updated 1/15/2007 3:52:16 PM ET 2007-01-15T20:52:16

Some workers at a massive Smithfield Foods Inc. hog slaughtering plant missed the first shift Monday to protest a company decision not to give them the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday as a paid day off.

The United Food and Commercial Workers Union estimated that 400 people among the 2,500 scheduled to work had walked out or not come to work Monday. About 100 to 150 people miss work for a typical shift, company spokesman Dennis Pittman said.

The plant in Tar Heel, about 80 miles south of Raleigh, employs about 5,000 people and is considered the largest hog processing plant in the world.

A large number of workers at the plant are black or Hispanic, union officials have said, although they did not provide numbers.

Inside the plant, union workers took credit for shutting down a production line, but company officials said the action hadn't slowed operations.

"They just haven't been effective," Pittman said.

The union and the workers asked the company last week to grant Monday as a paid holiday, with thousands of workers signing a petition with the request. The company said it had already planned Monday as a work day and that the timing of the request didn't leave them enough time to change plans.

Workers who miss work will be docked a day's pay and could be disciplined, company and union officials said last week.

Plant workers were given a choice a few years ago between having Easter or Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a paid holiday. The workers chose Easter.

"You shouldn't be asked to choose between Jesus and Dr. King, a man who stood for our fight for humane working conditions," Keith Ludlum, a Smithfield worker, said in a statement released by the union.

The company gives each worker 12 personal days a year besides vacation and holidays, Pittman said.

In November, the union backed about 1,000 plant employees who walked off the job to protest the firing of about 50 workers who the company said provided unverifiable identification information.

Workers were back on the job a day later after Smithfield agreed to give the employees 60 days to verify the information.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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