When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in April 1968, he was in Memphis, Tenn., supporting the sanitation workers’ strike.

King was in Memphis fighting for equality. He spoke at rallies for the sanitation workers, emphasizing that the right to a

job was a civil right. At that time, King was also working to build a multinational coalition to lead a “Poor People’s March” on Washington, D.C. These efforts were taken to correct social and economic inequalities in the United States.

The struggle against racism and for equality championed by King has motivated millions of Black workers and workers of other nationalities in the decades since his tragic death.

Inspired by the struggle for justice, 400 workers at the Smithfield pork processing plant in North Carolina walked out of the plant on Jan. 15, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, to protest the company’s unwillingness to grant MLK Day as a paid holiday. The Smithfield workers marched to a local church to participate in the MLK Day ceremonies.

At Smithfield, workers have been fighting to form a union for many years. The workers are paid low wages and work in extremely dangerous conditions. Many Black and Latino workers have experienced severe racism at the plant, and plant security officials have violently attacked organizers on multiple occasions.

This is the second recent walkout at Smithfield. In November 2006, over 1,000 workers walked out to protest racist mass firings targeting the plant’s primarily Latino immigrant workforce.

The Smithfield plant is owned by Smithfield Packing Company, which is a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods, the largest hog producer in the world. Joe Luter III, the chairman of Smithfield Foods, sits on the executive committee and board of directors of the American Meat Institute. The members of the AMI control 70 percent of all U.S. beef, poultry, pork and veal produced for the national market.

The meat industry is big business. In 2005, the total value of meat products in the United States was over $5.9 billion dollars. The annual revenue of Smithfield Foods is a whopping $11 billion.

In order for Smithfield’s capitalist owners to keep massive profits flowing, the workers must produce and distribute to their buyers the largest possible amount of meat products as quickly as possible. This results in constant speed-ups of the production lines. Pigs travel down the processing line at a rate of one every 3.5 seconds. That equals 8,000 pigs each day per line.

The work is not only fast paced, but also dangerous. Having to work so hectically on “the kill floor,” workers standing shoulder to shoulder often mistakenly stab themselves or their co-workers. Workers regularly suffer carpel tunnel syndrome due to the constant cutting motions they are forced to repeat all day with large, dull butcher knives.

Winning a union at Smithfield is imperative for the workers to protect themselves from company-imposed racism and unsafe working conditions. This struggle continues.

The workers’ militant action on Martin Luther King Jr. Day was a fitting tribute to King’s legacy—a legacy of struggle for justice and economic equality.