700 protesters expected at Lodge

Steve Vaughan

WILLIAMSBURG -- Stockholders and officers of one of Virginia's best known companies are coming to Williamsburg Wednesday, and so are up to 700 protesters, claiming the company engages in unfair labor practices.

Smithfield Foods, famous among other things, for Virginia country hams, will hold its shareholder meeting at the Williamsburg Lodge.

The company will be followed by up to 700 union members protesting the company's actions in a labor dispute that has raged at its Tar Heel, N.C., plant for more than a decade.

According to representatives of the United Food & Commercial Workers, they will attempt to present a petition signed by thousands, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the Rev. Al Sharpton, the National Council of Churches and the NAACP, urging the company to meet with workers to develop a fair process for union elections. Neither religious leader is expected to attend the protest.

Workers at the Tar Heel plant rejected the union in elections in 1994 and 1997, but last year the National Labor Relations Board ruled Smithfield had engaged in unfair practices to fight the union.

According to the union, those included assault, intimidation, threats, illegal firings and the use of racial epithets.

"According to legal rulings, this is a company that has not demonstrated the ability to hold a free or fair election in Tar Heel," said the Rev. William Barber, head of the North Carolina NAACP, who is leading the delegation to Williamsburg. "There has to be a fair process developed to give Smithfield workers a free choice this time."

The latest development in the battle between the union and the company was a raid on worker housing near the Tar Heel plant earlier this week by immigration agents looking for illegal immigrants believed to be working at the plant.

Although Smithfield is one of the bestknown brands headquartered in the state, the company has garnered negative publicity in recent years.

The safety of its plants has been questioned by the federal Occupational Safety & Health Administration.

The company was also involved in a state political flap during the administration of former Gov. George Allen when it made a large political donation to the governor's political action committee while under investigation by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.

The company was ultimately fined $12.6 million by the federal Environmental Protection Agency for numerous pollution violations.

Colonial Williamsburg spokesman Tom Shrout said Friday that the foundation is aware of the potential demonstration, but expected no trouble.

"Our security is coordinating with the city police," he said. "I don't think it will be a problem. We expect that everyone will behave themselves and that they will exercise their right of free speech."

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