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  1. #1
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    Drawing the lines: Smithfield Foods replaces black workers

    Drawing the lines: Smithfield Foods replaces black workers with illegals.

    A protest last week against Smithfield Foods reflects concerns over immigrants.
    BY CHRIS FLORES
    247-4738
    November 23, 2006
    Smithfield Foods and its unions have long walked a fine line with a large Hispanic work force peppered with illegal immigrants.

    But the meatpacker fired more than 50 Hispanic illegal immigrants and sparked a walkout of 1,000 employees last week at its North Carolina plant, the largest hog slaughterhouse in the world. Now that relationship has turned problematic for everyone involved.

    The case highlights the strained relationship between immigration officials and companies in industries that attract illegal immigrants - as well as the tensions among such businesses, their unions and workers.

    Now Smithfield is facing possibly losing 500 employees in Tar Heel. The company said a recent review of worker Social Security numbers' accuracy was a result of the fallout from what happened in Hampton Roads in January. That's when U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, arrested 13 illegal immigrants at two plants in Smithfield.

    "After that happened up there, we were contacted by ICE and they asked us to do this companywide," said Dennis Pittman, a company spokesman from the Tar Heel plant.

    'CAN'T IGNORE IT'

    ICE is in preliminary stages with Smithfield of entering a program, IMAGE, that verifies workers' legality. The company was asked to do the review of the numbers to get accepted into the program, ICE spokeswoman Jamie Zuieback said.

    She said Smithfield was required to devise a formal process for handling employees with Social Security numbers that didn't match. ICE doesn't have a formal rule for how and when an employee is determined to be illegal, but companies can't keep them on if the problem is unresolved.

    "You cannot continue to employ illegal aliens," Zuieback said. "You can't ignore it. You have to take some action."

    Pittman said ICE made the company send in names and Social Security numbers of every employee - even the chief executive officer - to be checked against Social Security Administration records. The Tar Heel plant was the first to be checked, and about 600 names didn't match.

    About 60 were corrected and were the result of someone getting married or a number being entered incorrectly. Smithfield and ICE agreed that workers who had a problem would have two weeks to work out the situation at the local Social Security office.

    With only two workers at that local government office, the company has been notifying its workers in small batches, so the office isn't overwhelmed. The company spoke to about 100 of the workers and fired 58 who couldn't make their cases to the government.

    "They didn't really understand it," Pittman said. "The union picked up on it and told them they were legal and they could stay."

    1,000 WALK OUT

    The firings led to a walkout last week of 1,000 workers and severely disrupted the plant. United Food and Commercial Workers officials, trying to organize at the plant for more than a decade, said they had nothing to do with the walkout, and they rushed to the scene to assess the situation.

    After talks among the workers, the company and a representative from the Roman Catholic Church, a temporary compromise was reached. The fired workers will get 60 more days to prove that they are in the country legally.

    In the meantime, the union has used the situation to point out long-standing grievances over working conditions at the plant. The union has accused Smithfield of using the layoffs as a way to sow fear as the union works to either get a vote or company recognition of the union.

    Smithfield said it didn't want to lose the workers. Some of those fired had been at the company for 10 years and had skills that will be very hard to replace. Human resources officials literally were crying with longtime employees as they explained what was happening.

    "These are people who never miss a day," Pittman said. "They're good, hardworking people."

    HOW PROGRAM BEGAN

    The union trying to organize at the plant said workers were leery of Smithfield's statements because of past abuses at the hands of the company. If court cases and successful labor complaints are signs, the company has taken advantage of Hispanic workers' questionable legal status before.

    The union's relationship with Hispanic workers bears its own complications. Smithfield said the union negotiated a contract at the Sioux City, Iowa, plant that allowed for the firing of illegal immigrants if they couldn't prove within 10 days that they were legal.

    In recent years, national unions have reversed their historic stance that illegal immigrants depress union worker wages, but some bitterness from union workers remains.

    Both sides of the debate have said businesses exploit illegal workers. Smithfield has been found guilty of intimidating Hispanic workers by telling them that immigration authorities would be called if they support a union or disobey management.

    But the company also said it needed the workers to do a tough job that many Americans wouldn't. It's an argument that has been made by many U.S. companies, especially in construction.

    ICE has started more aggressively prosecuting employers of illegal immigrants. But companies were angry about the aggressive moves and said verification of legality was difficult. So ICE started the IMAGE program this year to help companies find potential illegal immigrants.

    The first step in the program is for ICE to look at a company's I-9 forms, which have basic information on each employee. Once that worker provides a document from a long list on the form, they are considered valid, and a business can't deny them employment.

    "They choose which documents they give us," Pittman said. "If they give us a document, we can't ask for another one."

    A new Homeland Security Department program checks the Social Security numbers and names. But even if an identity was stolen, the check merely shows that the names and number are valid. Smithfield was using this program.

    Probe was Expanded The recent troubles began when Smithfield had the Social Security Administration check the information from the I-9. ICE can't legally ask Social Security whether a company's names and numbers are valid unless a formal ICE investigation is under way.

    Social Security will sometimes send letters to companies about numbers not matching on tax records.

    ICE was investigating IFCO Systems, which was busted this year with nearly 1,200 illegal immigrants, when ICE learned that Social Security had sent 14 letters to IFCO about numbers not matching.

    But Social Security couldn't tell ICE.

    When 13 illegal immigrants were arrested by federal authorities at the local Smithfield Packing and Gwaltney plants in January, ICE officials said they were reviewing all local Smithfield I-9 records.

    Smithfield said this was expanded into a request to check all numbers companywide with Social Security.

    The UFCW said its contracts had language that "provides for a systematic and constructive process for workers and the employer to resolve issues such as immigration and work status."

    Union lawyer Renee Bowser said the contracts had grievance procedures to protest firing that didn't have a just cause.

    Having a Social Security number that doesn't match government records isn't enough of a reason to fire a worker and has been successfully contested, she said.

    The UFCW argued that Smithfield didn't have to fire workers.

    The union said it would help defend the workers, even if it couldn't necessarily prove that the workers were in the country legally, as long as the workers said they were.

    "We don't know who's documented and who's undocumented," Bowser said. "That's not the role of the union, anyway."

    Pittman said the union did not care whether the workers lost their jobs because the Hispanics didn't generally favor a union.

    He said union representatives exploited the situation and talked more about conditions at the plant than about the Hispanic workers' legal problems.

    "They didn't even talk about immigration issues," Pittman said of the union.

    A CHECKERED PAST

    Smithfield's history with Hispanics at the Tar Heel plant is very checkered.

    A cleaning contractor and Smithfield were rebuked by the National Labor Relations Board this year for actions against a mostly Hispanic work force in Tar Heel.

    The board said the workers were physically assaulted and threatened with calling immigration authorities. The companies were told to rehire 14 workers.

    A former manager at the Tar Heel plant, Sherri Buffkin, testified to Congress in 2002 that the company hired a consultant who said Hispanics could easily be controlled with immigration threats.

    Buffkin said the company would tell black workers who supported the union that they would be replaced by Hispanic workers.

    Workers testified in one of the labor cases that the company would also tell Hispanics that a union would call immigration authorities on them.

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  2. #2
    MW
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    After talks among the workers, the company and a representative from the Roman Catholic Church, a temporary compromise was reached. The fired workers will get 60 more days to prove that they are in the country legally.
    Hmmm.......sounds like a trend. Didn't the judge in the Hazelton, Pa. case place a 60 delay on Hazelton's ordinance? 60 days seems to be the magic number. Is that how long the pro-illegal advocates think it will take the U.S. Congress to inact an amnesty or guest worker program? The only thing 60 days will do in this case is give the defenders more time to prepare their argument and the illegals more time to falsify documents! The simply fact of the matter is, it is illegal to hire undocumented alien workers - it has been that way for years. Let's deal with these people now, not later. One more day of working a known illegal alien is one day too many!

    William, perhaps you can contact your connection over at NumbersUSA and suggest they prepare a fax demanding that Sen. Dole and Sen. Burr move on this. Just a thought........

    "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing" ** Edmund Burke**

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