Chef Deen caught in Smithfield Foods fight
By Kirsten Valle McClatchy-Tribune Service | July 01,2007
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — As hundreds filed into Ovens Auditorium on Saturday to see celebrity chef Paula Deen, a different crowd arrived outside, armed with loudspeakers, signs and a papier-mache pig with a menacing sneer.
About 60 protesters, including current and former employees of Smithfield Foods' pork plant in Tar Heel, about 80 miles south of Raleigh, N.C., came to ask Deen to meet with them — and to stop endorsing Smithfield.
"They treat the hogs better than human life," said Vincent Nash, 40, who has worked at the plant for two years. "It's ridiculous. I want the world to know this."
Deen, known for her butter-soaked Southern dishes, is caught in a dispute between Smithfield and the United Food & Commercial Workers, a union that has been trying for years to organize the Tar Heel plant, the world's largest hog slaughterhouse.
The union has been protesting at Deen's events since she became a paid spokeswoman for Smithfield last fall. She hasn't responded yet, union representatives said Saturday.
Saturday's protest was peaceful; no arrests were made.
Tar Heel workers and the union have clashed with Smithfield for much longer. In 2004, the National Labor Relations Board found that the company, through threats, spying and firings, prevented fairness in a 1997 election in which the union failed to organize the Tar Heel plant.
A federal appeals court upheld the decision last year and ordered the reinstatement of four fired workers.
Ovens Auditorium hosted two Paula Deen Live! performances Saturday. The show is a national tour that also stops in Nashville, Dallas and Atlanta in coming weeks and months.
The protesters, who gathered on a sidewalk across the street from Ovens, chanted, "Smithfield pork has got to go! Hey hey! Ho ho!" and carried signs that said, "Smithfield bacon: Packaged by worker abuse."
Two police officers watched, arms folded, and people who came to see Deen eyed the group briefly before ducking into the auditorium. A pack of teenagers, crossing the street, cheered for the protesters and then wondered aloud, "What's wrong with bacon?"
Smithfield spokesman Dennis Pittman said the protesting group represents a small percentage of the Tar Heel plant's 5,500 employees. He said allowing the union to organize the plant is up to the workers — and said he hopes they hold another election soon.
"We certainly respect anybody's right to protest," Pittman said. " But we will not agree to letting the folks come to the plant without the employees" voting on it.
In response to employees' complaints about low wages, illegal firings and poor working conditions, he said, "Our working conditions are as good as or better than any other meat-packing company in the country."
Starting pay is $9.20 an hour and the average worker makes about $12.30 an hour, Pittman said. Employees also get low health insurance rates and free life insurance.
"It's a good company to work for," he said. "It's hard work, but it's good work."
After about an hour Saturday, the chorus of protesters quieted and an organizer said, "I think our message has been heard loud and clear."
As the crowd thinned, someone called, "Paula Deen, we love you. We care about you. We'll be back."
And then protesters rounded up their families and boarded the bus.
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