RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — A federal judge gave the go-ahead to Smithfield Foods Inc.'s racketeering lawsuit against a union seeking to organize thousands of workers at the world's largest hog-slaughtering operation.
U.S. District Judge Robert E. Payne turned away the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union's efforts Tuesday to dismiss Smithfield's lawsuit brought against the UFCW, one of its local chapters and several other defendants.
The Smithfield-based meat company alleges the defendants violated the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations statute, which was originally designed to fight organized crime, in its efforts to unionize Smithfield's huge hog slaughterhouse in Tar Heel, North Carolina.
The union's efforts amount to extortion by taking away Smithfield's intangible property — its ability to conduct business the way it chooses, Smithfield's lawsuit argues.
''They're prepared to put you out of business if you don't succumb to their demands,'' which is the definition of extortion, Smithfield lawyer Thomas G. Slater argued. He also said that that if the company has to recognize the union, Smithfield will have to change the fundamental way it does business, putting the company at a distinct competitive disadvantage.
In a statement, Smithfield said the ruling ''is a pivotal step toward upholding the law, protecting the rights of Smithfield's workers, and preventing further damage to Smithfield's business.''
Telephone messages left Tuesday evening for Gene Bruskin, who is leading UFCW's efforts to organize the Tar Heel plant, and Leila McDowell, another union organizer, were not immediately returned.
Robert Weinberg, a lawyer representing the union, said the UFCW's only goal is to secure voluntary union recognition for the 4,650 workers at the plant, which it has tried to unionize since the slaughterhouse opened in 1992.
''There isn't any other objective,'' he said.
Slater said that the UFCW and affiliated groups and organizers have damaged Smithfield with a campaign to highlight what the groups say are unsafe and unsanitary working conditions, racism at Smithfield plants and the poor treatment of employees — all allegations that he denied.
Weinberg said that Smithfield should address such issues by applying defamation statutes, not anti-racketeering measures.
Earlier this year Smithfield reached a settlement with the National Labor Relations Board and agreed to pay $1.1 million (euro740,000) in back wages, plus interest, to workers it fired during past union-organizing elections. A federal appeals court ruled in 2006 that the company improperly influenced elections in 1993 and 1997.