1/20/08

Workers advance without union OK

Smithfield Packing Co. workers for the first time will have a paid day off to observe the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.

Officials at the world’s largest hog processing plant decided last month to add the holiday for its 5,200 workers. The new policy marks a shift from the company’s stance last January, when a few dozen workers — rallied by union organizers — walked off the job in protest of having to work on the King holiday.

The United Food and Commercial Workers, which has long fought with Smithfield over union organization, considers the paid holiday Monday a victory. But the company said the decision had nothing to do with the UFCW.

Still, several workers said they were pleased.

“Dr. King stood for workers’ rights, and if he were alive today we know he would be fighting with us to help stop the abuse and make conditions better at the plant,” said Julia McMillian, a worker at the Tar Heel plant. “We know that he would appreciate this victory that we fought for.”

On last year’s King holiday, a few hundred workers more than usual failed to show up to work. A few dozen walked out in protest. The workers said the company refused to accept a petition asking for a paid holiday. Smithfield officials said at the time they could not shift paid holidays on short notice and without a vote. The petitions were presented to company officials two weeks before the holiday.

Employees, many of whom are Hispanic, voted last spring for their holidays. A majority chose Easter instead of the King holiday.

Smithfield gives eight paid holidays each year: New Year’s Day, the Monday after Easter, Memorial Day, Fourth of July, Labor Day, Thanksgiving and two days at Christmas.

The company decided in December to give the employees the additional holiday, said Dennis Pittman, spokesman for Smithfield Packing Co.

“Upon evaluation, the company decided to add an additional holiday,” Pittman said. “The company felt that it was the right thing to do. The UCFW is trying to take credit. Every time we have listened to the employees and responded, the union tries to make a victory out of it.”

Morale boost

McMillian, who has worked at the plant for eight years on the kill floor, said morale has improved since the decision to add the King holiday.

“This was something that the employees were pushing for, and it feels good to get it,” she said. “We do not have to prove a point like we did before.”

Lois Burns, who has worked in livestock for four years, said there was some discussion among employees about another walkout this year.

“I guess they got word of it and gave us the holiday,” he said. “Everyone is happy about it. A lot of people weren’t going to come to work anyway if they hadn’t given it too us.”

Burns said the company should give employees the paid holiday.

“If it wasn’t for Martin Luther King, a lot of people wouldn’t be where they are today,” Burns said. “The employees all stood up for the holiday. Now, they need to all stand up to get the union because we sure do need it.”

Burns said many of the employees plan to attend an event commemorating Martin Luther King and Hispanic civil rights leader Cesar Chavez on Monday at First Baptist Church at 302 Moore St. in Fayetteville. Chavez was a leader of the United Farm Workers before his death in 1993.

The event will begin at 11 a.m. The guest speaker will be Michael Battle, president of the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta.

The program is sponsored by the First Baptist Church and the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union.

(fayobserver.com)

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