It’s safe to say Mathew Barr did not know what he was getting into.
It was 2007, and the UNCG film professor had just finished playing out his latest documentary: Wild Caught: The Life and Struggles of an American Fishing Town, a story of four fishing families in and around Sneads Ferry, on the North Carolina coast. Battered by waves of industrialization, regulation, pollution and time, these fishing families faced extinction not just of their businesses, but a culture and a way of life.
The film had done well on the worldwide festival circuit, with a local screening at RiverRun in 2007, and had became the cornerstone for a larger concept: the Unheard Voices Project, which would seek to document the struggles of working people against the forces of modernity.
He had started work on another piece, With These Hands: The Story of an American Furniture Company, which eventually chronicled the last days of a furniture factory in Martinsville, Va. after 80 years of operation. In talking to labor organizers for that story, Teamsters Local 391 President Jack Cipriani tipped Barr off to the situation at the Smithfield hog-processing plant in Tar Heel, NC, which at that time was 12 years into its storyline.
“Our intent was to do the film about union organizers,” he says from his office in UNCG’s Brown Building, a corner spot at the end of a labyrinthine hall. “These guys…. The money is bad. They get sent into towns like Lumberton to try to get a union going. It’s sort of exciting — like Norma Rae, one of my favorites, you know, you get in there, try to bring people together. And there’s so much hostility to unions down here. From workers, even!
“It’s like a mission,” he continues. “Like being a minister. They come out of the plants themselves; they become stewards and then organizers.
“They are relentless.”
So he grabbed his rig and hitched a ride on the bus to Colonial Williamsburg, where 700 workers from the Smithfield Tar Heel plant, along with organizers from the state NAACP, Jobs 4 Justice and Greensboro’s Beloved Community Center, intended to disrupt a Smithfield shareholders meeting. When he saw another documentary crew on the scene making what would turn out to be Food, Inc. — with, he says, much better equipment — he suspected he might be onto something. His encounters with the Rev. William Barber of the NC NAACP and the Rev. Nelson Johnson deepened that certainty.
The connection between civil rights and workers’ rights, he knew, could forge a powerful coalition, as it did in the protests leading up to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And he began to see how the Smithfield story could be fleshed out as a feature.
Matthew Barr screens Union Time: Fighting for Workers’ Rights at the Global Learning Center Lecture Hall of Bennett College on Friday at 7 p.m. as part of the 2017 Black Media Festival. It is free and open to the public. For more on Barr and his films, see unheardvoicesproject.org.
Meanwhile, he had to jockey for space on the bus with the Food, Inc. crew.
“I had to fight my way in to make this film,” he likes to say, “and I had to fight my way out.”
The result, Union Time: Fighting for Workers’ Rights, is finally ready to be seen.
By the time Barr checked in, the saga of the Smithfield plant at Tar Heel had been plodding along for almost 13 years. Opened in 1993 as the largest slaughterhouse and processing plant in the world in the flats between Wilmington and Fayetteville, one of the poorest parts of the state.
A large operation like that commits myriad offenses, including animal cruelty, environmental damage, and health issues associated with the products of factory farming.
But more than anything, work at Smithfield was dangerous: More than 30,000 hogs, almost 300 pounds each, moved daily through the gauntlet at Smithfield, where thousands of workers, many making just a single knife cut on each carcass, broke down each animal.
Some places of the plant were freezing cold; others unbearably hot. Blades were everywhere. A montage of missing digits and limbs, puncture wounds and broken bones fills the opening scenes of Union Time, along with descriptions of musculoskeletal disorders, all of which the company inadequately addressed.
Though most of Smithfield’s workers around the state had been unionized, the Tar Heel plant, in right-to-work North Carolina, was not. The United Food and Commercial Workers Union came to town in 1994 and were able to schedule a union vote for the workers. In advance of the vote, Smithfield hired anti-union consultants and ran their playbook to discourage their workers from organizing: intimidation, physical violence, one-on-one inquisitions and more.
Union talk had always been dangerous in North Carolina. In April 1929, Gov. O. Max Gardner responded to a strike in Gastonia by sending 250 National Guard troops to the Loray Mill to break it up. One hundred masked men destroyed the headquarters of the National Textiles Workers Union at the site, and in an altercation between Gastonia police and striking workers in June, police Chief OF Alderholt was murdered.