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Union Time: Fighting for Workers' Rights

A Film by Matthew Barr

70 minutes

Scene Selection • Closed Captioned

Grades 6 - Adult
Item #:UNT-1159

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DVD
K-12 Schools, Public Libraries, Community Groups - $89
Colleges, Businesses, Other Institutions - $275
Colleges (DVD with Digital Site License) - $375
NARRATED BY DANNY GLOVER

"It's Union Time, people!" — the rallying cry of workers at the Smithfield Foods pork processing plant in Tar Heel, North Carolina. Since its opening in 1993, employees of the plant have endured various abuses such as intimidation tactics, low pay, and dangerous working conditions which resulted in bodily injury and, on one occasion, death. Often treated as expendable, the workers came together and engaged in a 16-year-long struggle for the right to unionize and receive safe, fair working conditions — and won.

Jobs in meatpacking are among the most dangerous in the country. Once dominated by skilled butchers working in unionized jobs, the industry gradually moved packing plants to rural areas in right-to-work states. What used to be respected as skilled labor is now broken down into assembly-line tasks with poor training and casual disregard for the worker's well being. At the core of Union Time are the voices of the Smithfield employees, many African-American and Hispanic, who showed amazing courage in standing up to a multinational corporation.

Barely a year into the plant's opening, a group of employees began working with the United Food and Commercial Workers Union to organize the 5,000 workers. Smithfield's response was an escalation of systemic intimidation: threatening to close the plant, firing those in support of the union, race-baiting workers, physically harming union organizers, suppression of First Amendment rights, and siccing immigration officials on immigrant employees.

Within the plant, small victories make the long wait bearable, and a turning point arrives with the Justice@Smithfield campaign, in which organizers engage the broader community in the struggle. With the help of various religious leaders describing their cause as a merging of labor rights and civil rights, many other churches and religious denominations across the country began to publicize the campaign. In the history of meatpacking unions, the Smithfield struggle is an important chapter for demonstrating this convergence of rights.

Union Time shows how unions can still be a potent force for economic and social justice, and the role they play in a just society. The Tar Heel victory demonstrates that, even in an anti-union climate, forming a union is possible and even essential. Above all, it celebrates the courage of meatpacking workers who refused to quit and gives voice to how they broke a cycle of poverty and injustice. Now the 5,000 workers at the Tar Heel plant have fair working conditions, better wages and, above all, respect. Union Time lays out a compelling blueprint for unionizing when all the odds have been stacked against workers. 

FILMMAKER'S STATEMENT: "The incredible courage of the Smithfield workers — Wanda Blue, Ronnie Simmons, Lidia Victoria, Keith Ludlum, Terry Slaughter, Henry Thomas, Julia MacMillan, Lorena Ramos, and so many others — carried me through the highs and lows of making the film. They are the heroes of Union Time.

Like so many documentaries, this was a labor of love, a deep immersion into a culture and a cause. I shot more than 170 hours of footage for the film. My wife Cornelia and I wrestled with a complex story arc spanning 16 years and many players. Our goal was to tell the story as a major achievement of the labor movement but also use it to inspire other struggles for justice, from the fight to raise the minimum wage to stopping police brutality."
—Matthew Barr
Union Time: Fighting for Workers' Rights

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