(AP) Smithfield Packing Co. and the union that worked for years to organize one of the world's largest pork slaughterhouses said Friday they had reached a tentative agreement on their first contract for the plant just four months after starting talks.

The pending deal between the United Food and Commercial Workers and Smithfield Packing, a wholly owned subsidiary of Smithfield Foods Inc., said workers at the plant in rural Tar Heel would vote on Tuesday and Wednesday whether to ratify the contract's terms. Both sides declined to offer details of the deal until they were shared with the roughly 5,000 employees.

"It is a big deal," union spokeswoman Jill Cashen said. Plant workers on the bargaining committee "are recommending acceptance of the contract, so I believe they are happy with it."

The company began negotiating the contract with UFCW Local 1208 in February after workers narrowly voted in December to back a union. The two sides had been locked since the plant opened in 1992 in a bitter dispute over the UFCW's efforts to organize the work force in one of North Carolina's poorest and most rural regions.

The company "fought like crazy against the union. In December, they must have said they fought long enough and it was time to get beyond this," said Cornell University industrial relations professor Richard Hurd, who has tracked the Tar Heel case. "Four months shows there were productive negotiations. It's a positive sign that the two sides are going to have a productive relationship."

Workers at the Tar Heel plant turn up to 32,000 hogs a day into plastic-wrapped pork loins and hams. Some complained the unrelenting pace with knives leads to repetitive-motion and cutting injuries, and about a third have quit each year.

Source: Associated Press