Union Time: Fighting for Workers’ Rights follows the story of workers at the Smithfield Pork Processing plant in Tar Heel, North Carolina, who fought for safe, fair working conditions – and won. It goes beyond hype about unions (from both sides) to show how people standing together can break the cycle of poverty and injustice. It also demonstrates the convergence of labor rights and civil rights, carrying on the legacy of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Since the Smithfield facility opened in Tar Heel in 1992, meatpacking workers endured dangerous working conditions, intimidation, and low pay. Fast line speeds and lack of job training led to amputated fingers, knife injuries, repetitive stress injuries, concussion, and broken limbs. One worker died when he was sent to clean out a tank filled with toxic fumes without standard OSHA safeguards.
In 1993, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union began working with employees in the plant. When a union election was held in 1994, the union lost. A second election in 1997 also failed, thanks in part to Smithfield’s union-busting tactics: The company escalated the systemic intimidation of workers, threatened to close the plant if workers unionized, fired workers who supported the union, tried to turn African American and Hispanic workers against each other, and beat up union organizers.
The UFCW filed a grievance with the National Labor Relations Board, which in 2006, after many years in court, found Smithfield guilty of multiple violations and fined the company $1.1 million in back pay.
A turning point came when organizers engaged the broader community in the struggle. The UFCW launched the Justice@Smithfield campaign to make the public aware of the situation in Tar Heel. Rev. William J. Barber II of the NC NAACP and many other religious leaders described the cause as a merging of labor rights and civil rights. Jobs with Justice, the United Church of Christ, the Beloved Community of Greensboro, NC, and many other churches and religious denominations across the country publicized the campaign.
Hispanic workers faced special challenges. In 2006, they had to respond to “no-match” letters that demanded proof of a valid Social Security number. (Any employer has the responsibility to verify legality of employment upon hiring, but when the law is not followed, it is ge blamed on the employee, not the employer.) Immigration officials took immigrant employees into custody in the plant and, during early-morning raids, at their homes.
Imagine being a worker in the Tar Heel plant, facing threats that you will lose your job if you talk about the union, enduring daily indignities such as not being able to go to the bathroom, being called a liar when you report an injury, or being yelled at for no reason at all. Imagine the courage it takes to stand up against a multinational corporation that will be happy to replace you with another worker if you step out of line. The Tar Heel workers refused to give up despite the failed elections in 1993 and 1997.
Within the plant, small victories made the long wait bearable. In response to the no-match letters, Hispanic workers staged a walkout, forcing the plant to a standstill. Workers in the livestock department sat down on the job to protest hot, unsanitary drinking water supplies, and their demands were met. Smithfield forbade workers from writing pro-union slogans on their hard hats but quickly had to back down and allow workers their First Amendment rights. And when Smithfield refused to honor Martin Luther King Day in January 2007, workers of all backgrounds stayed home. The company finally offered Martin Luther King Day as a paid holiday in 2008.
In a final attempt to squelch the pro-union movement, in August 2008 Smithfield filed a RICO (Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) lawsuit against UFCW officials, union organizers, and other labor groups, claiming financial damages through union campaign activities. In the hours before the case was to come to trial, the company and the union reached a settlement and set an election date of December 10–11, 2008. At that election, the workers voted to form Local 1208 at the Tar Heel plant, in what has been called the greatest union victory of the 21st century.
A four-year contract was approved in July 2009 and renewed in 2013 and 2017. Now, in 2017, the 5,000 workers at the Tar Heel plant have fair working conditions, better wages, and above all, respect. And the benefit for Smithfield Foods? Having a motivated, stable workforce increased production in the first year after the union contract.
Working conditions are better at the Tar Heel facility, in contrast to nonunion poultry, pork, and beef processing plants across the United States, where dangerous working conditions and abusive behavior continue. The Tar Heel victory demonstrates that, even in an anti-union climate, forming a union is possible, even essential for worker safety and well-being.
THE MAKING OF UNION TIME
From Matthew Barr, director/producer
In decades of producing documentaries about working people and working communities, I always wanted to make a film about a union. In 2007, a contact at the local Teamsters Union pointed me in the direction of the Smithfield Foods’ pork processing plant in Tar Heel, North Carolina.
As a one-man band, between 2007 and 2015, I shot footage of demonstrations, debriefing meetings, and home visits. I filmed organizers as they encouraged workers at midnight in the Smithfield parking lot, keeping an eye out for the company’s notorious private police force as they talked. I teased out evidence from thousands of pages of National Labor Relations Board documents. Most importantly, I interviewed workers who put aside fear to fight for a cause that could cost them their jobs, their immigration status, and their freedom.
The incredible courage of the Smithfield workers—Wanda Blue, Ronnie Simmons, Lidia Victoria, Keith Ludlum, Terry Slaughter, Henry Thomas, Julia MacMillan, Lorena Ramos, and so many others—carried me through the highs and lows of making the film. They are the heroes of Union Time.
Like so many documentaries this was a labor of love, a deep immersion into a culture and a cause. I shot more than 170 hours of footage for the film. My wife Cornelia and I wrestled with a complex story arc spanning 16 years and many players. Our goal was to tell the story as a major achievement of the labor movement but also use it to inspire other struggles for justice, from Moral Monday to the fight to raise the minimum wage.
To produce the film, the Unheard Voices Project received support from the Forsyth County (NC) Arts Council, the United Church of Christ Neighbors in Need program, and a number of progressive individuals, including my generous family. I was also fortunate in my capacity as a Media Studies professor at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro (UNCG) to receive grants and a research leave.
The Union Time Team
Matthew and Cornelia Barr are the filmmaker/writer team behind the Unheard Voices Project, a nonprofit that produces documentaries about working people and communities, especially those impacted by globalization and social/political change. Matt produced and directed Union Time, filming from 2007 to 2015. He is Professor of Media Studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and president of the Unheard Voices Project.
Cornelia is a writer and environmental activist. She co-wrote the script of Union Time and served as co-producer.
Danny Glover added much more than his name and distinctive voice to Union Time. A lifelong activist, he supported the Smithfield workers and the UFCW throughout the Tar Heel struggle and provided the film team with moral support during production.
Editing team: Zachary Haines, Fausto Barrionuevo, Christopher Holmes, and Tom Lipscomb. All are independent filmmakers who came through the UNC-Greensboro MFA Program in Film and Video Production.
Film Score: Chris Heckman, Chair of Film Music Composition at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Winston-Salem.
Illustrations: Alex Rodriguez is an artist and illustrator based in Greensboro, NC.
Executive Producer: Curtis Austin is Associate Professor of History at the University of Oregon, Eugene. He is the author of Up Against the Wall: Violence in the Making and Unmaking of the Black Panther Party (2008)
The Unheard Voices Project
The Unheard Voices Project (UVP) is dedicated to collecting and recording the thoughts and stories of working people concerning the impact of change on their lives, their occupations, and their families. Our mission is to do more than document and archive video interviews with people involved in traditional work ways and professions; we are seeking answers to big questions that go to the heart of human survival.
In all of our documentaries of working communities, we explore the same concerns — How do we put food on the table? How do we have meaningful work that sustains us in body and spirit? How do we pass deep knowledge on to the next generation? And most importantly, can these documentaries be used to help people better their lives, support their families in dignity, and protect the communities they love?