With the smallest number of workers’ unions in the southern United States, workers have been subject to poor working conditions, violation of rights, and limited protections. “Factories aren’t running away to the developing world, they’re running away to the South,” said Robert G. Korstad, a labor historian at Duke’s School of Public Policy. Mountaire Farms, a chicken processing plant and slaughterhouse southwest of Raleigh, North Carolina is one location where the fight to form unions is brewing.
Mountaire’s Lumber Bridge plant employs 2,000 people and supplies chicken breasts to companies as large as Subway. Employees at Lumber Bridge work in dark, freezer-like conditions for up to 12 hours a day and earn just US$8.50 to US$11.00/hour. Working in slaughterhouses is one of the most dangerous jobs in the U.S. According to a 2005 Government Accountability Office report, slaughterhouse workers suffer on the job injuries and illnesses at a rate of more than twice the national average.
As part of the fight to form unions in the South, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 1208 began protesting at Mountaire. UFCW passed out fliers and leaflets in an effort to protect workers’ rights and help employees who have allegedly been harassed and intimidated for trying to form unions in the past.
As the second largest non public sector union in the U.S., UFCW has won major labor fights in the past, most legendarily- the win against Smithfield Foods in 2008 after a 17 year campaign. However, the battle continues at slaughterhouses like Lumber Bridge where company safety violations and fines are being passed on to workers.
Under current rules, United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) employees inspect 35 birds a minute. But, that could increase to up to 175 birds a minute under newly proposed changes. UFCW and other worker advocacy organizations are pressuring U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to suspend action on the proposed Modernization of Poultry Slaughter Inspection due to safety and hazard concerns regarding factory workers. If the proposed rules goes into effect, companies will be allowed to hire their own unregulated food safety inspectors.
“If we really want justice throughout the nation, then labor’s got to fight the battle where it’s hardest; and there’s no question that that’s here in the South,” said MaryBe McMillan, secretary-treasurer of the North Carolina AFL-CIO.