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Smithfield Foods, Union Argue In Racketeering Lawsuit

Meat company claims a union violated a racketeering statute originally designed to fight organized crime in its efforts to unionize Smithfield's slaughterhouse in Tar Heel, N.C.

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) -- A union did nothing wrong in peacefully applying economic pressure in its attempt to organize thousands of workers at the world's largest hog-slaughtering plant, the union's lawyer told a federal judge Monday.

An attorney for Smithfield Foods Inc. disagreed, arguing that the union demanded a sham election and committed extortion by insisting that the company give up its right to urge workers to vote against representation by the United Food and Commercial Workers International.

The union wants U.S. District Judge Robert Payne to rule in its favor rather than let Smithfield's lawsuit against the union go to trial. Payne did not issue a ruling, and the hearing was scheduled to resume Tuesday.

The Smithfield, Va.-based meat company claims the union and other defendants violated the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations statute, which was originally designed to fight organized crime, in its efforts to unionize Smithfield's slaughterhouse in Tar Heel, N.C.

A central issue in Monday's hearing was whether the union really advocated a bogus election or whether the idea was never taken seriously after being mentioned by a union official who had no real bargaining authority.

Robert Weinberg, a lawyer for the union, acknowledged that the proposal would be illegal if it could be attributed to the union. But he said it was just mentioned at a meeting by a local union official from Florida and quickly disregarded. He said subsequent letters from the union suggesting a framework for a union election overseen by a third party made it clear the sham election was never an official union proposal.

Smithfield attorney Thomas G. Slater cited union documents listing a "shoebox election" as a possibility. He described such an election as having workers drop their ballots in a shoebox and declaring the union victorious without counting the votes.

Weinberg disputed that characterization. He said the union uses the term "shoebox election" for an election overseen by an independent third party other than the National Labor Relations Board.

Slater also said the union's demand for neutrality in a proposed election was extortion because it sought to take away a property right -- the right to speak out against union representation.

Weinberg said the demand could not be viewed legally as taking a property right.

Slater said the union also engaged in other activities -- including boycotts and a negative public relations campaign -- designed to "force Smithfield to throw in the towel" and allow union representation without an election.

Weinberg said courts have consistently upheld the right to apply economic pressure, without violence or the threat of violence, to achieve a lawful objective.

Lawyers for several organizations and individuals affiliated with the union also disputed allegations that their clients illegally conspired to pressure Smithfield into unionization.

Smithfield attorney Gregory Robertson said those defendants were actively engaged in the campaign, which he was more about gaining more money and power for the union than simply holding a fair election.

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