Politics & Government

Workers bring North Carolina hog dispute to nation's capital

WASHINGTON — With the bright lights warming his head, four television producers offering direction and a union spokeswoman pelting him with questions, former hog herder Roscoe Bell leaned on a wooden cane in a row house here last week and thought about his pain.

Bell remembered the hogs trampling over his body down in North Carolina a year ago at a Smithfield Packing plant. He described the hooves on his chest and the constant ache that now infuses his body. The camera rolled, and he repeated again and again how he can no longer play basketball with his stepson or pull on his shoes or make love to his wife.

"They cherish the hogs, but they don't cherish the humans," Bell said.

It was a starring role and yet just a bit part in a larger campaign waged by the United Commercial Food Workers union and its efforts to train a harsh spotlight on the Smithfield Packing slaughterhouse in Tar Heel, N.C., the largest meat-processing plant in the world.

This week, the union's Smithfield Justice Campaign will launch a $200,000 advertising blitz two states away from the plant, with television commercials and banner ads in the subway and on city buses, hoping to win the sympathies of pork buyers in the Washington area.

Smithfield officials, who have accused the union of intimidating workers, call the latest ad campaign a "desperate" move.

Smithfield Packing spokesman Dennis Pittman said the ad campaign was just another example of the union trying to pressure the plant to allow union representation without a secret ballot vote.

"That plant has been as safe or safer than any of the union plants. We're very proud of it," he said. Smithfield has a plant in Landover, Md., in Prince George's County just outside of the District of Columbia that is unionized.

Pittman warned that if the ad campaign is too successful, the union could hurt the very people it purports to help.

"It's going to cost jobs," he said.

Union organizers have rallied for years against what they call lousy working conditions at the Tar Heel plant, but this campaign has a different twist. It focuses on the strong binds that send many African Americans from the Washington region back to North Carolina for family reunions, hoping to persuade communities up here that their brethren down South need help.

In the last century, many African Americans migrating northward from farms and rural regions of the Carolinas settled in Washington.

"I think Washington, D.C., was built from North Carolina," said the Rev. Jarvis Johnson, co-pastor of New Prospect Family Praise and Worship Center in Washington, who said he counts 50 or 60 cousins who moved up from the state.

"When you move from the South to the North, always the thought was that you do better," Johnson said. "If this is still true, it's time for the North to reach back and say, 'Let us help you out of the mud.'"

The union and other workers' rights activists hope the Washington region's ties to North Carolina will persuade consumers to think about what brands of pork they're buying in local groceries.

"Washington, D.C., is a major market for Smithfield products, and we want to demonstrate to the company that people are extremely concerned," said the Rev. Graylan Hagler, national president of Ministers for Racial, Social and Economic Justice, and a pastor in Washington who has met with workers in North Carolina.

Activists are garnering attention.

In Maryland's Prince George's County, a largely African-American suburb, leaders passed a resolution last fall affirming the county's support for workers in Tar Heel.

Pastors say they're hoping to persuade the D.C. City Council to pass a resolution, too.

Bell, 54, traveled to Washington last week with his longtime partner, Tammy Jones. There, the Smithfield Justice Campaign borrowed a row house from union employee Eric Wingerter.

"They're Southern-ing it up," Wingerter joked as a set designer hung a biblical quote on the wall, arranged fake floral curtains and draped a blanket over a small couch.

Prompted by union spokeswoman Leila McDowell, Bell described his experience with the hogs.

"They trumped me," he said in his quiet, rural North Carolina accent. "I fell backwards."

Over and over in the Washington row house, he told parts of his story for a television commercial.

"I'd rather be in the grave then bear this pain," he told McDowell.

Say that part again, she asked, this time into the camera.

"I'd rather be dead than to bear this pain day after day," he said.

Once more, the producer asked. Bell clutched his cane.

"I'd rather be dead than to bear this pain day after day."