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The Shame of Meatpacking | The Nation

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The Shame of Meatpacking

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Since then, the union has increased the number of shop stewards and initiated a health and safety campaign; last year, workers won a $3.1 million judgment for unpaid time putting on and taking off equipment; and this year they filed a second such lawsuit. (The company appealed the first decision and issued a memo advising that workers were no longer required to remove their kill-floor frocks or other equipment in the cafeteria.) Workers went public with a videotape showing cattle being slaughtered alive, animal-rights groups were outraged and the state launched an investigation.

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.

The union's biggest victory, says Maria Chavez, has been changing the climate inside the IBP plant. "We were fearful before this woman came," she says, referring to Martinez. "There was fear that if we said anything they would fire us. Now it's evident that the people aren't afraid."

The gaining of power by Pasco's workers, heartening as it may be, still pales in comparison with the concentration of power within the industry. Last year Tyson Foods purchased IBP, making Tyson/IBP the Death Star of the meat business: It controls 27 percent of the US beef market, 23 percent of the chicken market and 19 percent of the pork market, with an annual revenue of roughly $24 billion a year. "It's too early to tell" what effect the merger might have on IBP's 32,500 production and maintenance workers, says the University of Kansas's Stull, but given that Tyson has a checkered labor record of its own, "I don't think things will get better. If anything, they'll get worse."

Certainly, it didn't help the workers who lost their jobs in Amarillo. The Amarillo IBP plant is significantly larger than the Pasco plant, employing 3,000 production and maintenance workers, and accordingly the chain runs even faster. Workers say the plant had been chronically understaffed for months before the strike. Recalls José Vazquez, who worked at IBP for eight years, up until the walkout, "When I started working there, there were fifteen chuck-boners on each line, and 380 chain speed was considered fast; you had to have sixteen or seventeen for that. Before we walked out, they were doing 400 an hour, with thirteen or fourteen chuck-boners." Last September, a group of workers approached management, threatening to quit if the staffing problem was not addressed, and asking that the company raise wages to the level of two other area meatpacking plants in order to better retain workers. When those discussions failed, the fifty or so workers involved were asked to leave the building, and hundreds of others followed them outside. IBP warned them to return to work or be fired and called the walkout "an unsanctioned protest over wages." The company fired them all several days later. Because the strike did not occur during contract negotiations, Teamsters Local 577 declined to sanction the walkout; local president Rusty Stepp told reporters there was nothing he could do for the wildcatting workers.

For several weeks, many of the fired workers installed themselves across the road from the plant like so many Texas bedouins, in a long string of tents, tarps, lawn chairs and pickup trucks. Yet their effort to put public pressure on the company did not meet with significant community support. "IBP just launched its public relations juggernaut and basically spun the walkout as a dispute over wages," says Jim Wood, one of a handful of Amarillo attorneys who tried to help the workers. "Really the issue was worker safety, and people who studied the issue saw that. Eventually the Catholic Church of Amarillo came out strongly in support of the workers, but by then people's minds were made up." Because Amarillo is predominantly Anglo, and most of the protesters were either Mexican-American or Asian-American, adds Wood, "there wasn't a lot of contact between them and the Anglo community."

Last October I spoke with workers outside the plant; it was clear that they were angry, they wanted their jobs back and they wanted their working conditions to improve. As had been the case in Pasco, Amarillo IBP workers were represented by a Teamsters local that many viewed as ineffective. But unlike in the Pasco strike, the Amarillo walkout had not been preceded by a sustained organizing effort inside the plant, and the five workers who formed an ersatz strike committee were not experienced leaders. Where Martinez and Pereya had a worker communication network organized by production line, the Amarillo workers had a bullhorn and a Peavey amplifier on the back of a pickup truck.

Representatives from a Justice Department community relations office in Dallas, the League of United Latin American Citizens and the union met with company officials to negotiate a back-to-work agreement, but with no workers or strong worker advocates present, the resulting agreement was weak, stipulating that the company would rehire fired workers on a "case-by-case basis," and that rehired workers would not be entitled to their old shifts or job-bidding seniority. "In my opinion they didn't negotiate anything, they just agreed to what the company gave them," says Vazquez.

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