A corporation running amok

A corporation running amok

Five reasons that you should care about what's going on with Smithfield Foods

One of the more impressive acts of a state political party chairman in North Carolina history took place recently. It occurred when Jerry Meek of the North Carolina Democratic Party told a giant multinational meatpacking corporation known as Smithfield Foods to keep its money when the company tried to make a contribution to the party.

Meek's rejection of the contribution apparently prompted a rather heated response from a lobbyist for Smithfield who told Meek that she would get back at him by telling other corporate executives around the state about his supposed treachery. The lobbyist's promise spurred Meek to pen, to his everlasting credit, a follow-up letter that included the following statements:

"The North Carolina Democratic Party recognizes the importance of businesses, large and small, to creating economic opportunities for all….We do not believe that a company must violate worker rights, or flaunt the law, in order to prosper. And I refuse to believe that the corporate executives you have threatened to speak with about this matter could condone the flagrant disregard for worker rights, worker safety, and the environment. Law abiding corporations are at a competitive disadvantage when others fail to respect the law or to uphold basic human rights….The record of Smithfield Foods is all too clear."

Meek then went on to recount some of the lowlights from Smithfield's sordid record over the years:

"The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has fined Smithfield Foods for over 7000 violations of the Clean Water Act. The U.S. Department of Labor has repeatedly cited Smithfield Foods for violating the nation's child labor laws. OSHA has cited Smithfield Foods for repeated workplace safety violations, including the exposure of workers to corrosive chemicals, the use of unguarded blades on cutting equipment, and blocked exits. And the National Labor Relations Board has found that Smithfield Foods engaged in intimidation, threats, and retaliatory practices in response to workers' efforts to improve their conditions.

In 2000, Smithfield Foods became the only meatpacking plant in the United States with its own armed police force. In the ensuing years, this force was found to use violence, intimidation, and threats against the company's own workers.

It is noteworthy when the internationally respected organization, Human Rights Watch, calls a company to task for violating human rights. I doubt that many of the executives you have threatened to discuss this matter with manage companies that face such scrutiny."

Meek's actions amounted to something that's been in short supply in North Carolina politics in recent years – an actual example of a political leader leading. While many, perhaps most, North Carolinians are at least vaguely aware that there is some controversy that surrounds Smithfield Foods, probably only a few dedicated activists are that well-versed in who and what Smithfield is and/or the details of its numerous transgressions. It would have been safe and easy for Meek to quietly accept Smithfield's check and move on – especially since long-time Democratic powerbroker and former state Senator Wendell Murphy sits on the company's board.

Instead, however, he decided to take a stand and buck one of the most powerful political forces in the state. Rather than quietly playing the "go along, get along" game that is the standard modus operandi for most fundraisers in North Carolina politics, Meek used his position to help an important cause.

What's the deal with Smithfield Foods?

While not widely understood yet in the general public, the reasons for Meek's strong action ought to be. Smithfield Foods is, by any fair assessment, something akin to a caricature of a large, ruthless, and rapacious multi-national corporation. From its abysmal health and safety record and union busting tactics to the blitzkrieg it has waged on the environment throughout the U.S. and abroad to its current effort to squelch the free speech rights of those who would criticize it, Smithfield is the classic example of modern capitalism at its unfettered worst.

Here are five reasons that average North Carolinians of all political perspectives ought to take into account in assessing Smithfield's place in our state:

1. Smithfield is a corporate behemoth – Some North Carolinians confuse Smithfield Foods with the popular eastern North Carolina barbecue and fried chicken restaurant chain. They are not related. The "Smithfield" in Smithfield Foods refers to a town in Virginia where the company got its start. Smithfield is a conglomerate of more than 20 companies with dozens of well-known brands like Gwaltney, Farmland and Butterball and is the largest pork producer in the world. In fiscal year 2007, it had more than $12 billion in sales worldwide. On the ground, the corporation has an enormous footprint. It employs more than 52,000 people in more than 30 states and 11 foreign countries. Here in North Carolina, the corporation maintains several facilities, but the one that has received the most attention is in the tiny Bladen County town of Tar Heel where it employs more than 5,000 people.

2. Smithfield and the environment – While many are familiar with North Carolina's nagging problem with hog waste lagoons, less attention has been given to the direct impacts of industrial hog packing. At Tar Heel, workers kill 8 million hogs per year. The average slaughter weight hog weighs 50% more than an average person and produces three times the excrement. Even if Smithfield were acting with the highest degree of environmental responsibility (something that it has not managed to pull off) the negative impact on southeastern North Carolina of such staggering numbers would still be monumental. This 2006 article provides a real feel for the scale of Smithfield's environmental impact (Caution: it contains stomach turning images and descriptions).

3. Smithfield and safety – As the recent series in the Charlotte Observer on the terrible conditions in the state's poultry industry reminded us, slaughtering and cutting up huge numbers of animals is dirty, dangerous, and painful business. Smithfield's experience is no different and it has a long record of OSHA violations and maimed and injured workers. This is particularly true in Tar Heel where Smithfield continues to do everything it can prevent the workforce from unionizing. Unionized shops generally have lower injury rates.

4. Smithfield and its workforce – While many North Carolina-based corporations have a long anti-union tradition, there is a special level of intensity and malevolence in Smithfield's anti-union, anti-employee activity. From its employment of a private, armed police force to its long history of threatening and firing workers to the way it has transformed the eastern North Carolina landscape for the contract farmers it has captured,  controlled and displaced, Smithfield acts like, well, a giant bully.

Throughout its rapid ascent over the past few decades from a mid-sized regional company to a giant multi-national, Smithfield has unrepentantly squeezed its workers for every last penny it can extract. In this respect, Smithfield has been on the cutting edge of a national movement to slash worker pay and benefits in the meat packing industry. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics (as reported in the Triangle Business Journal), over the last three decades, average pay for production workers in animal slaughtering and production fell from 4% below the average manufacturing production wage to more than 30% below.

5. Smithfield and American freedoms – Smithfield's most recent outrage involves a giant and harassing lawsuit that it has slapped on those with the temerity (principally union organizers at the United Food and Commercial Workers Union) to expose and protest its behavior. As is explained in a February New York Times article, Smithfield accuses unions of mafia-like "racketeering" when they urged local governments around the country to pass resolutions condemning the company. As the author of the article put it: "What [Smithfield's lawyer] calls extortion sounds quite a bit like free speech." The lawsuit even seeks damages from the union for its action in convincing Oprah Winfrey not to take Smithfield advertising.

The outlook in North Carolina

In light of its abysmal record, it comes as no surprise that Smithfield's lobbyist attempted to play the part of political bully. That's obviously right out of the company playbook. What has come as a surprise, though, was the willingness of the Democratic Party leader to stand up to such a powerful and politically connected bully. Let's hope that in the weeks and months ahead, more North Carolinians of all political stripes follow Jerry Meek's lead and help shame the bully into becoming a responsible corporate citizen.   

About the author

Rob Schofield, Director of NC Policy Watch, has three decades of experience as a lawyer, lobbyist, writer and commentator. At Policy Watch, Rob writes and edits daily online commentaries and handles numerous public speaking and electronic media appearances. He also delivers a radio commentary that’s broadcast weekdays on WRAL-FM and WCHL and hosts News and Views, a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina.