The Smithfield Packing Company has said it is ready to hold a new union election at its Tar Heel, North Carolina, pork-processing plant.

Smithfield's Tar Heel plant has been troubled by labour unrest in recent times. Around 1,000 employees walked off the job in November in protest against the firing of around 50 workers who the company said had failed to provide unverifiable identification information. Meanwhile, in January around 300 workers refused to work on Martin Luther King Jr Day. The Union Food & Commercial Workers (UFCW) International union has been trying to unionise the Tar Heel plant for more than 15 years.

The company has finalised an agreement with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to pay US$1.1m in back wages, plus interest, to employees who were terminated by the company following a federal court order regarding union elections held at the plant in 1993 and 1997.

"Even though we disagree with the findings, we have complied with the court's decision and are ready to move forward. I hope the union will work with us to schedule a secret ballot election as soon as possible," said Joe Luter IV, president and chief operating officer of Smithfield. "We believe our employees should have the right to vote on whether they want to be represented by a union. It's time to let the employees vote."