Author goes ‘Hog Wild’

Published 11:35 pm Tuesday, August 14, 2018

The latest in a series of Afternoon Conversations arranged by the Suffolk Public Library and the Suffolk-Nansemond Historical Society drew a crowd of more than a dozen local history buffs to the Philips-Dawson House last Wednesday afternoon to hear a discussion on corruption that plagued the hog industry for decades.

Lynn Waltz, a two-time Pulitzer Prize nominee with more than 25 years of professional journalism experience, discussed her book “Hog Wild: The Battle for Workers’ Rights at the World’s Largest Slaughterhouse” that was published by University of Iowa Press in May.

Her extensive research into Smithfield Foods, one of the nation’s largest meat producers, produced a book that highlights a history of “corporate hooliganism, labor exploitation, and union-busting” found at an impressively sized slaughterhouse in North Carolina, according to the book.

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That 973,000-square-foot Smithfield Foods meat-processing plant opened in Tar Heel, N.C. in 1992, where 32,000 hogs are slaughtered daily.

“That’s 16,000 per shift, with two shifts and they clean overnight, 2,000 per hour, 33 per minute or one hog every two seconds. The lightning speed is unbelievable,” she said.

She explained that the needs of such a facility are met by concentrated animal feeding operations and other support structures in the communities that host them. It was part of a national movement of slaughterhouses moving out of unionized urban areas in the Northeast into “right-to-work” states in the South, she said.

“This story is a microcosm of how this new, industrialized food processing has transformed the culture of the states that host it,” she said, which extends beyond the borders of North Carolina.

She discussed the context of degrading union power over the years and other political, economic and historical factors that surrounded the Luter family and Joe Luter III, who served as chairman and chief executive officer of Smithfield Foods for more than 30 years.

“In the 1980s, Smithfield Foods was at the forefront of a transformation of the hog raising and slaughtering business, and Joseph Luter III was at the head of that transformation,” she said.

According to Waltz, the number of packing house workers in urban areas fell by more than 50,000 between 1963 and 1984, while the rural workforce doubled from 25 to 50 percent. In 1952, one man-hour produced more than 51 pounds of dressed meat, but by 1977, that single hour more than tripled to 154.6 pounds.

“By the late 1980s, meat packers broke the back of organized labor,” Waltz read from her book. “In a few decades slaughterhouse workers went from being one of the highest paid in (manufacturing) to one of the lowest, and as union protection faltered, workplace injuries soared.”

The aggressive tactics to keep the union out of the Tar Heel meatpacking plant went unchecked until people spoke up, most significantly Sherri Buffkin, a manager at Smithfield Foods who was fired in 1998, according to Waltz.

“Now, I’ll let you read the book. It gets a little purple, the reasons and motivations for what she did next are complicated,” Waltz said.

“But In any case, she got fired and she went to the national labor relations board and she said, ‘I will testify. I will tell you what I’ve been doing, and I will tell you what’s been happening inside that plant.’ She became the main witness against Smithfield Foods.”

The trial lasted nearly a year, resulting in 8,000 pages of transcripts from nearly 100 witnesses, including Joe Luter III. Much of the book is based on those transcripts, Waltz said.

The judge found Smithfield Foods guilty in 2000 on almost all counts, and in 2004 the company appealed to the National Labor Relations Board, who also found that most of those counts were accurate, Waltz said.

“It took 14 years from the time the first workers were illegally fired until Smithfield was held accountable,” she said.

They were harassed, intimidated, in some cases assaulted, according to Waltz. The payouts to these workers were very little, and some of them had just disappeared in 14 years of time.

“People died, people disappeared. I couldn’t even find workers that had been fired,” Waltz said. “People gave up hope. Their lives were destroyed.”

One of the main points of her book, she said, is that “labor law is broken in this country,” with more than a decade needed to adjudicate a case. She said the union couldn’t wait that long and needed a different tactic to succeed.

“The tactic they used was known as a ‘corporate campaign,’” Waltz said. “That’s a campaign where you go against the reputation very publicly, and you turn public opinion against the company. The way you do that is you find the company’s Achilles heel.”

According to Waltz, Smithfield’s weakness was rampant injury. Meatpacking is still the most dangerous manufacturing job in America today, even in a unionized plant, Waltz said, and the Smithfield workers were not adequately protected.

“Smithfield was looking at the union trotting out literally hundreds of workers without fingers, without feet, hobbling across in the courtroom talking about the things that happened to them,” Waltz said. “This was going to be a PR nightmare for Smithfield.”

She said she attempted to put the story of her book in a context that would illustrate to her audience on Wednesday a chain of events that between individual wills and larger forces.

“Not just to explain the story of what happened in Tar Heel, but also as a cautionary tale as we move forward in a state like Virginia, where we do raise hogs,” she said.