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The Shame of Meatpacking | The Nation

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The Shame of Meatpacking

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Last April I returned to Amarillo and visited the offices of Medina y Medina translating, a small storefront in a down-market shopping plaza, and headquarters of Pioneros Para La Justicia, a group of current and former IBP workers, formed last December. There, Pioneros collective member Sonia Campos has been filing unemployment appeals and organizing meetings. She also fields questions from former workers who call or stop by, like Alex Telles, who showed up while I was there. Telles lost his job as a skinner because of the walkout, after twenty-two years with IBP. Since then, he says, he's been working temp jobs for Manpower, Inc. "It's been lousy," Telles says. "I get maybe three days of work a week from them. I've got applications all over town: warehouses, truck stops. I went to get food stamps and they wouldn't help me." With a wife who works in a nursing home and two teenage sons, says Telles, "we're just barely getting by."

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.

At an evening meeting of thirty former and current IBP workers at St. Laurence Catholic Church, the stories were similar: People who'd been laid off were struggling to pay bills and applying for public assistance. Those who had been called back to work said that the company had hired more people, but that many of the new workers were inexperienced.

The Amarillo workers' prospects for repeating the successes of the Pasco local are less than rosy. Several years ago, Amarillo attorney Jeff Blackburn helped convene a meeting between a group of IBP workers and TDU's Joe Fahey, but it failed to spark the kind of internal organizing seen in Pasco. "There's been a continuously self-defeating cycle of spontaneous anger that gets expressed," says Blackburn. "Leaders that really aren't leaders get thrown into it, and then everybody gets demoralized." For her part, Campos plans to circulate a worker petition to decertify the Teamsters and designate Pioneros Para La Justicia as their bargaining representative. It's not hard to understand her disenchantment with the Teamsters--Local 577 president Stepp, who earns $103,000 a year, seems to have little contact with the 2,000 members who work at IBP. But it is difficult to imagine Campos's pioneers waging a successful battle against IBP with no institutional support at all.

Stepp did not return phone calls for this story. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which (unlike TDU) has not expressed support for wildcatting workers in Ft. Morgan and Amarillo, provided a brief statement: "There were problems that led to a wildcat strike with IBP at Local 577. The union has responded to these problems and continues to proactively address them." Last spring, representatives from the Teamsters international flew to Amarillo to meet with current and laid-off IBP workers. "They made promises," says Campos, "but after they left, they didn't return our phone calls."

While the Teamsters represent only a handful of the packing plants nationwide, the UFCW maintains by far the largest union presence in meatpacking--representing roughly 60 percent of slaughterhouse workers, according to UFCW spokesman Greg Denier. Individual locals vary, but in general the history of meatpacking unions during the second half of the twentieth century is a story of sharp decline. Once the old unionized firms gave way to IBP, says labor historian Roger Horowitz, the unions found themselves unable to organize the new, nonunion packers, and by the early 1980s concessionary bargaining was the norm: "The UFCW would persuade the company to sign a closed-shop agreement and get things like health insurance," but wages remained low, while chain speeds got higher and higher.

If events in Omaha and Pasco are any indication, that trend doesn't have to continue. But unions can't do it alone, says Martinez. "The humane-slaughter people and the food-safety people should work together; they'd have a lot of power," she says. "In the meat industry, both issues have to do with the chain. The chain goes so fast that it doesn't give the animals enough time to die. People don't have enough time to wash their knife if it falls on the floor." And tens of thousands of workers are injured every year. "I've been writing about it for fifteen years; a lot of people in the media have said the things I've said, and things haven't changed," says Stull.

Still, workers and industry critics hope that more consumers will come to appreciate the link between food safety and a safer workplace. The union campaigns in Pasco and the organizing drive in Omaha owe much of their success to their efforts to involve the community--particularly churches and local colleges--in their efforts. Home Justice Watch, a Texas-based group that works on worker safety, human rights and animal rights violations in slaughterhouses, has launched the Eat Rights campaign to focus consumer attention on these issues. "The same things that contribute to the contamination of the meat are what make it more likely that people are going to get hurt," says Eric Schlosser. "The only reason it's been allowed to continue is that people don't know. Even if you have no compassion for the poor and the illegal in this country, if you eat meat, or the people you love eat meat, you should care."

The way to change the industry is by "people being informed and spreading the word to the public," says Martinez. "The worst fear of IBP is workers being united. Now we're here, and they know I'm not in bed with them. You have to have them by their tail. I'm always pulling their tail."

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