Matthew Barr and Cornelia Wright Barr reflect on the creation of Union Time: Fighting for Workers’ Rights. The documentary, which draws heavily on oral historical methods, follows the story of workers at the Smithfield Pork Processing plant in Tar Heel, North Carolina, as they fought for safe, fair working conditions—and won.
Read a review of Union Time by Roger Horowitz, currently available online, which will appear in the print pages of our Winter/Spring 2019 issue.
By Matthew Barr and Cornelia Wright Barr
In 2008, I drove down long country roads to the home of a meatpacking worker in rural Bladen County, North Carolina. He had agreed to be interviewed for a documentary about the United Food & Commercial Workers Union’s organizing campaign at the world’s largest slaughterhouse, operated by Smithfield Foods, in the hamlet of Tar Heel, North Carolina. When I arrived at his door, the worker became evasive and refused to talk to me. Why? Maybe he was tired after a 10-hour shift. Maybe a Smithfield manager had threatened him to leave union matters alone. I headed back to Winston-Salem in the dark, struggling to read road signs. GPS led me down a dead-end dirt road. I began to wonder why seeking the voices of workers had to be so difficult, if I could ever finish this film, and if I would ever get home safely. It was just another day in the nine-year journey to tell the greatest labor story of the early 21st century.
My original intention with Union Time was to show the struggle and achievements of the UFCW organizers who worked for 16 years to organize the 5,000 workers at the Smithfield plant. They stood up to Smithfield Foods, the largest pork processor in the world. The UFCW became involved at the Tar Heel plant in 1994, a year after it opened, when stories of dangerous working conditions, wage theft, and abuse came out. The union held two elections, in 1994 and 1997, both tainted by actions of Smithfield management and union busters. After years of litigation, the UFCW ramped up its efforts in the new millennium with the Justice@Smithfield campaign, which was when I learned about the union struggle.
Over time though, I shifted my focus from the organizers to the workers who dedicated years to the struggle. I was able to gather footage of activities including marches, rallies, organizational meetings, and the like, but the key material consisted of the interviews with the workers, followed by interviews with organizers and community leaders.
For me, the true beauty of doing oral history and documentary work is being in the field, meeting people, and working to gain their trust. I planted the seeds of shared purpose when I showed up in the parking lot of Smithfield’s giant meatpacking plant at midnight, interviewing organizers and workers, watching out for company security guards, and setting up appointments for the next day to meet the workers at their homes. The meta-theme from many of the workers’ was that of replacing fear with faith and determination—as Wanda Blue said, “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.”
Wanda Blue said, “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 workers’ courage under daunting odds gave me courage to face a variety of challenges. Skepticism about unions made funding the film extremely difficult; even progressive organizations told me that unions were “an old story.” Smithfield’s litigious history was also a concern; the company had held up the UFCW in court for nearly a decade and demanded a 10-year gag order for the Justice@Smithfield campaign. (Because of the gag order, UFCW International officials refused to be interviewed.) I hired a First-Amendment rights lawyer and got a $3 million liability insurance policy.
This union drive was ultimately a success, thanks to the show of solidarity inside the plant coupled with a strong focus on community engagement. Gene Bruskin, legendary union organizer and director of Justice@Smithfield from 2006–2008, brought together immigrant rights groups, churches, and organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Jobs with Justice to lend their support. Bruskin and Leila McDowell, his communications director, also launched a PR campaign that made consumers aware of how Smithfield products were “packaged with abuse.” Perhaps most importantly, Reverend William Barber of the North Carolina NAACP set a high moral tone for the campaign, underscoring the relationship between labor rights and civil rights, and the questionable ethics of the factory-farming industry.
In December 2008, the UFCW won the right to organize the Tar Heel plant, leading to the formation of Local 1208 in Tar Heel in July 2009. Working conditions improved soon after, with improved safety standards, union stewards in the plant to report irregularities, and higher wages.
Ultimately I shot 170 hours of footage and accumulated a wide array of court documents, photos of injured workers, and newspaper stories. Fashioning the 86-minute documentary from so much material was a monumental task, involving a deep understanding of the multiple narratives of the interviews, and in the ordering and structuring of the story. I was still “seeking the voices”—but now, mining them in the edit room for the special moments that are like gold.
Union Time is a melding of a documentary point of view, communicated through with interviews, cutaway visuals (“B-roll”), and narration—with an oral historical focus on the voices of the worker activists who made the victory happen. It was wonderful to show that the union truly had an enormous victory (one of the biggest organized labor victories of this century) that resulted in major gains for the 5,000 workers at the plant.
Why make documentary films? For me, I am driven by capturing the life of working people and working communities that face unique challenges in the times we live in. Some of my earlier documentaries include Wild Caught: The Story of an American Fishing Town, which chronicles the struggles of small-scale fishermen in Sneads Ferry, North Carolina; With These Hands, about the closure of a Martinsville, Virginia, furniture factory and its impact on the workers; and Carnival Train, which tells the story of carnival workers who work for the last carnival that travels by train.
Since its 2016 release, Union Time has screened at labor film festivals and community groups across the U.S., in Canada, and in Japan, as well as at the labor schools at Cornell University, UCLA, UC-Berkeley, and Michigan State University. It was also licensed by the National Labor Relations Board to screen in all of its branch offices across the United States. In 2018 I produced a 70-minute version that will be utilized by labor unions for motivational and training purposes.
Matthew Barr is professor of Media Studies at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. He runs, with his wife Cornelia Barr, the Unheard Voices Project, a nonprofit dedicated to producing documentary films concerning working people and their struggles in a globalized economy. Learn more about the documentaries at www.uniontimefilm.org.
Cornelia Wright Barr is Executive Director of the Unheard Voices Project and was Executive Producer and Co-Writer of Union Time.