North Carolina has one of the lowest rates of workers in unions in the country. Every year, the Old North state battles with its Carolina cousin to the South for the state with the lowest union density. In 2005, 3.9% of NC's workers were in a union.

Is the low rate of union membership because workers don't like unions -- or, as much research suggests, because so many obstacles are placed in the way of worker's who'd like to join?

An interesting case study is Smithfield Foods, a notorious pork processing plant in southeastern North Carolina, featured in an excellent column today by Bob Herbert of the New York Times (guarded by Times Select).

Smithfield was singled out by Human Rights Watch in 2005 as a poster child for worker rights abuses, including brutally dangerous working conditions; retalitory firings for workers who speak out; even hiring private security guards to harass and assault suspected union activists.

Herbert captures the situation well, and it's worth quoting his piece at length:

Smithfield is a case study in both the butchering of hogs (some 32,000 are slaughtered there each day) and the systematic exploitation of vulnerable workers. More than 5,500 men and women work at Smithfield, most of them Latino or black, and nearly all of them undereducated and poor.

But the work is often brutal beyond imagining. Company officials will tell you everything is fine, but serious injuries abound, and the company has used illegal and, at times, violent tactics over the course of a dozen years to keep the workers from joining a union that would give them a modicum of protection and dignity. [...]
Workers are cut by the flashing, slashing knives that slice the meat from the bones. They are hurt sliding and falling on floors and stairs that are slick with blood, guts and a variety of fluids. They suffer repetitive motion injuries.

The processing line on the kill floor moves hogs past the workers at the dizzying rate of one every three or four seconds.

Union representation would make a big difference for Smithfield workers. The United Food and Commercial Workers Union has been trying to organize the plant since the mid-1990's. Smithfield has responded with tactics that have ranged from the sleazy to the reprehensible. [...]

The union lost votes to organize the plant in 1994 and 1997, but the results of those elections were thrown out by the National Labor Relations Board after the judge found that Smithfield had prevented the union from holding fair elections. The judge said the company had engaged in myriad "egregious" violations of federal labor law, including threatening, intimidating and firing workers involved in the organizing effort, and beating up a worker "for engaging in union activities."

Rather than obey the directives of the board and subsequent court decisions, the company has tied the matter up on appeals that have lasted for years. A U.S. Court of Appeals ruling just last month referred to "the intense and widespread coercion prevalent at the Tar Heel facility."

Workers at Smithfield and their families are suffering while the government dithers, refusing to require a mighty corporation like Smithfield to obey the nation's labor laws in a timely manner.

The defiance, greed and misplaced humanity of the merchants of misery at the apex of the Smithfield power structure are matters consumers might keep in mind as they bite into that next sizzling, succulent morsel of Smithfield pork.

For more about Smithfield, visit the UFCW website.