Sunday, December 23, 2007

Has Paula Deen sold her soul to those ham people?

I love this picture.

Forgive me for getting political here, because I try to make it happen as little as possible, but something has been itching at me. Jacob (the Food Network Addict) has brought up a controversy I have only been aware of over the last few weeks. If you didn't know, Paula Deen is a national spokeswoman for Smithfield Ham, a backbone - hambone? - of the nation's ham and pork industry. Smithfield, it turns out, has been having union troubles. This is specifically at its plant in Tar Heel, North Carolina (an appropriately named town, like Crab Cake, Maryland). The controversy, to simplify, is over whether or not there are unsafe workplace conditions (the website Smithfield Justice talks about this in great depth; I tried to find a website that spouses the opposite viewpoint, but all I've found so far is the actual Smithfield site itself). Much of what Smithfield has done is, well, this (from the New York Times):
Smithfield, for example, has run a flood of television advertisements boasting that the company is a good, safe place to work. The advertisements aim to persuade [North and South] Carolinians to apply for jobs and to counter arguments made by a union trying to organize the plant that Smithfield jobs are high stress and unsafe, with stingy benefits.
They've also had immigration crackdowns after hiring illegal immigrants to work there, leading to 21 arrests and an outflux of Hispanic laborers (from the same article, leading to a spike in wages, as well as a turnover rate among legal immigrant and non-immigrant laborers that is over twice that of illegal immigrant laborers, according to this article).

Amid all this controversy comes Smithfield spokeswoman Paula Deen. She is starting to irritate people for other reasons, and even I admit, that whole fried stuffing thing was a shark-jumping moment for her. So I was curious to hear what she had to say about this controversy when I found out about it. I must be dense or something - there were protesters outside the recent Metro Cooking Show in DC, but I did not see them. I don't know where they were, or maybe I thought they were somebody else. There must be something wrong with me because I did not see them. But I did hear Paula on NPR's Diane Rehm Show. After talking about her life story, Paula got smacked by callers about her relationship with Smithfield. The typical comment to Paula Deen was "You are compassionate, so why aren't you showing compassion for the union workers? / Why won't you meet with them or listen to their grievances?" Paula's typical response is the same one she gave on a recent interview on a Savannah TV station (quoted frm Food Network Addict):
You wouldn't come to me if you had a brain tumor and said please, operate on my tumor, cut it out. No, you wouldn't come to me for that. I wouldn't come to a union organizer to help me develop recipes in my kitchen or to help me come in and cook. I want people who know what they're doing and I have no knowledge of those kind of issues.
Now, I do like Paula Deen (despite the fried cake thing), and I think she's a sincere woman. At least she seems like it to me. So I hope her critics are wrong. But if you're a spokesperson for a company that has some issues, you're going to be the face of those issues whether you want to be or not. It truly seems as if Paula is just dodging the issue altogether. True, on NPR she did say that she met with a small group of workers from the Tar Heel plant and they seemed to be happy with no union at all. But does that explain the letter sent by pro-union folks at the plant? (Or are they even from the plant in the first place?) I admit, union support and membership has run in my family for several generations, so my opinions on the Tar Heel controversy are going to be skewed. But what is the spokesperson's role in all this? My take, in a comment on Jacob's blog, sums up where my thoughts are on the Paula Deen issue:
...She strikes me as sincere, but part naive [in wanting to believe what Smithfield is saying] and part "better not piss off the overlords at Smithfield". If you're a celebrity profiting off a big company with serious questions about how it treats its staff, you should indeed be held accountable. She likes to play the dumbass, but I doubt she's as stupid as she claims to be. Either she needs to come right out and say, "I have no problem with how Smithfield treats its employees and they should thank their lucky stars they even have jobs" or admit, "Yep, I admit Smithfield is really hurting its workers at its Tar Heel, NC, plant, and I must sadly part company with them until they treat them with the dignity they deserve." This "Oh-I-don't-know-nuthin'-I'm-just-a-simple-girl-from-Savannah [correction, Albany, Georgia]" schtick is not working.
In truth, Paula does try to portray herself as not-too-bright - she very literally did that at the Metro Cooking Show, for example - "Michael's the smart one!" However, I get the impression she's very smart - you have to be at least a little savvy to keep your family off the streets, start your own business and become a major television star, all with a clinical diagnosis of agoraphobia. So I do think Paula knows what she's doing. She may be in a difficult place to do anything about it. If I were in the same boat, I'd hope I'd take a hike from Smithfield. But who can say if we're not in that situation? Still, trying to take no side at all? Come on, Paula, you have to have some opinion. Thoughts?


Cham said...

Paula is gross person who encourages people to eat unhealthily. I am under the impression that she is actually a vicious shark of a woman from Paramus who has worked hard on developing the worst sham of a southern accent ever.

Having said that, the correct answer for the Smithfield union issue would be, "I have a deep appreciation for the Smithfield Corporation and its workers, I hope the two sides can resolve their issues quickly and in a positive way." Yes, she is a dummy, anybody with some smarts would have known what to say to the media.

John said...

Maybe I'm a wee bit too forgiving of La Deen, perhaps. That said, your suggestion about what she should say is probably the only way she can take a middle ground here without looking silly. - trying to please everyone usually pleases no one, so that's probably the best way to stay as far out of the fray as possible.

jmc said...

I like Paula Deen...but can only deal with her in very small quantities. I prefer her regular/original show more to her "live" show, which seems rather hokey and fake to me. Caught a couple of the Smithfield commercials over the holiday weekend and was thinking that she's suffering from overexposure.

On the labor front, the lame response that you've reported diminishes my respect for her and her accomplishments. I find it hard to believe that she knows nothing about labor issues, since she's a business owner -- at least one restaurant in Savannah, right? Maybe not grand scale labor rights issues, but she's (I would hope) got to be at least aware of OSHA, unions, legal/illegal immigrant employee issues within the food service industry.

danielle said...

Depending on her contract with Smithfield, Paula Deen may not be legally allowed to comment on the issue. However, she could have given a smarter no comment.

John said...

Danielle: That does make sense. And you're right - if there is a "no comment" clause in her contract, the smartest thing to do is to say so (unless, of course, she can't even comment on the no comment clause).

JMC: She is DEFINITELY overexposed these days!

Anonymous said...

I remember seeing Paula Dean years ago on TV and she spoke with a very mild southern accent, you could only hear certain words in her vocabulary that sounded southern. The more popular she got over the years the more she laid-on the southern fake accent.
Also she represents Smithfield and they have such horrible human right violations, treat their workers horrible. Bring in illegal Mexican workers and abuse them terribly. How can she represent such a horrible comany and she still sleeps at night? I would never watch her show again.