The Shame of Meatpacking | The Nation


The Shame of Meatpacking

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Men and women from Mexico and Central America have long been making the trek north to Washington's Columbia River valley, a lush farming region where asparagus fields, orchards and vineyards provide seasonal work to immigrant laborers. A job at IBP represents a step up, as it is one of the few local year-round jobs available to a non-English speaker. Ninety percent of the plant's workers are immigrants: Most are from Latin America, while a significant minority are refugees from Laos, Vietnam and Bosnia.

Research support provided by the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute.

About the Author

Karen Olsson
Karen Olsson is a writer living in Austin, Texas.

Martinez, on the other hand, was born and raised in California, and applied to work at IBP after moving to Pasco in 1988. Compared with her previous jobs, "it was different," she says. "It's hard, hard work. You go home and you are always in pain. After three weeks, I was about to quit--I couldn't handle the work." It wasn't as if Martinez was unaccustomed to physical labor: She grew up in Fresno, the eleventh of twenty-two children of farmworker parents. A tomboy, she played football and boxed with her brothers, and beginning when she was 14, she would pick plums and table grapes from April to November. As a result she never finished school, and went on to a series of factory jobs. Today, at 45, she is sturdy-framed and energetic, and as she recalls her struggles with the company she slips easily from resoluteness to laughter, pausing to relish a particular moment--say, the day when the processing workers rattled the supervisors by loudly clanging their meat hooks against the conveyor belts all at once--and to note that "It was neat," or "It was so neat."

But meatpacking is indeed different, largely thanks to IBP. It was IBP that redesigned the modern meatpacking industry in the 1960s, reorganizing production to eliminate skilled labor, locating the plants in rural areas where unions were not a threat, slashing wages and speeding up the chain. "IBP set the trend and other companies have followed," says University of Kansas anthropologist Donald Stull, who has studied the industry for fifteen years. "They are all locked in this dance together; they all have to do the same kind of thing; and there really isn't any disincentive to keep doing them from the government." (Though to the extent that there are disincentives, IBP has been at the receiving end of them: The same year Martinez started in Pasco, OSHA proposed a $3.1 million fine against the company for safety violations in its Dakota City, Nebraska, plant--the second-largest penalty in the agency's history, though it was later reduced--and Congressman Tom Lantos lambasted the company as "clearly one of the most irresponsible and reckless corporations in America in terms of workers' health and safety.")

Martinez stuck to her job, despite the pain and despite the fact that the company had frozen wages at around $7 an hour years earlier, substituting small quarterly bonuses for raises. Employees were nevertheless made to work harder and harder. According to Ramon Moreno, who worked for twenty-one years in slaughter, beginning in 1979, the chain speed more than doubled over those two decades. The Pasco plant was cited repeatedly by state investigators for safety violations. Although workers were members of Teamsters Local 556, it was not a strong presence in the plant. "We didn't know anything about the union," recalls Maria Chavez, another longtime IBP worker.

Martinez's first foray into union activism was a disappointment: During contract negotiations in 1992, she joined a group of Pasco workers in an ultimately unsuccessful push for better pay and working conditions. "I swore I would never get involved with a union again," says Martinez. But in 1997, a different set of workers wrote a letter to the Teamsters international to complain about the local, and a Teamsters investigator, Joe Fahey, came to Pasco and met with a large group of workers. "People were crying, talking about being covered in diarrhea the entire shift because the supervisor wouldn't let them go to the bathroom," says Fahey, now president of Teamsters Local 912 in California and co-chair of TDU.

"That was the day we got our voices back," Pereya would say later. With help from TDU, Martinez, Pereya and other workers began organizing the plant, setting up a communication network inside and voting to change the local's bylaws. "We did huge actions inside," says Martinez, who was elected chief steward after the bylaws change. "We used to walk into the manager's office, during break, hundreds of us, with a petition over supervisor harassment. We used to pack that office like sardines." After the bruising contract campaign and strike, the Teamsters international put the local under trusteeship, removing Martinez from the steward's position. But she went to court and won her position back and subsequently was elected to head the local.

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