Inside Story on a Union Victory

Inside Story on a Union Victory 1

(Photo by Brooke Anderson under a Creative Commons  license)


Inside Story on a Union Victory

Jane McAlevey is an organizer, author and scholar. Her first book, Raising Expectations (and Raising Hell), published by Verso Press, was named the “most valuable book of 2012” by The Nation Magazine. Her second book was published last year, No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age (Oxford University Press), from which this is excerpted.

She continues to work on union campaigns, lead contract negotiations, and train and develop organizers. McAlevey spent two years with the Labor and Worklife Program at the Harvard Law School, and last year living in Philadelphia working on a major organizing drive with the Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals (PASNAP). She’s at work on a third book about union organizing, power and strategy to be published by Verso.

“Analytically, this next book makes the case that weak worksite organization lies at the root of the power crisis of the U.S. working class today: once unions decided to stop using strikes as their most powerful weapon, they no longer needed to build strong worksite organization,” she explains.

McAlevey will be working on the new book a  this summer at BMC, which details a series of labor wins in Philadelphia in 2016-2017. “I don’t think I would have produced either of my previous books in the time frame they were completed without the amazing physical, emotional and spiritual space created by the Blue Mountain Center staff.”

(Photo by Alice Attie)


The conditions at the Smithfield Tar Heels factory were so bad before the union came that some workers joked that there was 100 percent turnover every day. A New York Times reporter, Charlie LeDuff, went undercover and worked in the Smithfield factory in 2000, for what became part of a Pulitzer Prize–winning series on race in America. LeDuff wrote, “Slaughtering swine is repetitive, brutish work, so grueling that three weeks on the factory floor leave no doubt in your mind about why the turnover is 100 percent. Five thousand quit and five thousand are hired every year.” (1)

LeDuff reported that blacks and Latinos got the dirtiest jobs, with the Latinos at the absolute bottom of the dirty jobs ladder, along with convicts in full prison uniform, who were often allowed to work there just prior to their release (a 2008 spin on wage slavery). According to union reports, all joking aside, the turnover at Smithfield actually was nearly 100 percent each year. Three times the United Food & Commercial Workers at Tar Heel had received the Excelsior list—the list of employees that employers must give to the union when the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has declared an election will take place. The five thousand employees were different each time, save for some 200 names that overlapped. In the first election in 1994, a majority of the plant’s employees were black. By the 1997 election, some 35 to 40 percent were Latino, the rest being variously black, Native American (Lumbee, mostly), and white. The Center for Immigration Studies reported that during the 1990s, the Latino population in North Carolina ballooned faster than in any other state, a 394 percent increase from 76,726 to 378,963. (2)

By the time the union received the Excelsior list again in 2006, as part of the court order, roughly 60 percent of the plant’s workers were Latino. (3) By the time of the election, the Latino number, remarkably, would fall again, back to 26 percent. (4) High turnover is often used as an excuse for union defeat, or union inaction, but high turnover had little to no effect on the results in these elections. The primarily African American workforce in the first election did not produce a yes vote, though research indicates that blacks vote for unions. (5)  According congressional testimony by Smithfield supervisor Sherri Buffkin, it was the employer’s intent to replace blacks with Latinos with two objectives in mind: to keep the workforce divided through both instigations of racial conflict and overt segregation, and to create an undocumented immigrant workforce that the employer believed they could more easily control (6). While the employer succeeded at driving racial divisions between 1997 and 2005 in the absence of an effective union campaign; a key to the union’s success in 2008 would be first earning legitimacy with each major constituency in the plant, and then bridging the divisions between them, creating unity and solidarity despite the extraordinary efforts by the boss to systematically pit worker against worker.

Gene Bruskin learned early in his tenure as UFCW’s campaign director that the employer’s calculation on the timidity of Latinos was wildly off base. Immigrant rights organizations had declared May 1, 2006 to be a national “strike” day for immigrant workers. A few weeks before May 1, Latino worker leaders approached the union to tell them they planned to participate in the national strike. This would be the first walkout on the new staff director’s watch, though the second in three years for the plant. “The workers decided to strike and asked for our help to organize a large march, and we did what they asked,” Bruskin recalled. While this meant union organizers were encouraging the May 1 walkout, there’s no doubt that an earlier wildcat walkout in 2003 by the plants’s Latino cleaners had been on the workers’ own initiative; the union had had no presence at all during the 2003 action.

For May 1, 2006, the union was lying low, waiting for the U.S. Court of Appeals ruling. Even so, the UFCW assembled a meeting with workers, the DJ of the main Latino radio station, Catholic priests in the area, and the local soccer club president, to make a plan. Bruskin set the stage for many subsequent responses to such actions by directing staff to order 5,000 T-shirts that said, “Immigrant rights are worker rights.” They also made a leaflet linking Cesar Chavez to Martin Luther King, Jr., to distribute along the march. On May 1, over 2,500 Latino employees at the Smithfield plant refused work and joined even more immigrant workers in a march that by local standards was the largest people could remember in Tar Heel. They returned to the plant the next day, and the employer, hoping to not alienate them just as the courts were sputtering out their legal orders for a new union election, actually waived employer action against them. By late June, after the NLRB had forced management to post, mail, and discuss their many violations of the law, direct actions by workers inside the plant would pick up where the May 1 action had left off, and slowly escalate for the next 18 months.

As noted above, included in the U.S. Court of Appeals ruling, after the first order of cease-and-desist came the order that the employer offer ten workers illegally fired in the campaigns in the 1990s their jobs back. It also stipulated making the workers “whole,” that is, financially compensating them for loss of wages:

  1. Take the following affirmative action necessary to effectuate the policies of the Act.

(a) Within 14 days from the date of this Order, offer Lawanna Johnson, Keith Ludlum, George Simpson, Chris Council, Fred McDonald, Larry Jones, Ray Shawn Ward, Margo McMillan, Tara Davis, and Ada full reinstatement to their former jobs or, if those jobs no longer exist, offer them substantially equivalent positions, without prejudice to their seniority and other rights or privileges previously enjoyed.

Of the ten employees named, nine accepted the financial compensation offer and never returned to Smithfield. One worker, Keith Ludlum, wanted his job back.

Ludlum had been fired from the Smithfield plant during the 1994 election, and had been taken out in handcuffs. (7) The NLRB ordered that he be reinstated in time for the 1997 election; (8)the company refused. (8) His termination and the company’s refusal to follow the first order for reinstatement were rolled into the longer legal battle. Ludlum is white, a North Carolina native, and a Desert Storm veteran who shocked just about everyone, by accepting the offer of his old job in 2006. By then he had a new life and was making good money as a construction contractor—much better money than he would make walking back into nonunion Smithfield. But Ludlum had unfinished business at the plant. As he put it, “They pissed off the wrong motherfucker.” After a pause, he added, “Not sure I should be quoted saying that? But when you escort people out with sheriff’s deputies, in handcuffs, we tend to not accept that real well. They really pissed me off.” (9)

On his first day back inside the plant, in early July of 2006, Ludlum had a sense of confidence that came with a court order from the U.S. Court of Appeal, D.C. Circuit reinstating him:

When I first went back in, there was no inside campaign, so we started it. The company wasn’t reacting. First I figured out some relationships inside, who was relating to who, then I had to make the company react. I had to scratch their underbelly. I wrote Union Time across my hard hat. I had a mission. They had a mission. The next day, I did it on my raincoat, and they came after me for that. I had to do things so that the other workers could see me winning the battle against them. I had a federal court order and I knew the company had to be careful.

Within weeks, Ludlum began leading direct actions with dozens, and then hundreds, of his coworkers, including a collective sit-down action to demand clean water for the workers inside the plant. From my interviews with him, it was clear his knowledge of labor law, gleaned from the first organizing campaign and the subsequent legal fight over his termination, was an incredible asset.

“I remember everything, his hat, his raincoat, I remember it all,” coworker Ollie Hunt says. “I came to work at Smithfield right after Keith was reinstated. I was right there running hogs, stationed right next to Keith.” Ollie Hunt is a Lumbee Indian who grew up in Rowland, North Carolina, about 40 miles from the factory. His father is pure Lumbee; his mother is white. “I grew up in a town with one red light, and as a kid I worked cropping tobacco and picking cucumbers,” he told me. He has two daughters and one son: “My first girl is named Miami Raynie Hunt after my wife Amy’s favorite country song; “Miami, My Amy.” The song, by Keith Whitley, was once #14 on the country charts and remains their favorite. Amy, also Lumbee, is a youth development specialist who has gone back to school to become a guidance counselor. Ollie notes, “Where I was from, I never heard of a union.” (10)

Within days of Keith Ludlum’s return, Ollie, Keith, and a third emerging union leader, Terry Slaughter, all stationed together in the livestock department, began to plot their course to a union victory. Livestock was a key department, because if workers in Livestock stopped letting the hogs off the trucks, not only would it stop the production line, it would also cause a massive traffic blockade on a major interstate highway. The Livestock workers all talked about how easy it would be to block that highway. With 32,000 hogs a day coming in on the trucks, the tactic was guaranteed to work.

Terry Slaughter was the crew shift leader in Livestock, assigning who took which station and where, and generally keeping an eye on the flow of the hogs. This wasn’t a management position, but it did mean he knew a little more about hog flow, workers’ schedules, and more. Slaughter is black, born in North Carolina but raised in New York City. Unions weren’t a foreign concept to Terry, and before moving back to North Carolina he’d gotten to know people in New York’s health-care workers’ union and in city government unions. He’d left New York to try his fortunes someplace more affordable, where he might get a little house.

Slaughter, Hunt, and Ludlum would build an inseparable bond during the campaign. As Ollie said, “Me, Slaughter, and Keith, we had a tight relationship. People would see the white, the black and the Indian, and management knew trouble was coming.” In the Smithfield factory, workers were isolated to an unusual degree, segregated by department, room, race, language, and more, with incredibly loud machines running at all times, drowning casual communication. But Livestock workers had to walk the entire length of the plant to get to their jobs. This gave them a second privilege as power workers: They could see people, and talk to them, as they walked into and out of the plant. It took almost 40 minutes for Hunt, Slaughter and Ludlum to get from the parking lot to their station. (11) They would soon turn that already long walk into a saunter, doing union work along the way, work only the worker leaders themselves could do, since union staff were barred from going anywhere near this factory. More than one hour of face-chat time each day.

Bruskin says that once the leaders established this first small team of worker activists inside the plant, they began to physically map the entire factory, something the union had never attempted in the earlier campaigns. The sheer size of the plant—973,000 square feet, with a maze-like layout—was daunting. Drawing a literal map is step one for workplace organizers, but charting which workers worked where, with whom, when, and who related to whom and why is the most important step—the chart is a hallmark of a good organizing campaign. The peripatetic Livestock workers were key in drawing the map and charting social networks among the workers.

They also spent the summer and fall escalating “in-plant” direct actions and beginning to build a statewide community support effort, as well as a national coalition that would soon launch a consumer campaign against Smithfield, all under the banner of Justice@Smithfield, complete with a website, facts about the employer’s track record against its workers, an exhaustive litany of the company’s environmental law violations, CEO profits—just about as good a profile on a company as any ever done in such a campaign. Top-notch research and strategic leverage had been among Bruskin’s areas of expertise coming into the fight, and the now defunct AFL-CIO research institute he once ran had already conducted years of in-depth research on every aspect of this company. Workers and their allies were marching at shareholder meetings, creating online petition campaigns, and more. The Justice@Smithfield campaign was generating not just local but also national newspaper headlines. Workers were constantly challenging the company’s authority inside the plant, including sitting down in the plant, backing up the line, blocking the highway, and more.

By the fall of 2006, there were strong pro-union worker committees being built within the plant’s Latino and black departments. Bruskin was trying to figure out how to begin to build solidarity between these groups, and this was harder than usual, because management had almost perfected the science of fomenting racial hatred inside the plant. The three weeks Charles LeDuff, the New York Times reporter, spent undercover in the Tar Heel factory led to a searing journalistic indictment of company-inspired hate. LeDuff wrote that the whites and Indians hated the blacks and Mexicans; the Mexicans hated the blacks; the blacks hated the Mexicans; and the boss drove this hate systematically. (12) Bruskin decided it was time for a Black-Brown weekend picnic among the groups’ key leaders. People were ready to meet and talk as one factory, to emerge from their departmental ethnic enclaves. And just as the plans for the weekend BBQ were launched, Smithfield launched an “air strike.”

In October, the employer sent several thousand letters to Latino workers, saying that they needed to prove their immigration status by providing Social Security numbers that matched their birth certificates—one of the more common employer tactics today. (13) The letters, according to Smithfield, were a response to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials contacting Smithfield and requesting that the employer verify the legal status of the employees on payroll by verifying their Social Security numbers. It’s surely not a likely coincidence that in the middle of a renewed, and clearly more successful, union organizing drive, this employer, known for rogue behavior since the plant opened, took a sudden interest in complying with a law—when the law in question was one that would sow fear in the hearts of more than half the plant’s workforce. By early November, the employer had sent out 550 “no match” letters, informing workers that their Social Security numbers could not be verified from the documents provided. Next, they fired two dozen workers based on charges of bad paperwork. The 550 letters sent a signal that mass firings of Latinos were coming.

On November 17, 2006, more than 1,000 Latinos staged a wildcat strike and walked off the job, temporarily shutting the plant down, again. Bruskin’s deeply rooted values are perhaps best depicted by his response to this action: “I am on the job for seven months, and about to drive down to North Carolina to meet with some workers when I get a call from an organizer freaking out, ‘Gene, they’ve just shut the plant down, the Latinos walked out. What should we do?’” Bruskin’s reaction to the call underscores the central importance of top staff leadership. He could easily have said, “Get them all back to work as fast as you can,” which was exactly what Bruskin’s supervisor demanded he do, or “Run the other way,” or, worse, “Hold a press conference condemning the workers’ behavior.” Any of these responses would be fairly typical of many unions today. Instead, Bruskin guided by his leftist principles, ordered his staff to get “1,000 bottles of water and 100 pizzas to the workers, fast!” (14)  It’s still hot in southeastern North Carolina in November.

A handful of non-Latinos had also walked out in solidarity, workers like Ludlum. According to Slaughter, “These firings and then the walkout was a wake-up call to us blacks in the plant. Watching brown people get taken off the line and fired and then others walking out over it sort of shook us, like, Hey, what are we waiting for? What are we doing about the conditions here? It was almost embarrassing how little we were doing.” (15) The walkout generated headlines throughout North Carolina, and also in the New York Times, which declared how unusual it was for nonunion employees, let alone employees with documentation issues, to wildcat in the United States. (16)  As soon as the walkout began, creating a crisis for the employer, Bruskin and the worker leaders decided to dispatch a priest, Father Arce of St. Andrew’s Catholic church, to mediate and negotiate with the employer. Smithfield had refused to meet with union staff or union-identified worker leaders, so the union found a perfect alternate to handle the negotiations: a religious leader who had credibility with the Latinos but was not seen as an associate of the union. In fact, Father Arce was receiving coaching from the Latino members of his parish who were also now union leaders, the workers themselves acting as brokers between the union staff and the Catholic priest.

The worker’s demands were that everyone who walked out be allowed to return to work the next day with no reprisals, that the company stop firing people, and that the immigrant workers be given more time to prove their status. When Father Arce first came out of the meeting with a “promise” from the employer to meet all demands, the Latino parishioners turned union leaders sent him back inside to get it all in writing. They were schooling the priest that the company was not to be trusted. Bruskin understood at the time the pivotal importance of the fact that for the first time ever the employer was actually negotiating with employees—the fact that it was through a Catholic priest was immaterial. The mere act of getting recalcitrant employers to begin to learn to bargain with employees can be an important first step towards later negotiations: The concept has been established.

On the heels of this walkout, Bruskin and key worker leaders, the very ones who had just met for the Black-Brown BBQ, agreed that they needed a way to get the black employees activated and working together with the Latinos. Their idea was to demand that Martin Luther King Day be an official holiday at the plant, with paid time off for those who requested it and double time for everyone who had to work shifts that day. The union immediately began to produce literature in Spanish and English, with King’s picture on one side, Cesar Chavez’s on the other, describing the common values and the liberation efforts of these two leaders. Additionally, the demand that Smithfield honor Martin Luther King Day was one that union activists could use to rally the broader community to their cause. When the nationally recognized holiday arrived, a majority of workers had signed a petition demanding a paid day off, and the company’s refusal generated press headlines sympathetic to the workers.

Postscript: In December 2008, workers at the Smithfield Tar Hell plant voted to join the United Food & Commercial Workers union.

This is an excerpt from Chapter 5 of  No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age (Oxford University Press)—the first comprehensive examination of this landmark labor success story, which broke a gag order imposed by Smithfield on the union in a legal dispute.



1 Charlie LeDuff, “At a Slaughterhouse, Some Things Never Die,” New York Times, June 16, 2000.

2 Jerry Kammer, “Immigration Raids at Smithfield: How an ICE Enforcement Action Boosted Union Organizing and the Hiring of Americans,” The Center for Immigration Studies, Washington, D.C., July 2009;

3 Author interviews with workers and organizers, all of whom confirmed these percentages, May 2014.

4 John Ramsey and Sarah A. Reid, “Race and the Union,” Fayetteville Observer, December 2, 2008; Kristin Collins, “Raids Aided Union in Tar Heel Plant,” Raleigh News and Observer, January 1, 2009.

5 Kate Bronfenbrenner on the PBS NewsHour, February 26, 2014. Transcription available at

6 LeDuff, ibid.

7 From the NLRB’s investigation into Ludlum’s firing: “Respondent’s former employee Keith Ludlum testified that on January 26, 1994, he was in the locker room on break getting employee Steve Ray to fill out a union authorization card; that Ray asked him if he could get fired or harassed for filling out the card and he told Ray that he was protected by National Labor laws; that Supervisor Tony Murchinson walked into the locker room while Ray was filling out the card; that Murchinson said to Ray, ‘[H]ey I wouldn’t do that. You will get fired’; that he [Ludlum] told Murchinson that he just violated the Labor laws and it was illegal for him to say what he just said; that Murchinson told him that he could not do it on company time and he told Murchinson that he and the employee were on break; that Murchinson told him that he could not do it on company property and he told Murchinson that he could as long as they were on break; and that Ray then tried to give him the card back.”

Later, in the same NLRB investigation report:

“Respondent’s former employee Keith Ludlum testified that on February 2, 1994, while he was handbilling employees with union representatives at the front of the plant, he saw Danny Priest, who is in charge of security at the plant, and Kevin Peak; that they were parked on the grass about 15 to 20 feet away from the handbillers; and that whenever someone in a vehicle accepted a handbill he saw Peak looking at the back of the car, saying something and Priest appeared to be writing something. On cross-examination Ludlum testified that Priest and Peak stayed there for about 30 to 45 minutes; that he could not see what Priest was writing on; that he saw a pen in Priest’s hand; and that he had seen them parked out there before.”

8 One indication, of many, that the company did not intend to honor its promise to follow the 1997 order was that it refused to put illegally fired workers back in the plant. That the union missed these clues underscores its incompetence at the time.

9 NLRB report, ibid.

10 Ollie Hunt, author interview, May 2014.

11 Ironically, the length of time it took workers to get to work, and to where the employer stationed the time clock, would become an issue in the first contract negotiations. The Livestock workers won the right to a parking lot in the back, and saved over one hour each day of walking the plant in unpaid status. These same workers now have the legal right to walk through their own factory anytime, often in paid status, to conduct union building efforts post–contract settlement.

12 LeDuff, ibid.

13 Kate Bronfenbrenner, “No Holds Barred: The Intensification of Employer Opposition to Organizing,” Briefing Paper No. 235 (electronic version), Washington D.C. Economic Policy Institute, May 20, 2009.

14 Gene Bruskin, author interview, May 2014.

15 Terry Slaughter, author interview, May 2014.

16 Steven Greenhouse, “Hundreds, All Non Union, Walk Out at Pork Plant,” New York Times, November 17, 2006; Al Greenwood, “Smithfield Workers Return,” Fayetteville Observer, November 19, 2006.

17 Greenhouse, ibid.

18 The following year, with the threat of actions once again and the percentage of African American workers having grown, Smithfield Foods granted workers in all nonunion Smithfield Foods plants a paid Martin Luther King holiday.

One comment on “Inside Story on a Union Victory

  • Lonna Richmond says:

    jane mc alevey is totally amazing. she writes just like she talks – with enthusiasm and expertise. whoever gets her on their team is a winner.

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