Union Time: Fighting for Workers’ Rights follows the story of workers at the Smithfield Pork Processing plant in Tar Heel, North Carolina, who fought for safe, fair working conditions – and won. It goes beyond hype about unions (from both sides) to show how people standing together can break the cycle of poverty and injustice.
Since the Smithfield facility opened in Tar Heel in 1992, meatpacking workers endured dangerous working conditions, intimidation, and low pay. With the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, the workers struggled for 16 years to organize. They lived through a variety of union-busting strategies: two botched elections, increased intimidation, and efforts to divide workers by race. They waited out years of legal battles before the National Labor Relations Board.
Finally, in 2008, the Tar Heel workers voted to form a union in the Tar Heel plant, in what has been called the greatest union victory of the 21st century. Now the 5,000 workers at the Tar Heel plant have fair working conditions, better wages, and above all, respect.
In Union Time, filmmaker Matthew Barr weaves together labor rights and civil rights to show how unions are, despite efforts to dismantle them, a potent force for economic justice. Above all, it celebrates the courage of meatpacking workers who refused to give up through a 16-year-long struggle.
Union Time: Fighting for Workers’ Rights • 86 min. 2016 • Directed by Matthew Barr
Union Time is narrated by actor and activist Danny Glover. It also features key figures in the Justice@Smithfield struggle, including NAACP President Rev. William J. Barber II. The core of the film, however, is the voices of the Smithfield employees, many African-American and Hispanic, who showed amazing courage in standing up to a multinational corporation. Employee Wanda Blue embodies this courage in one of the most evocative quotes in the film: “I just had to get the fear out. Once I got the fear out of me, I was good to go. There wasn’t no stopping me.”
The Smithfield struggle is an important chapter in the history of unions in the meatpacking industry. It also demonstrates the convergence of labor rights and civil rights, carrying on the legacy of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Ultimately, the goal of the film is to show the role unions play in a just society.
Matthew Barr produced and directed the documentary, filming from 2007 to 2015. Barr is Professor of Media Studies at UNC-Greensboro and president of the Unheard Voices Project. His film work focuses on the impact of globalization and social change on working people and working communities.