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NC slaughterhouse, union get along after fighting

Sat, 08/14/2010 - 10:25am
Manufacturing.net

The owner of the world's largest hog slaughterhouse and the union it fought in one of the South's longest-running labor disputes have buried more than 15 years of animosity.

A year after their first labor contract took effect in the union-hostile region, the United Food and Commercial Workers and managers of the Smithfield Packing plant said they've set aside bitterness in a rural region where jobs are scarce.

"Surprisingly, for the 17 years of fighting we had, our relationship is as good as any place with Smithfield that we represent," said Mark Lauritsen, the UFCW's international vice president for meatpacking plants. Two-thirds of the 32,000 employees in corporate parent Smithfield Foods' pork division are covered by union contracts, the company's annual report said.

Workplace injuries and the rate of employees who miss work are both down. While the sputtering economy helps keep people at their jobs, some say the work environment at the massive plant is better than ever.

Managers seem nicer, said Pam Norris, who has worked at the plant for about three years.

"They quit yelling and screaming at you," said Norris, a 48-year-old from Clarkton who runs a machine that wraps pork chops packaged for grocery stores.

The plant about 80 miles south of Raleigh is the size of a shopping mall, towering in the tiny town of Tar Heel, population 70. Workers who commute an hour or more from across eastern North Carolina and South Carolina kill up to 32,000 hogs a day and slice them into pork loins and hams.

The plant represents about 30 percent of the company's worldwide slaughtering capacity.

The company and the UFCW locked horns almost as soon as the plant opened in 1992. Employees complained the unrelenting pace led to repetitive-motion and cutting injuries, and about bosses who were strict.

A truce was imposed in October 2008 by a federal judge in a settlement to the company's lawsuit alleging the UFCW's years-long, multistate shaming campaign amounted to racketeering. The company estimated the negative publicity cost it $900 million.

Two elections in the 1990s were marred by company threats to freeze wages, fire workers and close the plant if the union was approved. But in December 2008, a narrow majority of workers voted for the union. In July 2009, employees agreed to a four-year contract.

Smithfield executives declined interviews about the work environment.

"Our focus is our customers and providing them with quality products. The UFCW leadership, our management team, and our employees are working well together," the corporate parent's top human resources executive, Jeff Gough, said in an e-mail.

The cooperation appears to be producing results.

The proportion of workers injured on the job who missed work days or had to be reassigned dropped from 11.2 per hundred workers in 2006 to 8.8 in 2008, before the union came on board, state safety inspectors said.

The rate dropped again in 2009 to 6.1 per hundred workers and is now 2.1, the company said. The union, which trains workers how to spot hazards, said it couldn't calculate the 2009 injury rate because it didn't have firm figures on the number of workers and the total hours they worked. The union will ask for 2010 figures early next year.

Problems the company faced with absenteeism or quitting in droves have improved, said Carl Green, the local union's president.

Right after the union election, about 9 percent of the plant's workers missed a day of work in the average week, Green said. The absenteeism rate now is down to around 4 percent, he said. The union's absenteeism figures differ slightly from the companies, but both show fewer employees missing work.

A year ago, about 250 workers quit or were fired every month, the company said, a pace of about 3,000 workers a year at a time hourly workers numbered 4,600. Terminations now are half last year's level and the head count is 5,000, the company said. The UFCW's Green said turnover is down more than sixfold.

The lower absenteeism and turnover may have a lot to do with the fact that unemployment rates for counties near the plant are 11 percent in North Carolina, and above 14 percent in South Carolina.

Not surprisingly, workers are holding onto any job longer. The number of Americans who voluntarily quit has fallen by one-third since the recession began, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

"People are being very cautious and that is probably promoting more retention at their job than if the economy was much improved," said Sherwood Southerland, who heads the Employment Security Commission region that includes the plant.

The slaughterhouse also provides one of the best paychecks in the area, averaging about $12 an hour.

Every week, as dozens of new hires begin their orientation, union representatives hand employees laminated copies of newspaper front pages noting record high jobless rates to press the point that a paycheck is worth earning.

"We'd love to say Local 1208 is the reason absenteeism is down," Green said. But "we do feel some things we say at orientation and in the plant has helped."

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