Immigration & Labor

NAFTA’s Human Costs

NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, was hailed as a boon to economies on both sides of the border. A look at the policy's human costs.
A local farmer declares that the people of the Perote Valley want the hog farms removed to protect the environment and health of the communities there. | Credit: DAVID BACON
A local farmer declares that the people of the Perote Valley want the hog farms removed to protect the environment and health of the communities there. | Credit: DAVID BACON

The following narratives illustrate the human experiences behind the North American Free Trade Agreement and a U.S. immigration system that mainly serves employers. They accompany an Investigative Fund/Nation magazine article, “How US Policies Fueled Mexico's Great Migration.”

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All interviews and photographs by David Bacon. The original interviews have been edited into narrative form by Bacon.

The Story of David Ceja and Guadalupe Marroquin

David Ceja and Guadalupe Marroquin are two of the hundreds of migrants from Veracruz who came to North Carolina to work in the Smithfield Food slaughterhouse in Tar Heel. They tell the story of how and why they came, and why they and many other migrants were finally forced from their jobs.

David Ceja

My father and brother are ejidatarios [farmers on communal land] near Martinez de la Torre, in Veracruz. They have some land, but never enough money to cultivate it. That's why I left, in order to get some money so that we could farm. As a child, I was already working in the fields, just to buy shoes, or a book or pencil for school. It was hard to find enough for everyone, so I suffered all through my childhood.

ceja cousins

The home of David Ceja's cousins on the family farm near Martinez de la Torre, Veracruz.

It was hard just to get bread, much less a piece of meat, because it was all so expensive. As they say, we ate tortillas with salt. But we could give milk to people who came asking for it. There were people even worse off than us. Now the boys I played with, are all here. I'd see them working in the plant.

At first we had some fruit trees — oranges and bananas — and about ten cows. We had some pigs and chickens we'd sell to get sugar or salt. Sometimes the price of a pig was enough to buy what we needed, but then it wasn't. Farm prices were always going down. After the crisis, we couldn't pay for electricity, so we'd just use candles. Everyone was hurting almost all the time.

The fruit we were growing was for the US, but then when they'd stop eating it, or they'd have some requirement we couldn't meet, we couldn't sell what we were growing. The free trade agreement was the cause of our problems. They were just paying as little to farmers as they could. When the prices went up, no one had any money to pay. After the crisis, we couldn't pay for electricity — we'd just use candles at home. But when you see that your parents don't have any money, that's when you decide to come, to help them.

david senior

David Ceja's father, also named David, on the family farm of 13 hectares in the village of Bernabe, on the Ejido Almanza, near Martinez de la Torre.

 In the ranches where we lived, coyotes would come by offering to take us north. I was 18 years old when I left in 1999. When we started thinking about coming to the US, we couldn't see how to come up with the money we needed. We'd look at what we had and it did add up to much. My parents sold four cows and ten hectares for the money to get to the border. Then I walked across the river from Tamaulipas to Texas, and walked through the mountains for two days and three nights.

The coyote cost $1200. I couldn't find work for three months. I was desperate and afraid of what would happen if I couldn't pay. I had to stay and work in Texas until I paid him off, and then some friends told me to go to North Carolina to harvest tobacco. In Veracruz we'd heard there was a slaughterhouse there. While I was working in the tobacco friends gave me a hand and I was hired. They all come from the area near where I lived in Martinez de la Torre. Lots of people from Veracruz worked at Smithfield.

Guadalupe Marroquin

I grew up on a ranch in La Choapas, in Veracruz. Our family grew rice and corn, and sold pigs when the price was high. But prices were usually low, and my father complained that when the crops were harvested the prices always fell. Whenever we thought we could get ahead, the prices would fall.

Later I worked on a rubber plantation. I was never able to go to school, because we didn't have any money. I got married in 1981, and my husband and I worked in the fields. We had a small piece of land, and we'd raise corn, cows and pigs. Sometimes we could get a good price, but mostly we couldn't. My four kids were born in the 1980s. I didn't want them to be illiterate. I could read and write a little, but I wanted something better for them, so I began to put them through school.

borderwall

Approaching the border wall near Tecate.

In 2000, my oldest girl started college. She took the exam to get a subsidy for low-income families, but that wasn't enough. Plus, I had the other kids getting older too. My goal was to get them all through school.

So I came to the US with a coyote. I took a bus, first to Mexico City, and then to Naco, Sonora. We spent three days in an empty house, sleeping on the floor, men and women together. I didn't know any of them, and I was worried by all the stories I'd heard about women getting raped and robbed. We were all waiting for the coyote to get enough people together for the trip.

Then one afternoon he took us down into a ravine. We climbed into a pipe, crawling on hands and knees, one person behind the next. The pipe was only about four feet around, with sewage running at the bottom.

We crossed in the sewers that run between Naco, Sonora and Naco, Arizona. I was very scared, but I needed to make it across. It was very dark, and the coyote warned us not to go off to the side or we'd get lost. I prayed to the saints. I dreamed before we left that I was stopped by themigra, but when I showed him my saint, he let me pass. It cost me $2000 to cross the line.

I arrived in Lumberton, North Carolina, on a Saturday, went to mass and gave thanks to God on Sunday, and went to work in the fields on Monday. With the first money I made in the States I bought a saint and gave him to the church there. A lot of people from my town live in Lumberton. They helped me get here, gave me a place to stay, and told me about the job at Smithfield. I bought identification from friends, and went down and applied for a job there.

On the line, I worked on cutting out the liver and heart. It was very hard, and I had to learn how to use the knife. The line went very fast, and when the knife was dull, the work was very difficult.

David Ceja

I worked at Smithfield for seven years. I went to work on the stomach line, and after eight months they put me on the loin line, making 8.25 an hour. They just put us on the line and we had to learn fast. The loin line had a lot of problems, and they pressured us to work fast.

Our supervisor began shouting at us, and using gross insults. Then he put another person into our work area, and there wasn't enough room for us all. It was dangerous because the line moves so fast, and we were going to cut him, or cut ourselves. When we protested to the supervisor, he began yelling at us for not doing a good job. When he called out to me, he used a bad word, instead of my name. We protested to the Human Relations department, but they never did anything.

The supervisor said, “If you don't want to do your job, the door is really big,” meaning, go look for another job. We said they were treating us like burros, like slaves. But this isn't a job for aburro. So we agreed that we'd stop the line. We'd done it before, but it hadn't changed anything. The line slowed for a week, but then they started speeding it up again. We didn't know anything about the law, but I told my friends that I knew people who could help us, from the union. People were scared to talk with them. But I said they knew what we could do. There were people working with the union who'd been workers inside the plant too.

tortillas

Two aunts of David Ceja sell tortillas in their home on the Ejido Almanza in Veracruz.

We had meetings in a field near San Pablo. They suggested writing a letter first, so we put all our complaints into it. We asked for better safety because the way we were working was very dangerous, due to the speed of the line. The majority of people on our line signed, about 80 people.

We took the letter to HR at break time. Some were afraid, but I told them, if you're afraid all the time, nothing will happen. They'll just keep treating us like slaves. We were shaking when we got to the office, but we explained the purpose of the letter. The managers said they'd give us an answer in a week or two.

Two weeks later they chose ten people and took us to HR. They asked who had helped us with the letter. I said we'd written it. Finally they said they'd slow the line down. The next week we were really happy, but after two or three weeks, they speeded it up again. That's when I told my friends, we need a union. We needed an organization to support us.

I'm glad it came in. We worked hard to get it.

Guadalupe Marroquin

I worked on the line for nine years. Then I got a letter from Motor Vehicles that said that my license was no good. I got very scared because there had been raids, and people were being fired because they didn't have good IDs. So I quit my job before something worse happened to me.

university

Miguel and Zoila Huerta were among the first immigrants from Veracruz to North Carolina. Through years of hard work, they put their son through university in Mexico.

Lots of people from Mexico have lost their jobs here, and many have been deported. Others get arrested for drunk driving or domestic problems, and then are picked up and deported too. Sometimes the migra goes to the apartment houses where we live and rounds people up. There are not nearly as many Mexicans living here as there used to be. People have moved to other states, with their whole families. Some restaurants have even closed.

But I have faith in God, and I still need the money to send home for my children. I've been here for 11 years, and when it's their birthdays or Christmas, we just talk on the telephone. I feel very sad and alone on the holidays. But I've fulfilled my commitment. I came to help my children, and with faith I can do it.

Now I work in a restaurant, making tacos for workers. They call me Doña Lupe de los Tacos. Since I came here I've never been without money. When someone gets deported, their family often will ask me to help pay their bills. Unemployment went up because of the raids, so we have a lot of collections to help those families.

So far the authorities haven't bothered me. But many of my friends believe they act in a very unjust way towards us. Everyone has come here like me, sacrificing a lot.

David Ceja

I became a supervisor also, but they wanted me to put pressure on the workers. I asked to go back to being a regular worker, but they said there was no other job for me. They said, “There's the door, you can leave.” I came from the line. I know what it's like. I know what your body feels like when it's tired.  If workers say they can't do it, then they can't, so I couldn't just force them to work faster.

coyote

A farmer waits to meet with a coyote in a park in Xalapa, Veracruz.

Then the company began to hire more white and black people. I don't have anything against them. We all need to work. But the company wanted them producing right away, and expected me to put pressure on them. The managers just wanted me to make them work.

During this time the migra arrived. I don't know if the company had an agreement with ICE, but they came before the union election, and they scared the people. When someone was called into the office, they were afraid and sometimes just went home instead.

The big raids happened while I was on vacation. When I came back, people just weren't there. Workers said supervisors had sent them up to the office where the migra was waiting, and they never came back. Then managers began to tell me to send such and such a person to the office. I'd tell the worker, go if you want, but if you don't want to, go home, because the migra might be there waiting for you. 

band

Band members of the Mexican group, Flammaso Musical, practice after work in a shed outside of Red Springs. Almost all are immigrants from Veracruz.

They wanted me to send workers to the office where I was afraid the immigration agents would be waiting for them. I thought it was better for me to leave, so I wouldn't have to turn in mycompañeros. These big companies always want people to be scared, so that they can keep control. That's why there's so much intimidation. Once people unite, the company starts to tremble, so they say, the migra's coming, or they're going to check your papers. The company attitude is, you're here to work, so just go to work.

The company knew we didn't have papers. They need the workers, and we need the work. If the government would give us permission to work things would be much better. We'd have labor rights. But we had to buy papers in order to work. I bought my papers for $700, ten years ago.

It's really because of the economic crisis that we're here — all the Veracruzanos. It's the poverty and recruits us. We all had to leave Veracruz because of it. Otherwise, we wouldn't do something so hard. But I never let them humiliate me. I always fought for my rights.

hammock

David Ceja's sister-in-law rocks a baby to sleep on the family's farm in Veracruz.

The Story of Fausto Limon

Fausto Limon is a farmer in the Perote Valley in Veracruz, where Smithfield Foods and its subsidiary, Granjas Carroll de Mexico, have built a complex of hog farms. He, his family and neighbors have organized a movement to stop environmental contamination and the further expansion of the farms.

My family has been living in the municipio of Perote for generations. My ancestors were landowners, and they had a big hacienda in Alchichica, where they built a church that's unique, different from all the rest in Mexico.

My great-grandfathers went off to fight with Pancho Villa during the Revolution. Then, even before the land reform came, they divided up the hacienda into small parcels. My grandfather then bought his own ranch, where we live today, called Rancho Riego. My father built a stone house here during the 1950s. He was very taken with modern ideas about design and construction, and there's nothing like it. It's made of stone.

Today we grow corn, beans, wheat, carrots, tomatoes, and tomatillos, at least we would if we had the money. That's what we used to grow. Today I hardly have enough money to plant a crop of beans, which is what we have in front of the house. We farm 38 hectares, which is enough to support a family. There were six of us, but there's only five now since my mom died of a kidney infection.

Before the granjas (the pig farms) came, they said that they would bring jobs. But then we found out the reality, the way things really are. Yes, there were jobs, but they also brought a lot of contamination.

mill

The mill for hog feed owned by Granjas Carroll de Mexico near Perote. Local farmers demonstrated here against the expansion of the farms.

The granjas came in '94 and '95. What we experienced at first was the stench. The air smells like rotten meat. The wind has a chemical smell. I can't really describe how bad it smells. At night we'd begin to vomit, and we'd get into my pickup truck and drive until we couldn't smell it any longer, and we'd all sleep in the truck.

Then the taste of the water from my well changed. We had very good water before, but everyone in my family began to suffer from kidney infections. Two and a half months ago we went to a doctor who told us we should stop drinking the well water. We began to drink bottled water. Since then we haven't had to take any more medicine for our kidneys. Before that we were taking it every fifteen or twenty days.

church

The Church of San Antonio Alchichica in Perote Valley.

There are a lot of flies now. Some time ago we also had a lot of savage dogs, who were attracted by the dead bodies of pigs from the farms. They'd just bury them right below the surface of the earth, and the dogs would dig them up. There were many of them. We were raising ostriches, and they killed five of the six we had on the ranch.

Once people began to understand the reality, we began to hold meetings and form a group, Pueblos Unidos, to defend what is ours. I was one of the first people, because I was living in the middle of it all. The reason for the protests was the stench, and the pollution in the air, the ground, and in the aquifers. In the area where I live, the water table is about 8 meters below the surface now. When they dig the holes for their oxidation ponds, they don't use a membrane or filter, so what's in the pond travels into the aquifer. The ponds are as deep as the level of our aquifers.

goat farmer

A farmer herds his goats near a GCM hog shed, where the smell and flies are omnipresent.

In 2003-4 they bought land near my own farm. The company bought land fromejidos [collectives formed during the land reform] mostly, and some from small farmers. When they announced they were expanding the unit there, the people got together, and we wouldn't let them build it. Earlier there'd been an expansion in Totalco, and people stopped it from expanding there also.

We sat in and blocked the highway, because they were beginning their expansion plans again for the farm next to my ranch. We actually let cars through, but we slowed them down. There were more than a thousand of us. We had an effect, because it stopped the construction of more farms.

Perote farmer

A farmer in the Perote Valley.

We also collected signatures, and sent appeals to government authorities, but to this day we've never received any real answers. There was a meeting with the authorities from Puebla and Veracruz in Chichicuautla. At that meeting we signed an agreement, but the company went on functioning and treating us as they always had.

Now they're saying again they're going to expand. We'll see what the people decide to do. The municipal president in Guadalupe Victoria in Puebla wants to give the company permission to do it. At a meeting with the sub-secretary of administration for the state of Puebla, people told me that she said the company was going to expand no matter what.

The people are saying now that they're not going to let the company put in more farms. I don't know exactly what they will do, but if they say they won't let the company build more granjas, then for sure they won't let it happen.

Our back is to the wall. I'm glad to see the people waking up to the pollution here. You don't need to be a scientist or doctor to smell the stench or see how it's filtering into our water and earth. The authorities and the company say they're not polluting. But everyone here can see it. When they say the pollution is not getting into the water, no one believes it.

petitions

Fausto Limon looks through the petitions and legal documents used by local towns to try to stop expansion of the hog sheds.

There was a lot of pig growing here before the granjas. We used our pigs as kind of a savings account, and because we could feed them the corn we were already growing. They were something we could sell if we needed money. But now there's very little.

You have to vaccinate pigs so they don't get sick, three times for different illnesses. When the big farms came, they stopped selling the medicine, and lots of our pigs died. The medicine's not available here anymore. They don't sell it.

worries

Fausto Limon worries about his home and his farm.

Once one of the people working at the granja told me I should get rid of my pigs, and they'd give me sheep to raise instead. But to this day I've never seen a sheep from them. I'm probably a sheep for believing him.

Many people have left for other countries. It's also because of the lack of jobs here. People leave in groups, and invite others to go with them — groups of three, four, even ten people. They risk crossing the border without documents, and many lose their lives. It's a big problem, and getting even bigger.

stone home

The home built by Fausto Limon's father, using local stone in a combination of traditional Mexican and bauhaus styles.

We all want the company to leave. We don't want it here and we don't see any other solution.

The Story of Keith Ludlum and Terry Slaughter

Keith Ludlum and Terry Slaughter are two slaughterhouse workers who helped organize the union at the Smithfield Foods plant in Tar Heel, North Carolina. They tell the story of the way African American, white and Mexican immigrant workers were able to find common ground in that campaign, and how the company used immigration enforcement to try to defeat them.

Keith Ludlum

When I was 22, I heard about this new hog plant, and went and applied. They put me in the livestock department, right in the belly of the beast. It was a real shock — seeing how workers were treated. I saw hogs fall on people, and then the supervisors doing everything to get the hog back on the line. They were more concerned with the hogs then with the people. A dead animal was more valuable than a live human being.

keith ludlum

Keith Ludlum is president of UFCW Local 1208.

Most people working there were African American. I never thought of myself as better than anyone. My dad came from poor rural North Carolina. He taught me, we're all the same. Treat people how you want to be treated. Work hard and you'll be rewarded for hard work. I had no idea what unions were. Like most people in the south, most of my ideas about unions came from the companies I worked for, which were very anti-union.

Then an older African American guy, a humble spirit, broke his leg. The next day when I came in he was in the break room with his leg in a cast on crutches. He said they told him that if he didn't come in to work he'd be fired. The supervisor wouldn't even let him park near the place where he worked in the plant — those places were just for management. That's when I knew I wouldn't keep working under those conditions. One of the ladies invited to a union meeting in Lumberton and I went.

morales

Nilsa Morales was injured and then terminated at the Smithfield pork plant in Tar Heel.

I knew what they were doing to people was wrong. And the only fix that I could see was the union. So I took union cards into the plant. I thought the law would protect me, and if I lost my job, it wasn't the end of the world. I was naive. Now that I'm older, I know corporations don't care about the law, but I was young. I thought, Americans believe in the law and everyone has to obey it.

After three weeks, I had most of livestock signed up. But other workers told me the supervisors were watching me. Then they started writing me up. Finally they called me in. They had the regional guy in charge of all the farms, the livestock manager, and the assistant plant superintendent all in there to fire me. The livestock manager knew what he was doing was wrong. He couldn't even look at me. I looked up at him and said, “You can't hold it against someone for trying to make things better.” They walked me out, and when we got to the lobby there were two deputies standing there to escort me to my car.

I said to myself, “You picked the wrong m__________r.” And that started a 12-year fight. That was 1994.

Terry Slaughter

I was born in Georgia, but we moved to New York City when I was 10. My wife's family was from North Carolina, and after we got married she decided to move down here. I didn't want to leave the city life, but finally I decided it was time to grow up.

terry slaughter

Terry Slaughter is secretary-treasurer of UFCW Local 1208.

When I came down here, it was the first time I had a regular job, where I was paid by the hour. Before, I was never paid on the books. At first I worked at a Black & Decker factory on the line. In 2002, after three years, I came to Smithfield. It was a whole new world.

I started in the livestock department, taking animals off the truck. I was scared of the hogs the first week. I called them pigs. They told me, they're not pigs. That's a city name. The plant was killing 32,000 hogs a day. In eight years there was never a day they didn't have hogs.

If a hog gets crippled or falls, someone has to pick it up. They weigh 400 pounds. You have to push it into a barrel, and if you're a man, they say, you do it by yourself. With all the walking and carrying hogs, I lost 75 pounds the first year I was there.

reed

Lorenzo Reed, a worker at the Smithfield pork plant in Tar Heel, North Carolina, in the parking lot in Dillon, South Carolina, where workers wait for vans to take them to their jobs. It takes hours to get there.

At first I liked it. Then, in 2005, reality set in. I started seeing the way management was treating the employees. Hogs would run over a worker and managers would move the person to the side so they could keep the animals moving. The hogs were more important than the people. But what could I do? One person alone couldn't do anything.

In July 2006, I heard people start talking about forming a union. That was what I was waiting for. I knew about unions in New York. Some were skeptics and some were scared. But I thought, if we don't stand for something, we won't count for anything.

One morning, it was almost 100 degrees outside. Keith and a couple of others went to get water from the cooler, but it was hot and had ants in it. We said, “We're not going to work if we don't have clean and cold water.” So 25 of us got some chairs and we sat in the middle of the barn. We crossed our arms and said, “We're not going to do anything until we get what we deserve.” For eight hours we did nothing.

mccloud

Vanessa McCloud, a worker at the Smithfield pork plant in Tar Heel, North Carolina. On the wall behind her are portraits of Nelson Mandela and Malcolm X.

The supervisors started to go crazy. When livestock stops, the rest of the plant does too since it doesn't have any more hogs on the line. The hog trucks were lined up at the gate, and the animals were dying from heat in the trucks. When they started losing money and realized we weren't going back to work, supervisors tried to run the hogs themselves. But they couldn't do it. They'd never done that work before.

I thought for sure we were going to get fired. But they realized they weren't going to be able to produce if we weren't working. The very next day we got clean and cold water. That's when I knew we had a chance. From there it snowballed.

Keith Ludlum

I won at the labor board, and all the appeals later in court. Finally, they reinstated me in 2006. By then the whole community knew what was happening. By the time I came back there were only a few people in livestock who remembered me. I wore a Justice at Smithfield shirt when I went back in, and even had my company ID photo taken with the shirt on.

The first day I started asking people to sign cards. Some people thought I had the plague, but other people were really excited. I always let the company throw the first punch, but I always hit them harder, and workers saw that. You can't show any kind of weakness or make any mistakes. So we slowly built a core group in livestock. That department controls the whole plant. Terry and some of the others joined. They started believing, and we started doing actions in the plant.

vargas

Julio Vargas led a walkout among Smithfield's subcontracted cleaning workers for higher wages and safer working conditions. He was later fired.

By then there were a lot of immigrants in the plant. After Smithfield ran through the workforce around here, you started seeing a lot more immigrants working in the plant. The company thought the undocumented would work cheap, work hard, and they wouldn't complain. It happened very quickly, and there wasn't an established community here before Someone made a personal effort to get the workforce here. The company had to make that happen.

I went back in July of 2006, and the walkout over the firings happened in November 2006. At first African Americans and others viewed the firings as just a Latino problem, but during the walkout I tried to explain that it was a worker problem. People are just trying to earn a living and raise a family. The company took advantage of them, and then made them pay the price.

rodriguez

Rose Marie Rodriguez was injured on the job at the Smithfield pork plant in Tar Heel, and then fired.

They'd fired 50 or 70 people, and they said more were coming. People were panicked. They knew they were going to be next. Were they going to wait, or do something about it? That's when they said, “Let's shut them down.” It was really empowering to see all those workers stand up together. We just took over the parking lot. We had total control. When you've got enough people, nothing can stop you.

We were trying to buy some time for people, and the company agreed to extend the time by two months. It was the best we could do, but it did show people we can change the way the company makes a decision.

english class

A Smithfield worker studies English in a class organized by the United Food and Commercial Workers.

The next February ICE hit this area again, and Eduardo and I followed them around with cameras. With cameras on them, ICE would handle going into people's houses differently. You could tell they were mad at us, and kept trying to push us back. They surrounded one trailer, and turned off the power to try to smoke the people out. It was a hundred and some degrees, and the air conditioning was cut off. There were children in there.

But you could see that staying just wasn't worth it to people, and they were going to move on. They didn't know if they were going to be arrested, or how their family might be split up.

Terry Slaughter

If you're a good worker, they should let you work. Granted, you're supposed to be documented. We know that. But this was a tactic by Smithfield at the time when we were trying to get the union in. That was a dirty low blow. If you were undocumented, the company knew. They knew who they were hiring.

They wanted people to believe that the union had called ICE on the people, so we'd lose the Latino vote. I would say a vast majority of the Latino workers were a yes vote for the union. But people were scared if they were undocumented. If I was undocumented, I wouldn't want to be out in front either.

There were more Native Americans and African Americans coming into the workforce at that time. I don't think the change in the workforce made a big difference by the time of the election. The union won because it was time.

union card

A Smithfield worker signs a union card in the parking lot in Dillon, South Carolina, where workers wait for vans to take them to their jobs.

Keith Ludlum

I think there had to have been cooperation [between ICE and the company]. The company wants someone they can exploit - the dream employee. You were supposed to come to work, take whatever they paid you and however they treated you, and if you didn't keep your mouth shut you should go back home. It was a perfect employee for a corporation, other than a slave.

But I'm sure the company saw these people were getting organized. The workforce in the shadows was uniting, expecting rights, expecting to be part of the community. That's not what the company wanted. It wasn't going to be a workforce anymore that would be quiet and obedient.

lopez

Everildo Lopez, a worker who was injured at the Smithfield pork plant in Tar Heel, and then fired.

For a while relationships between Latinos and African Americans were strained. Some African Americans thought Latinos were taking jobs they could do, and keeping the wages down. But there was also a sense of envy after Latino workers walked out over the firings, and showed their power. Many started saying, we need to do something, and started demanding the MLK holiday. The following year Smithfield named MLK an official holiday for the whole company. People started building bridges, standing together.

Everyone saw the power of that unity in the walkout. But it was something people did out of necessity. Afterwards, they had to start getting ready to leave. It would have been different if we'd been able to stop the terminations permanently. That would have made a difference. Once people started leaving, it broke up those core groups that made things happen. The damage had been done to the immigrant population, and the undocumented started leaving, getting away from the hotspot. You can't blame them. Who wants to get arrested, with your kids waiting to be picked up? Immigrants have that extra fear. We all have to worry about being fired. They have to worry also about being arrested, separated from their families and deported.

carolina

Carolina and her sister stay at the house of Everildo Lopez, an injured Smithfield worker.

The company terminated me again in 2007. They wanted me out of there. So I worked for the union on the campaign here. After we won the election in 2008, we always wanted the union here to be run by workers from the plant. It's got to be people who live here, not just someone for whom it's a job. I've been a member of the local since it was chartered in 2009, so I ran for President after the first contract had been negotiated.

The union has been able to improve the wages, even though we've been in the worst recession since the depression. Thirty people who were fired unjustly are back on the job with back pay. To me that's enough — firing is like a death. People in this country are two paychecks away from being homeless. The company can't fire people for getting hurt the way they did before, and we can time the lines and slow them down.

When the union made the agreement with the company for the election, they had to agree that I couldn't go anywhere near the plant. I couldn't even be on the grass on the roadway outside. Now I'm the local president.

simmons

Ronnie Simmons, a worker and leader of the union organizing effort at the Smithfield pork plant in Tar Heel. Today, she's a member of the executive board of UFCW Local 1208.

Terry Slaughter

Relations between Latinos and African Americans today are great. When you look at the culture in the plant today, everyone's together. Supervisors can't yell at you — no more. They can't downgrade you — no more. It used to be that if you said anything you got fired — no more.

Between all the shop stewards and elected officers, there's over a hundred of us. When we speak, plus the five thousand people who work there, you hear a roar. When it's a few of us together, we're a force. But when it's all of us together, we're a union.

This article was reported in partnership with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute, with support from The Puffin Foundation.

About the reporter

David Bacon

David Bacon

David Bacon is a writer and photojournalist based in Oakland and Berkeley, California.