggest pork company in the world. It was vertically integrated, meaning they had the plant and, in the towns around the plant, raised their own hogs through small contract farmers controlled by Smithfield. Five thousand Smithfield workers killed 32,000 hogs a day from the get-go, eight million hogs a year — all grown in the area. This was close to 40 percent of Smithfield’s entire national pork production. 

Although more than 10,000 Smithfield workers were already under contract with the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) in the Midwest due to corporate acquisitions of unionized companies, the CEO was determined that this plant was going to be non-union. This would provide leverage in bargaining: the company could always shift production to this plant if the union plants struck. The two previous, unsuccessful union elections in 1994 and 1997 were more or less standard National Labor Relations Board campaigns: put a bunch of organizers on the ground, get a committee, do house visits, etc. Smithfield committed a large number of Unfair Labor Practices in each election, including things like turning the lights out while the votes were being counted, beating up organizers on the day of the election, sheriffs with rifles standing outside the factory on the day of the vote, that kind of stuff. 

By 2005, the UFCW had put some organizers down there to start talking to the workers again. The union opened a small worker center and started trying to make connections, offering advice on workers comp and immigration issues. Few workers from ’97 were still there, and the workforce had changed over time from majority Black to majority Latino. I came in as Campaign Director in January 2006. I wasn't starting from zero, but the campaign hadn't really been ratcheted up. UFCW had just joined Change to Win [CTW, a group of unions that split from the AFL-CIO in 2005]. There was a lot of pressure on all the CTW unions at the end of 2005 to put your biggest campaign forward to show that CTW could do organizing at scale. UFCW decided to put resources into Smithfield.


What was the theory of the case that you brought into the campaign?

I had been in the labor movement since the late '70s, but I knew absolutely zero about the meatpacking industry. I had no theory of the case to start. When I went down the first time, there were half a dozen organizers, and they had started to do house visits again, talking to workers and building up our list. And at the first meeting, one of them told the story of this woman who quit; she was eight-and-a-half months pregnant. The supervisor wasn’t letting her have adequate breaks. The guy next to her didn't show up one day, so the line was speeded up and she almost got stabbed in the stomach by the knife used by the worker next to her. There were so many stories. I was just so overwhelmed by the pain and the horror of them. My first thought was, if we could take these stories and bring the workers out to where the product was sold, we could build that kind of public campaign, you know, to attack the brand of this company. So a public campaign would be key, and health and safety was the issue. The campaign slogan became: “Smithfield pork is packaged with abuse.”

But the public campaign would need to have a very active inside-the-plant campaign to succeed. The first thing I thought we needed to do was to map the plant wall to wall. We needed to know every single person, who they were, where they were, who was next to them. We ended up doing 50-foot long charts on the wall that were constantly changing. Whenever we would meet a worker, we would sit down with a piece of paper and have them draw the shape of their line and start filling in anybody else they could for follow-up visits. 

One of the first actions was on the “picnic meat line.” People on this line always worked with two knives because halfway through the day their first knife would become dull and they would use the second knife for the rest of the day. Then Smithfield took away one of the knives — I don't know why. Saving money? It was really dangerous working with a dull knife. A leader activist who we knew came in, and he agreed to move it. He signed up a bunch of folks, and they marched on the boss. Big, big deal. They were mostly Latinos, a few African Americans. They got their second knife back.

Sometime in April, a group of Mexican workers who we didn't know walked into the office and announced, “We just wanted to tell you that we're going to walk out on May Day.” This was in response to a draconian anti-immigrant law moving through Congress and the continued local harassment experienced by the workers. There was a national call for “A Day Without Latinos” 

I had to trust them and figure out how to help. This was way beyond any action our organizers would have called for, but they weren’t asking for permission. So I said, “Well, can we help?” They said, “Yeah, can you organize a march?” So, we ordered 5,000 T-shirts that said: “Immigrant rights are workers’ rights.” We helped them get some buses to an out-of-town field staging ground because they wanted to march into town. We called a meeting for the head of the local Spanish-language newspaper, the parish priest, the head of the soccer league, the owner of the Latin nightclub, a guy who did some social service work. And that was our committee, plus us and the workers. And everybody worked together — we made sure it was their thing and not ours. And they brought 5,000 workers and their families, including workers from a couple other plants. It just blew our minds. Some Black and white Smithfield workers joined the march. The company was paralyzed. They were afraid to come down on the workers. 

This action changed the whole tenor of the campaign. Afterward, we started trying to deepen all those relationships through house visits and more activities. My theory of the game was evolving on the spot. I was learning way more than I was teaching. Don’t be afraid when the workers lead — the union doesn’t know everything.


How did the campaign build cross-racial solidarity amidst aggressive efforts by Smithfield to try to create division?

Back in the late '90s, Smithfield started heavily recruiting workers from Mexico. By the time I arrived, it was roughly 60 percent Latino and 40 percent Black, with some small number of whites. We had to build relationships with the churches, the soccer field, the nightclubs, all that kind of stuff. We had to build separately among the Spanish-speaking workers in their institutions and among the Black churches in the area. Each group had to be convinced that we genuinely cared and respected them before they felt comfortable uniting with each other. Simply “unite and fight the boss” isn’t enough.

Our worker center attracted Black and Latino workers looking for workers comp and immigration advice. Every meeting and flyer and house visit was in both languages and by organizers from those ethnicities. So I think that both groups felt very deeply that we were committed to them. The company kept doing their usual thing of telling the Black workers that Latino workers are going to take the job, telling the Latino workers that Black workers are lazy. I didn't do anything fancy except completely respect that they came from two different worlds and look for opportunities for them to be together. We had one training where Latinos told what it was like to cross the border into the United States, and Black people talked about what it was like to have their family move north, and we started drawing those parallels. We constantly made it clear that this union was for everybody. 


One of the things I was struck by in the film Union Time was the amount of militancy. It seemed like mini strikes kept popping up inside the plant. They seemed very spontaneous.

A lot of it wasn't really. There were two immigrant rights walkouts that were spontaneous, but they all came in the context of us being there organizing and backing them. We didn't initiate them. But you know, the organizing committee never looked like a traditional organizing committee, where you would have people in every department and every shift and so on. We just couldn't do that because we didn't have that much control over the huge number of people who were coming and going. We had to constantly do outreach and develop leaders. We really focused on training people to do the organizing inside the plant. It was continuous leadership development and continuous contact and trying as much as possible to merge the work that our leaders and activists were doing inside and match it up with house visits. If we heard through a house visit that there's a problem in a particular line, then that organizer would work with that person to do the work inside: start visiting that group and try to plan an action. 

In November of 2006, to protect themselves from the raids that were happening at meat plants across the country, the company made a friendly deal with ICE: don't raid us, we'll work together. They started firing immigrants left and right, and they sent out Social Security no-match letters. That created an enormous panic. The workers decided on their own to shut the plant down again. Three thousand of the workers were Mexican and they walked. A lot of our activists joined them. I got a phone call, “Come down, Gene, the plant is shut.” I called the organizers on my way down. They called a meeting, and about 50 or 60 people came out; it was half Black and half Latino, some white workers. We conducted it like a union meeting. We put up giant sheets of paper and had everyone say what the most important demands were. They got to listen to each other, and they voted on what they were going to do the next day. We then made an arrangement with the Catholic Church and the Archdiocese from Raleigh Durham to bring our demands to the company. 

After a couple days of negotiations, the company agreed to our demands and the workers voted to come back to work. The workers got to see how a union works. By January 2007, Smithfield again started firing workers for immigration violations and turning them over to ICE to be deported. We had a meeting, and a lot of the Latino workers said to the Black workers, “Look, we support the union. We're going to participate, but you're going to have to lead. We can't be in the front. We're not going to fucking get sent back to Mexico.” The Black workers responded to the challenge and organized a 2,000-signature petition demanding MLK day off (the next year they won that). We had to dramatically readjust our organizing, but our approach remained the same.


Let’s talk about the public campaign. 

At some point in 2006, we made a deal with Jobs With Justice that they would start building Smithfield solidarity committees in a lot of the cities: Chicago, Washington, Atlanta. This was the Justice@Smithfield Campaign, with rallies and supermarket actions. And there were these big immigrant rights demonstrations. We took workers across the country to speak, on some occasions speaking in front of as many as 100,000 immigrant workers in places like Chicago. We started working with Reverend [William] Barber and Reverend Nelson Johnson from NC in the state-based campaign. Barber had just become the head of the NAACP, not yet nationally known, and he and Rev. Johnson mobilized preachers and community folks to join with workers at Harris Teeter supermarkets across the state, until Harris Teeter pulled the product from their stores. We then linked to national churches, and they passed resolutions in support of the workers who spoke at their gatherings. We had a powerful media coordinator, Leila McDowell, who got us lots of local and national coverage, trained workers as spokespeople, and kept the company on the defensive. 

In 2007, the company decided to sue us under the RICO Act [RICO, the Racketeer-Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, passed in 1970, was intended as an anti-Mafia law, but has been used many times by employers to try to bust unions by labeling them criminal enterprises] because the external campaign was escalating. They said the campaign was extortion. I was terrified that once the RICO suit happened, UFCW was going to back down. To their credit, they said, no, we're gonna keep on going. 

Deep research was also really crucial. We knew everything about this company: every board member, their international operations, etc. We even exposed the fact that the General Counsel wasn't a licensed lawyer and brought it to the shareholders meeting. We brought workers together with ministers to speak directly to the board of directors. We also went to Congress and testified at hearings around workers’ rights that the Department of Labor was having. All these pieces were starting to roll out one after another. Smithfield was the poster child for an anti-union monster.


The company was feeling it from every single angle, on the ground and in the air. That's not necessarily the playbook that all of labor’s using these days. 

The whole concept of the campaign was that we knew that no normal NLRB election would work. The goal became, could we get Smithfield to the table to agree to terms for a fair election? They caved just before the RICO case was to go to court, in October 2008, and we established a set of rules for the election: conducted by the NLRB, supervised by an empowered mutually agreed on monitor to oversee the pre-vote period, and union reps in the plant during the run up to the vote.

I think there's still somehow an idea in a lot of places in the labor movement that if you can just get enough people to sign a card at work, you know, you can win. I believe that's wrong. Fear and confusion is what the companies do. They know that playbook. They do the same thing every time, sometimes better than others. Workers need to see each other acting in solidarity inside the plant, and they need to feel the support of communities on the outside — this counteracts the fear and makes workers feel they have the power to win and make things better.

It's hard work. It took a lot of people, cost a lot of money. You have to really believe in the workers. I got a lot of shit trying to do these kinds of actions — that they weren't enough. And I also got a lot of shit trying to do this community campaign. I was accused of trying to start a social justice campaign. I would have done that in the Nissan plant [in Canton, Mississippi, where workers voted no in a highly publicized union election in 2017]. Nobody asked me, but what if you built a campaign where people were picketing Nissan dealerships all over the country saying, “Treat the UAW workers fairly,” and they brought UAW workers up from Mississippi and they stood outside of these dealerships and told everybody what Nissan is doing to them? 

You need that leverage. What is it that we can do that will help the workers and pressure the company? And you have to allow people some rein to do stuff that is a little bit wild. It's not easy, and there's nothing certain, but in these big fights, if you just follow the rulebook that people are comfortable with, it ain't gonna work, you know?


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