(AP) Smithfield Foods, owner of the world's largest hog slaughterhouse located in Tar Heel, N.C., and the union it fought 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 absentee rate 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.
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 or 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, said Jeff Gough, Smithfield’s top human resources executive in an e-mail. “The UFCW leadership, our management team, and our employees are working well together,"
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.
Not surprisingly, workers are holding onto any job longer. 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."
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.