From the TUC

US union happy as a pig in muck

15 Dec 2008, By

We have been told by our good friend Rory O’Neil, Editor of Hazards magazine, of a major union recognition victory in the Deep South state of North Carolina, USA, where employer antogonism to trade unions runs deepest.

In what unions are hailing as a crucial victory in the South, United Food and Commercial Workers Union prevailed in their 16-year campaign to organize the world’s largest pork slaughterhouse.

By a vote of 2,041 to 1,879, workers at Smithfield Foods’ massive hog plant in Tar Heel, N.C. voted to unionize the plant in what had become one of the most closely-watched labor battles in the country.

Health and safety issues were a major problem at the plant. Workers at the remote, rural plant, which opened in 1992, do repetitive and often grueling jobs. Some pull pigs off trucks and usher them to a gas chamber. Others work in a cavernous room where freshly killed hogs are wrestled onto hooks, decapitated and sliced in half. Some spend all day pulling out internal organs or yanking out sheets of fat. Many wield knives, and slice and debone pork as it moves along conveyor belts. Some stand for hours placing stickers on wrapped pieces of pork.

This is the kind of work that many meat processing workers will recognise in this country but the North Carolina plant is of a scale not known in this country. Also, we have health and safety legislation, which UK unions campaign to maintain and improve, and a network of trade union safety reps,far better than in the US where enforcement by the US Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) is almost neglible.

OSHA has instituted a system called Voluntary Protection Programmes where employers, which have acheived a certain standard of health and safety management, regulate themselves. Employee involvement and commitment is one of the standards OSHA assesses against. That does not mean union involvement. No wonder particpating companies can reach the standard of no ‘recorded’ injuries through workplace accidents.

Pilot VPP projects were set up about five years ago in the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland. Fortunately these have collapsed and have been replaced by stronger health and safety legislation.

Why do I raise this here in the blog? – well, we need to be wary. US employers, with the help of OSHA, are still seeking to export the idea of VPP to Europe particularly through US trans-global companies. This has already occured in parts of Germany. It also gives us an insight on how US employers really view health and safety.  We need active unionists and and a fully staffed Inspectorate to ensure that health and safety standards are maintained, improved and enforced.

You can keep up-to-date with what’s going on around the world and the health and safety and organising campaigns being waged by trade unions by registering for the TUC’s weekly Risks emagazine and by subscribing to Hazards magazine, edited by Rory O’Neil.