Looking, Desperately, for the Union Label

To most of America, unions are the stuff of history books, relevant almost exclusively to families that have a parent working for government, now the main source of union support. But to The New York Times, every development heralds a great resurgence; every activist is the next Ceasar Chavez.

So it is with today’s article, “Union Takes New Tack in Organizing Effort at Pork-Processing Plant,” by writer Steven Greenhouse. The United Food and Commercial Workers Union is trying, for a third time, to unionize the Smithfield Packing Company plant in Tar Heel, North Carolina.

The National Labor Relations Board affirmed in 2004 that Smithfield committed several offenses in the 1997 election, lost by the union, so the union is trying again. Fair enough.

But, despite the fact that the plant’s 5,500 workers twice voted against the attempt of activists to unionize the site, you won’t hear from even one of them in the article. Greenhouse rounded up several workers from the losing side, but none from the majority. He includes a few quotes from a spokesman for the parent company.

And, since the plant is located in the South, there is the mandatory reference to civil rights struggles of nearly a half-century ago. The only question is if it will be a reference to “Selma” or “Jim Crow.” Crow wins. What’s happening there is eerily reminiscent of the days of Jim Crow in terms of gross mistreatment,” says an obliging Rev. Markel Hutchins, associate pastor at Philadelphia Baptist Church in Atlanta, recruited by the labor bosses to aid the unionizing effort.

If that’s a stretch, it later gets downright insulting. The paper quotes Joseph T. Hansen, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers, saying: “The people there are treated as if they're in the Sudan and not in the United States.

A company that pays most of its workers up to $11.50 per hour is compared to a nation that still traffics in slaves, and, incredibly, the quote is passed on uncritically by the Times.

Midway through the article, Greenhouse hints at deeper problems that go well beyond pay levels and strenuous work: “One problem facing the union is the friction between the plant’s Hispanic and black workers — about 65 percent are Hispanic, 25 percent are black, and the remaining 10 percent are white or American Indian.” That’s it. Readers are left scratching their heads over the seriousness of that problem while the management-bashing resumes.

Readers will also be left wondering why workers have rejected union control not only in the tainted 1997 election, but in 1994 as well. Did they have legitimate reasons? Readers don’t know the answer because the Times appears to have never asked the question. Workers of the world, unite!