RALEIGH — Production stalled at the world's largest hog slaughterhouse Thursday after hundreds of employees failed to show up for work, a day after immigration officials arrested 21 workers inside the plant.
About 5,000 employees process up to 32,000 hogs daily at the plant in Tar Heel, a small town about 85 miles southeast of Raleigh.
Officials at Smithfield Foods Inc. said news of Wednesday's arrests spread quickly among the plant employees, and most members of a cleaning crew did not come to work overnight. That forced workers who arrived in the morning to clean the massive plant, halting the morning's production.
"[Production] was down considerably. We were so far behind because of getting started so late," Smithfield spokesman Dennis Pittman said. "There were several hundred people who didn't show up."
The arrests and Thursday's slowdown again exposed the rift between the company and the United Food and Commercial Workers union, which has been trying for more than a decade to organize the plant.
Pittman angrily blamed union organizers for Thursday's disruption, insisting they told the cleaning crew that immigration officials were waiting inside. He said the company spent most of Thursday trying to persuade Hispanic workers who stayed home to return to work, an effort that included placing advertisements on a Spanish-language radio station.
Eduardo Pena, a local organizer with the union, said workers came to the union seeking information about Wednesday's arrests.
"The workers were calling each other. The wife of one of the workers who was picked up started calling his co-workers saying: 'Don't go to work, immigration officials are there,' " Pena said. "I don't have that kind of network."
The workers arrested Wednesday, whose names and ages weren't released, were escorted from their jobs to an upstairs conference room, where they were interviewed by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents. An ICE spokeswoman said they were arrested on administrative immigration charges, which can include being in the country illegally or overstaying a work visa.
In November, the union quickly backed about 1,000 workers who staged a walkout after Smithfield fired about 50 people in a crackdown on undocumented workers.
The company had reviewed its employment records on the advice of ICE, which had raided a Smithfield plant in Virginia and arrested several undocumented workers. The company found about 500 to 600 workers at the North Carolina plant had unverifiable information.
Employees returned to work two days later, after Smithfield officials agreed to give the fired workers and those with unverifiable information 60 days to get their identification documents in order.
The union also helped spark a small walkout on Martin Luther King Jr. Day after plant officials declined to designate it as a paid holiday.
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