The new labor contract signed earlier this month by the newly unionized workforce at Smithfield Foods’ pork plant in Tar Heel, N.C., is a landmark agreement – but is it a landmark for organized labor throughout the meat industry or more narrowly just an achievement at Tar Heel?

Jill Cashen, spokeswoman for the United Food and Commercial Workers, the union that finally won a labor contract at the Tar Heel facility, focused on the achievement of the contract for the workers in North Carolina. "The first thing to remember is that this is the first union contract at the biggest pork plant in the world," she told "The workers there will receive $1.50 in hourly wage increases over the next four years, which is the biggest wage increase they’ve ever received at Tar Heel. Just as important, what this does is bring Tar Heel in line with all the other Smithfield contracts."

She said, however, the larger benefits of the contract may not be fully understood by the workers for a while, however. "They have a voice with management now, and they’re very happy about that, but the broader benefits of having a bigger voice in plant operations and employment policies will become clear only over time." She said those benefits include a substantial reform of Smithfield’s "points" system for infractions. Under the pre-union system, an employee received demerit points for calling in sick; the new contract includes a provision for official sick leave. The leave for funerals of family members has been increased from one day to three. The work week is now a guaranteed 30 hours. "We’re partners now" with management, Cashen described.

After years of struggling to hold its own and after a debacle in the mid-1980s with a renegade local at the headquarters plant of Hormel Foods, UFCW is now on a bit of a roll in the meat industry. The victory at Tar Heel capped a boisterous four-year battle, fought in the media and with teams of lawyers as well as by marchers on the sidewalks surrounding the plant, with Smithfield’s management.

"Our local unions have taken a coordinated position in the meat and poultry industry. They’re collaborating and cooperating like never before," Cashen told "I think employees all over the industry are seeing the real benefits of our representation. Yes, I think things are changing," she said.