“Every spring they did it; and in the barrels would be dirt and rust and old nails and stale water—and cartload after cartload of it would be taken up and dumped into the hoppers with fresh meat, and sent out to the public’s breakfast.”Sinclair 132
“In the early 1970s, the fastest line killed 179 cattle an hour; today […][it] kills 400[…]. In Europe, […] only […] 60 […] are killed”(Fitzgerald 62)
Intimidation in the Meatpacking Industry
In today’s slaughterhouse industry, undocumented workers are brought in to ensure that meat-packing plants still run smoothly even with a turnover rate often exceeding 100%. This means that for any given worker, chances are that they won’t even last a year (“Slaughterhouse Workers”). Most employees are also “at will” workers, meaning that they can be “fired at a supervisor’s discretion” (“Slaughterhouse Workers”), and this imminent threat of termination discourages people from reporting workplace injuries, or even safety concerns; a factor that is compounded when one is an undocumented immigrant and any attempt to notify the authorities could mean one’s deportation. This intimidation is one reason workplace injuries seem to be hitting a “record low” each year (Nikki), even as production lines continue to up the pace.
In-House Medical Units and Skewed Data
The other reason for this appearance of workplace safety is that the medical personnel in meatpacking plants are hired by the company, ‘hand-picked’ if you will, resulting in cases where, “a worker made 90 visits to a nursing station before being referred to a physician” (Gerlock), and they “encouraged workers to return to their workstations or kept their medical treatment at the level of first aid” (When We’re Dead), a level at which the employer is no longer obligated to report an injury. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, “These units […] often function in a medically ambiguous fashion” (Fagan 2), simply there to keep “cases […] off the […] recordkeeping log” (Fagan 3). These innocuous actions by slaughterhouses have real human consequences, delaying effective medical treatment and exacerbating the problem by forcing the worker back on the line. Quite recently, this disregard has been encouraged by the record low number of OSHA inspectors (Eidelson), who are supposed to enforce workplace safety regulations.
Perhaps encouraged by a lax regulatory environment, the meatpacking industry also willfully ignored repeated warnings about pandemic preparedness, insisting that they would rely on “‘American ingenuity’ to ‘adapt and continue operating’” (Grabell), despite a 2006 governmental report warning that upwards of 40% of staff would be absent at the height of a pandemic (Grabell). This failure to acknowledge governmental recommendations has led to disastrous consequences in the current pandemic.
The Historical Decline in Employee Bargaining Power
Employee bargaining power in the slaughterhouse industry has been slowly eroding since the 1960’s, but to understand why, we must first look at the history of the industry. Throughout the 19th century, the industry centralized into more controllable ‘public’ slaughterhouses as opposed to individual ‘private’ operations, with public outrage arguing that when the “slaughter of hundreds of animals[…], create palpable nuisances, the evil[…] must be regulated” (Slaughter House Editorial). However, this quick growth and consolidation in the meat industry corresponded with unorganized expansion; Armour and Co.’s site covered 87 acres, and employed over 1,000 workers who only “push[ed] meat tubs and trucks from one department to another”- at this point, “it was impossible to operate[…] at a profit” (Thies 6). This glut of space had previously been used for the 55 day curing process (Thies 8), but technological advances allowed plants to take a more compact form. Yet even as these packers divested themselves from their inefficient plants, by the 60’s more than 95% of their non-southern employees belonged to a union (Fitzgerald 61)- and this old guard became increasingly undercut by a new group of anti-union companies.
This new ‘big four’ group of companies could facilitate this decline in unionization through three different avenues (aside from their lack of union penetration in the first place);
- Industrial deskilling
- The relocation of slaughterhouses to rural areas with less of a unionization tradition
- The fractionalization of the workforce
Now although workforce fractionalization might sound unlikely among the immigrants of The Jungle and the immigrants of today, by the 50’s the workforce was primarily white men (Fitzgerald 61), and it was this second transition to immigrant labour that found conflict with the preexisting unions. This was made necessary by the ‘rural shift,’ which itself happened when it became more economical to place plants near to the areas of livestock production. So, in exchange for concessions from local communities, the packers relocated and, as Andy Anderson, co-founder of IBP (one of the ‘big four’), explained, “tried to take the skill out of every step,” and “We wanted to […] take boys right off the farm and we’ve done it” (Whittaker 32). However, this ‘farm boy’ labor pool would never last, and eventually it became clear that outside recruitment would be necessary: “immigrant[s] […]were[…] actively recruited[…] with few marketable skills[…][and would] work long hours[…] for low wages — and, possibly, not join a union” (Whittaker 38). Consequently, this new group of companies had free reign to speed up production lines and exploit their largely immigrant and non unionized workforce.
I would hope to mitigate these problems through three main parts:
- Comprehensive line speed regulation
Line speed regulation is fairly self explanatory, but its successful implementation really relies on everything else going as planned, specifically injury logs being kept up to date and accurate. That’s because I don’t want to go and set a specific number of animals (say 200 hogs per hour) that the line must stay under, but rather base line speed off of injury rates- if they are above the manufacturing average injury rate, then the line speed will be decreased at a OSHA inspector’s discretion (baseline would be 15 animals per hour).
- OSHA reformation
In order for this system to work, a major reform of OSHA is due in order to enforce these limits. First of all, more funding is necessary so OSHA could do more frequent inspections, perhaps once every 4 months, of slaughterhouses. Second, there would be a minimum fine of $10,000 if an employer has above average injury rates, and other such minimums for other violations (so that a penalty can’t be excused by ‘good intentions’). Monthly injury rates would also be publicly available in order to increase accountability.
- Increased illegal immigrant protection in the industry.
I would also increase protections for the illegal immigrants in the industry, and add an anonymous hotline so they can report injuries without fear of retaliation, and receive psychological help if needed.
As for what you and I can do, any of these actions would help:
- Buy from a local butcher
- Eat less meat
- Look into the labor practices of the company you are buying from
For more reading, here are my extended essays, my bibliography, and a Human Right’s Watch report on the extent of injuries in the meatpacking industry:
- My Personal Interest Essay
- My Historical Background Essay
- The Current State of the Problem, and my Solution.
- My Bibliography
- US: Meatpacking Workers’ Rights Under Threat
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