December 12, 2008 / 3:11 AM / 12 years ago

UPDATE 1-Workers at huge Smithfield meat plant vote for union

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By Bob Burgdorfer

CHICAGO, Dec 11 (Reuters)- Meat cutters at the world’s largest pork plant in Tar Heel, North Carolina, voted to be represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers union, a decision that should end more than 10 years of bitter fighting between the union and the plant’s owner, Smithfield Foods Inc SFD.N.

Smithfield and the UFCW confirmed the results of the voting, which began on Wednesday and concluded on Thursday night. The tally was 2,041 in favor of the union and 1,879 against.

“We will be meeting in 30 to 60 days to set up a timetable to start contract negotiations,” said Dennis Pittman, a Smithfield spokesman.

Smithfield is the largest U.S. hog and pork producer with annual sales of about $11 billion.

The Tar Heel voting was supervised by the National Labor Relations Board.

“From the beginning, our goal was to give employees the opportunity to vote on this issue in a fair, secret-ballot election. This has now been accomplished, and we will abide by the results of the election,” said Tim Schellpeper, president of Smithfield Packing Company, a unit of Smithfield Foods.

While negotiations for an initial contract can be troublesome, the Tar Heel workers may be helped by the fact that the UFCW already has contracts with other Smithfield plants, said Jeffrey Hirsch, associate professor of law at the University of Tennessee.

“Getting the first contract is often pretty difficult,” Hirsch said. “My guess is what the UFCW will do is try to use the contracts with the other plants as a starting point.”

Prior to this week’s Tar Heel vote, 28,800 of Smithfield’s 58,100 employees were represented by unions, according to the company’s annual report.

“This is a great victory for the Tar Heel workers. I know they are looking forward to sitting down at the bargaining table with Smithfield to negotiate a contract,” said Pat O’Neill, the UFCW’s director of organizing.

“The UFCW has constructive union contracts with Smithfield plants around the country. We believe the workers here in Tar Heel can achieve a similar agreement,” he said.

Located about 20 miles south of Fayetteville, the Tar Heel facility opened in 1992 and employs about 5,000 workers, of which about 4,600 were eligible to vote for union representation.

The union has been trying since the early 1990s to represent workers at the plant and at times staged marches and demonstrations to advance that cause.

Twice in the 1990s workers at the plant voted to reject the union, but a federal court later ordered Smithfield to conduct another vote.

In 2007, Smithfield filed a lawsuit against the UFCW accusing the union of waging a negative publicity campaign against the company. A year later the two parties settled the lawsuit and agreed to a plan that allowed plant workers to conduct this week’s voting.

Reporting by Bob Burgdorfer; Editing by Kim Coghill

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