Three Robeson County Sheriff cars idle in a dirt lot in front of the windowless Mountaire chicken processing plant and slaughterhouse about 80 miles southwest of Raleigh.

Semi-trucks full of live chickens barrel through the chain-link entrance and over the railroad tracks; trucks carrying empty cages exit the plant. Mountaire’s Lumber Bridge plant employs 2,000 people, and supplies a variety of chicken breast products for companies like Subway, Lunchables and Buffalo Wild Wings, as well as international clients in Brazil and China.

The deputies look on as several carloads of yellow-clad black and Latino union employees and organizers park at the convenience store across the street and tromp across the road, chanting Everywhere we go / people want to know / who we are / where we come from / We are the union / the mighty mighty union.

The picketers, from United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1208, have arrived to protest Mountaire’s alleged harassment and intimidation of pro-union workers within the poultry plant. They were leafleting at 4 in the morning. The fliers they pass out announce an upcoming information session in Fayetteville in English and Spanish: We know the company is trying to scare and confuse you. DON’T FALL FOR IT! Come & bring your questions on the 16th and find out the truth.

Drivers blare their horns and wave in support. Latino workers in a beat-up car stop to chat and ask questions before driving off. One woman in a hairnet and white scrubs walking across the street to get lunch at the convenience store gives a thumbs up, saying she plans to attend the session in Fayetteville.

Outside the Mountaire factory gates, I meet a woman named Delcia Rodriguez. A 23-year-old UFCW organizer from the Dominican Republic, Rodriguez worked at the Mountaire plant until 2011, when, she says, she was hit in the stomach by a large bucket used to haul meat and had a miscarriage in the plant. A doctor told her that she needed to take time off to rest. When she brought the doctor’s note to Mountaire’s Human Resources department, she says she was ordered to turn in her ID and fired.

“The supervisors treat the people, especially the non-English people, like animals,” Rodriguez said. “They don’t care if you get hurt.”

Six months later, Rodriguez got a job at the unionized Smithfield plant. “I love the union. The union is the best thing that has happened in my life.”

UFCW is the second-largest non-public sector union in the country, with 1.3 million members across various food-related industries: slaughterhouses, meat processing and grocery stores. UFCW Local 1208, based in Tar Heel, N.C., is legendary in the labor world for winning a grueling 17-year organizing campaign against Smithfield Foods in 2008. The 5,000-employee Smithfield pork slaughterhouse, located just outside of Tar Heel, N.C., is the largest pork-processing slaughterhouse in the world.

Keith Ludlum, UFCW Local 1208’s president, is a Desert Storm veteran and native of eastern Carolina. He was fired from Smithfield for organizing in 1994; it took him 12 years in federal courts to get his job reinstated with back pay. “Anything they could use to fight the workers from forming a union, they did it. They violated the laws egregiously,” Ludlum says. A union culture has become firmly entrenched in the Smithfield factory; that’s why Local 1208 feels comfortable starting a campaign to unionize Mountaire, about 20 minutes away.

Mountaire employees at Lumber Bridge who slaughter, hang or unload the chickens work in dark, freezer-like conditions for 10 to 12 hours a day, often earning $8.50 to $11 an hour. “It’s painful when you’re working on the line and cutting, or when you’re not cutting, when you’re on the table packing meat, you’re like constantly packing it, it’s like people are in there sweating in the cold,” says Jasmine Isom, a 24-year-old single mother and Wayne Community College student, who works third shift at Mountaire.

The Lumber Bridge plant operates on a seven-point demerit systema third of a point is deducted for tardiness, a whole one for extreme lateness. Seven points and an employee is fired. Isom says doctor’s notes and family emergencies are not excused. “I had to take my daughter to the emergency room for X-rays and some tests. The next day, I went to HR with the doctor’s notethe lady said they would document the note, but they were still going to deduct a point.”

Mountaire Lumber Bridge refused to comment on the union drive and Mountaire headquarters in Delaware did not return repeated phone calls and requests for comment.

Slaughterhouse work is particularly dangerous. A 2005 Government Accountability Office report states that poultry and slaughterhouse workers suffer on-the-job injuries and illnesses at a rate more than twice the national average. In 2004 alone, 20,000 poultry workers missed work or sought medical care from occupational injuries.

In June 2009, an ammonia leak at the Lumber Bridge plant killed one worker and injured four others. And in April of that year, an OSHA inspection report cited the plant for 15 violations, nine of them serious. The company was fined $19,600, although that amount was later reduced to $13,230.

In 2010, according to federal documents, OSHA cited the company again for a serious violation regarding the condition of the flooring and walls. And from 2011 to 2012, Mountaire was penalized 11 timessix of the violations were seriousand racked up fines of more than $20,000.

UFCW organizers and Steve Edelstein, a 72-year-old North Carolina poultry labor lawyer, say that the company has an on-site clinic to discourage employees from going to their own doctors if they are injured. Such injuries treated off-site could result in workers compensation claims or injury statistics reported to OSHA. One Mountaire organizer says he witnessed an employee being escorted off the factory premises before he was allowed to call an ambulance. Another non-English-speaking Mountaire employee, Ricardo Rivera, says he has been waiting for surgery and compensation for a serious on-the-job injury since 2010.

Mountainaire refused to comment for this story.

The company has passed along safety costs to the employees, which resulted in a class-action lawsuit. Filed in 2009, the suit alleged that the company had been taking the cost of safety equipment out of its employee’s paychecks; it also alleged the company had been quietly deducting pay for the time employees took to put on their safety equipment, about 10 minutes a day per worker. Last spring, Mountaire settled the suit, awarding $8 million in back pay to former and current Mountaire employees.

Isom works in the Quality Assurance department. Her job is to inspect the finished chicken product against a list of the wholesale customer’s specifications. Isom says she is actively discouraged by factory floor managers from doing her job conscientiously. “Upper management wants you to follow the spec sheet to keep the customer happy. But down on the floor, they want you to overlook everything. If I reject something and send it back the supervisors get mad and come over and say ‘What’s your problem’ because they don’t want anyone coming down on them. But I’m just inspecting the meat by the spec sheet and doing exactly what it says. If you stick to the spec sheet, it brings you a lot of problems.”

The South has long been the least unionized region of the country, a fortress of right-to-work laws, low wages and limited workplace protections. “To the extent that factories aren’t running away to the developing world, they’re running away to the South,” says Robert G. Korstad, a labor historian at Duke’s School of Public Policy. “In Tennessee, state politicians and business leaders made a concerted effort to keep unions out and tout the union-free environment as something attractive to outside investors. I’m sure that will be one of the issues McCrory’s new economic development team will be pushing in North Carolina.”

This Feburary, Southern labor suffered a historic setback when workers at a Chattanooga, Tenn., Volkswagen plant voted against bringing in United Auto Workers. Big money, out-of-state groups and Tennessee Republican and Democrat lawmakers waged a fierce anti-union campaign, concerned that a unionized Volkswagen plant would be a beachhead for labor in the state.

Undaunted by the bellwether loss at Volkswagen, the national AFL-CIO and its affiliates have announced a renewed push to organize Southern workers. The North Carolina AFL-CIO was instrumental in agitating national labor leaders to adopt AFL-CIO resolution 26: directing the federation to develop a new grassroots organizing strategy in the South.

“If we really want justice throughout the nation, then labor’s got to fight the battle where it’s hardest; and there’s no question that that’s here in the South,” says MaryBe McMillan, secretary-treasurer of the NC AFL-CIO. “I think that nationally, labor leaders are finally beginning to see how the low wages in the South are starting to drive down wages nationally. They see how companies like Boeing and the auto industry move south to avoid unions and exploit workers.”

The last concerted national push to organize Southern workers was “Operation Dixie,” undertaken in the 1940s, by the Congress of Industrial Organizations. Hoping to build on concrete gains made during the radical labor struggle of the 1930s, the CIO poured $1 million into organizing textile plants in the Carolinas.

“While North Carolina has typically had some of the lowest rates of unionization in the country, it was also the scene of some of the most protracted labor struggles in U.S. history,” Korstad says.

The Gastonia textile strike in 1929 was one of the bloodiest North Carolina labor struggles, leaving a police chief and a Communist activist dead. Operation Dixie fueled grassroots labor struggle and strikes in the RJ Reynolds plant in Winston Salem in the mid-’40s. In 1946, the food and tobacco workers union successfully organized 10,000 black seasonal tobacco “stemmers” in the eastern part of the statethese were the lowest paid and most poorly treated workers in tobacco production at the time.

But Operation Dixie ultimately stalled. Companies ruthlessly crushed strikes and pickets and successfully played black and white workers against each other. “I think a lot of it had to do with the intransigence of employers and manufacturers during the Jim Crow era. They pretty much had total control over the power of government, the national guard, the police and courts,” Korstad says.

In 1947, North Carolina became the first state to pass “right-to-work” legislationa now-widespread state law that limits union influence by allowing non-union employees to take advantage of union benefits. The Taft-Hartley Act passed in 1947 then outlawed closed union shops, kneecapping the burgeoning postwar labor movement, then at the height of its power. Organized labor, nationally and in the South, began its long decline.

In early February, Isom, the young, third-shift Quality Assurance inspector at Mountaire, attended a UFCW information session at a Holiday Inn in Fayetteville. She already knew she wanted a union. She had been working at Mountaire plants in North Carolina and Delaware since she was 18. At the session, she picked up a stack of union authorization cards to distribute to her co-workers. The next night in the break room at the plant, she talked to her co-workers and asked if anyone wanted to sign up. “Some people were interested, some people weren’t,” she said.

A few hours later, her supervisor and the superintendent of her department pulled her into an office, shut the door and brandished the company’s “no solicitation or distribution of material policy.” They asked if she had seen it. “I told them yes, I knew about it. But solicitation is protected if you’re organizing a union, as long as it’s off the factory floor.”

They informed her that at Mountaire it was not. Later, she found out that the six or seven other workers who had attended the Holiday Inn informational meeting had been similarly intimidated.

Last month, management within Mountaire launched its anti-union drive to fight UFCW’s organizing campaign. Isom and other workers report that anti-union consultants were brought in to lecture them. Mountaire employees were required to attend viewings of anti-union films. Large posters appeared in the hallways with charts and graphs, showing how much money UFCW would take from workers’ paychecks. The TVs in the Lumber Bridge cafeteria began playing anti-union Powerpoint presentations in English and Spanish.

Ludlum and UFCW organizers say workers told them Mountaire hired a union-busting firm called Labor Relations Institute, based in Broken Arrow, Okla., to clamp down on the pro-union workers. The institute refused to comment.

The institute’s website is written in a tone that makes unions sound like a termite infestation: “The best defense is a powerful offense. Make your workplace impervious to union attack” and “Fighting a union? Need help? Click here now!”

After Isom’s meeting with her supervisors about the solicitation policy, she clocked out and went outside the plant to distribute union cards. She says that two of the plant’s senior-most night-shift managers confronted her there.

“I’m exercising my legal right to organize a union,” she says she told them. The supervisors allegedly told her to leave plant property. When she refused, they threatened to have her arrested.

“I asked why I was being asked to leave. Was it because I was trying to organize a union? They wouldn’t say that it was, because they would get in trouble for saying that. They just said I had to leave or they would arrest me. Eventually I said OK, and left.”

The next day, Isom visited Human Resources. She says the human resources manager John Scala defended the company’s no-solicitation policy. Undaunted, a week after that meeting, Isom wrote a pro-union message on her car with a smudge stick and parked it in the front of the lot near the plant’s entrance. Her co-workers told her that her supervisors and police officers were taking photos of her car and license plate number.

Last month, UFCW Local 1208 filed a Labor Review Board complaint against Mountaire Foods, charging that the company had been harassing, disciplining and intimidating pro-union workers at Lumber Bridge.

“They’re making it so that people think we can’t talk about the union. … But if I do it and people say, ‘She’s going to get fired’ and then I’m still working here, it can strengthen the rest of the people so they know they can talk about it, and they can do it, too. And wearing the [UFCW] headband in the plant and the shirt is a way to show the other people that we can talk about this, we can organize this.”

New rules could affect food safety

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is pushing through a federal rule change that will dramatically affect the food safety inspection process in poultry and turkey plants.

The Modernization of Poultry Slaughter Inspection rule has been in the works since the Clinton administration. If it goes into effect, 800 USDA inspectors will be removed from poultry and turkey slaughterhouses; in turn, companies will be allowed to hire their own unregulated food safety inspectors.

Under current rules, established in the Eisenhower-era, USDA employees inspect 35 birds a minute. Under the proposed changes, factory line speeds could increase to as many as 175 bird carcasses a minute3 per second. Food watchdog groups, consumer nonprofits, worker advocacy organizations and concerned lawmakers have barraged Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack with their concerns that these changes would erode our already-tenuous meat safety process, eliminate middle-class jobs for federal employees, and make the work for low-paid, poultry workers even more hazardous. Sixty-eight members of Congress asked Vilsack to suspend action on the proposal.

That list did not include Sen. Kay Hagan, a business-friendly Democrat who supports the rule change. “Our poultry slaughter inspection standards are out-of-date and the updates Senator Hagan has called for, along with a bipartisan group of Senators, are science-based and have been extensively tested through pilot programs,” Hagan’s North Carolina spokesman wrote to the.

Notably, Hagan has received substantial campaign contributions this election cycle from the industries affected by the change: $12,000 from the chicken lobby and $8,000 from the turkey lobby.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Playing chicken.”