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A former supervisor at Virginia-based Smithfield Packing Co. has provided a rare window into how outside lawyers allegedly helped the company commit “egregious and pervasive” labor law violations, according to the decision of an administrative law judge. On Dec. 15, John H. West, a judge for the National Labor Relations Board, threw out the results of a 1997 election at Smithfield’s Tar Heel, N.C., plant, the largest pork slaughterhouse in the world. West found numerous labor law violations throughout two bitterly fought, unsuccessful union drives by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union. Smithfield Packing Co., No. 11-15522 (NLRB). The former supervisor, whose testimony was admitted despite the company’s claim of attorney-client privilege, testified that the company’s lawyers were themselves intimately involved in much of the illegal conduct. For their part, Smithfield and the lawyers, of Raleigh, N.C.’s Maupin Taylor & Ellis, deny any wrongdoing and are appealing the decision to the full NLRB. In an exhaustive, 436-page, single-spaced opinion, West found that Smithfield had illegally fired 11 employees for their union activities, intimidated employees and improperly interrogated them about union ties. The ruling is the latest development in a nasty fight to unionize the 5,000-worker plant. West threw out a 1997 election, the most recent, on the basis of the company’s violations. He ordered the reinstatement of the 11 illegally fired employees and ordered a new election. LABOR PAINS The charges against the Maupin Taylor lawyers were based on the testimony of Sherri Buffkin, a Smithfield supervisor who was fired in September 1998, shortly before the start of a months-long NLRB trial before Judge West. Over Smithfield’s objections, West permitted Buffkin to testify about conversations between plant supervisors and the Maupin Taylor lawyers in the weeks leading up to the 1997 election. According to Buffkin, Maupin Taylor’s William P. Barrett and another lawyer helped orchestrate the anti-union campaign, instructing supervisors in prohibited tactics for detecting and discouraging employees from unionizing. “Maupin Taylor was running this campaign,” said Ana L. Avenda�o, one of the union lawyers on the case. Buffkin also testified that while she was still employed by Smithfield, she signed two affidavits that falsely provided legally justifiable reasons for the firing of two workers. According to Buffkin’s testimony, the workers were actually fired for union activity, a violation of federal labor law. In one instance, she testified that Mr. Barrett told her, “Fire the bitch. I’ll beat anything she or they throw at me in court.” “She told the truth in her affidavits, and she lied on the stand,” said Barrett in an interview. “None of the lawyers in this law firm lied, none of them suborned perjury, none of them submitted false affidavits.” In his opinion, Judge West questioned whether Barrett had suborned perjury in connection with the affidavits. He said that another Maupin Taylor lawyer had lied under oath at the hearing and questioned whether a third attorney had knowingly introduced the false affidavits. In addition to her role in the NLRB case, Buffkin is the plaintiff in a sexual harassment and wrongful-discharge suit against Smithfield. She alleges that after a single sexual encounter with Jere Null, she refused to continue the affair. Buffkin alleges that as a result, Null sexually harassed her, and she was eventually fired. West found that Null, who is now the general manager of the Tar Heel plant, was responsible for many of the labor law violations he found. Null’s lawyer declined comment. In court papers filed in the NLRB case, Smithfield’s lawyers argued, “It is plain that Ms. Buffkin is a thoroughly dishonest person unworthy of belief. Indeed, almost nothing truthful was uttered by her during three appearances on the witness stand.” Judge West didn’t agree, finding that three witnesses called by the company “lied under oath as a part of [Smithfield's] effort to undermine the credibility of Sherri Buffkin.” Smithfield has said it is appealing the ruling to the full NLRB and, if unsuccessful there, to the federal courts, a process that could take years. In addition to the NLRB suit, two union activists filed a suit this summer, claiming that they had been beaten by plant security and falsely arrested by local police during the 1997 election.

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