Smithfield Packing has been found guilty of violating federal laws protecting human rights for a second time on Friday, by the jury of a federal district court in a Raleigh, North Carolina case.

Smithfield Food's largest subsidiary and one of America's largest meat companies, Smithfield Packing, and its former security chief, Danny Priest, were ordered to pay US$755,000 in compensation and punitive damages as the result of the beating and arrest of two union supporters at the company's Tar Heel, North Carolina facility in 1997.

Rayshawn Ward and John Rene Rodriguez were beaten, arrested and jailed by the company's security force during a 1997 workers' campaign with the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW).

Under federal law, workers have an absolute right to support and vote for a union in a secret ballot election without fear, intimidation or coercion. However, the UFCW alleged that Smithfield waged "a vicious anti-worker campaign and created an atmosphere of racial hostility".

During the union drive, the company held forced meetings to intimidate and threaten workers for supporting the union. Smithfield, says the UFCW, held separate meetings for black and Latino workers to pit worker against worker based on race.

Furthermore, the UFCW claimed that at the Smithfield plant, shotgun-wielding deputy sheriffs were ever present during the two days of balloting in a union representation election.

Following the vote count on 21 August 1997, the final day of balloting, UFCW said that company personnel stormed the counting area and, in the resulting confrontation, the two union supporters were subject to physical violence and arrest at the direction of Danny Priest, who was acting on behalf of the company.

The company was using the power delegated to it by the Bladen County Sheriff's Department to handcuff, mace, and jail Ward, who was knocked unconscious. Rodriguez, a union organiser, tried to help Ward during the assault and found himself in handcuffs, jailed and facing criminal charges.

At the California trial, jurors heard testimony on the company's actions and the role of Danny Priest, who used the company's security force to instill fear in the 4,500 Smithfield employees during the campaign. 

The jury ordered that Smithfield must pay Ward US$500,000 and Priest must pay Ward US$25,000 in compensatory damages for the injuries he suffered at the hands of the company security force. The jury also ordered Smithfield to pay Rodriguez US$125,000 and Priest to pay US$5,000. Both received punitive damages as well.

US District Court Judge Earl Britt rejected the company's request to set aside the verdict and validated the jury by entering the judgment into the public record.

This is the second independent verdict against Smithfield's actions during the union campaign at the Tar Heel plant. In December, 2000, an Administrative Law Judge of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) issued a 400-plus page ruling against Smithfield for violations of federal law. The NLRB judge found that Smithfield conspired with law enforcement to instigate the violence at the vote count.

John Rene Rodriguez died unexpectedly in December 2001. His father, Johnny Rodriguez, testified on behalf of his son's estate.