In what unions are hailing as a crucial victory in the South, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union prevailed in their 16-year campaign to organize the world's largest pork slaughterhouse.

By a vote of 2,041 to 1,879, workers at Smithfield Foods' massive hog plant in Tar Heel, N.C. voted to unionize the plant in what had become one of the most closely-watched labor battles in the country.

Virginia-based Smithfield had earned a national reputation for its hostility to organized labor: A 2005 report by Human Rights Watch had singled out Smithfield for creating a "climate of fear" among workers, including intimidation, harassment and even beatings of suspected activists.

Indeed, such tactics are what caused the two previous union elections at Smithfield to be dismissed:
The results of two previous elections at the plant in the 1990s were thrown out after federal officials declared that the company had harassed and fired union supporters, even forcing an employee to stamp the words "Vote No" on dead hogs.
Smithfield was forced to pay $1.1 million in back pay plus interest to employees who had been fired for union activity, after a federal judge ruled in the union's favor in 2006.

But workers at the plant soldiered on: Two years ago, 1,000 workers staged a wildcat strike over issues ranging from immigration raids to sexual harassment and Smithfield's failure to compensate workers for injuries suffered at the dangerous site. The following year, hundreds of workers walked out to protest the company's refusal to make Martin Luther King Day a paid holiday.

Union organizers say that not only tenacity but also unity among the largely African-American and Latino workforce was key to victory.

Also critical was the Justice for Smithfield campaign, launched in 2006 to mobilize national community, faith and consumer support for the union. Smithfield saw the Justice for Smithfield campaign as particularly dangerous: The company filed a racketeering lawsuit against the UFCW, claiming the solidarity campaign had cost them $900 million.

In a surprise move last month, the UFCW and Smithfield settled the lawsuit. The UFCW agreed scale down its national campaign, and the agribusiness giant agreed to stop its public attacks on the union as they headed towards this week's union election.

Last month's neutrality agreement was a critical turning point. As Jane Slaughter wrote in Labor Notes before the election, the pact's requirement that both sides avoid negative attacks in lobbying workers helped dispel the climate of fear that had thwarted the union:
The settlement is more favorable to the union than many 'neutrality' agreements that unions and companies have arrived at where both sides are limited to "factual' language."

Under the "factual" criterion, companies have distributed details about the worst union contracts in the country, talked about union officials' salaries, or made statements such as, "If you go on strike, we can permanently replace you."

The UFCW-Smithfield deal, though, uses a different standard: negativity. Both company and union may talk themselves up, but neither may disrespect the other. Smithfield can brag, for example, about its wages and working conditions--and if that impresses any workers in the plant, they can vote accordingly. UFCW can talk about what unions do for workers.

The Smithfield campaign signals that even in Southern states as notoriously hostile to labor as North Carolina, workers -- when free of intimidation and fear -- can and will organize.