The Shame of Meatpacking
The strike began, Maria Martinez recalls, because a worker on the loin line wasn't keeping up with the pace of production. When a supervisor pulled him into the office, some thirty workers, Martinez among them, dropped their knives and followed him there. "The superintendent said, 'You've got sixty seconds to get back to work, or everyone's fired,'" says Martinez. "We didn't move, and then he said, 'OK, you guys are all fired.' So we went outside, and the next thing we knew there were hundreds of people outside." This was in June 1999, at an IBP meatpacking plant near Pasco, Washington. Fed up with plant conditions and stalled contract negotiations, close to 800 workers, nearly all of them immigrants, rallied alongside the plant access road for five weeks.
They returned to work discouraged. Though the new contract, narrowly approved, raised starting pay from $7 to $8.50, it eliminated the old $1.50-an-hour pension and did not include a provision allowing workers to stop the chain for sanitary reasons, which workers had wanted. But for Martinez, now principal officer of Teamsters Local 556 in Walla Walla, Washington, the strike was a step forward. "We lost, but we also gained respect, we gained dignity, we gained a lot of strength," Martinez says. On the day they returned to work, she says, "we parked our cars on the picket line, and we all walked in together, chanting, 'The union is back!'"
In fact, IBP workers had made significant gains before the strike, organizing themselves and voting to change the local's bylaws so they could elect their own shop stewards. The following summer, Martinez and fellow strike leader Melquiadez Pereya were elected to lead the local, replacing the older Anglo officers who workers say failed to maintain a strong union presence in the plant. And three years later, the union is back more than ever: The revitalized Local 556 has made a dramatic impact on the shop floor, defending the interests of individual workers while pushing for a safer, more sanitary workplace.
The shouts of protest aren't just coming from Washington. Last September in Amarillo, Texas, hundreds of workers walked out of another IBP plant to protest low wages and chronic staff shortages that had made their already dangerous jobs all the more stressful and hazardous. At an Excel meatpacking plant in Ft. Morgan, Colorado, more than 400 workers conducted another wildcat strike last February. And in Omaha, Nebraska, an Industrial Areas Foundation-affiliated community group called Omaha Together One Community (OTOC) and the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) have teamed up to organize workers in a dozen area packing plants. According to IAF organizer Tom Holler, when OTOC began holding meetings in South Omaha in 1993, "It was clear from day one that the major issue in the community was the conditions in these plants."
As readers of Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation (and of past reports in this and other publications) are well aware, America's 150,000 meatpacking workers perform the most dangerous job in the country, many of them making knife cuts every few seconds. In 2000 the official illness and injury rate for meatpacking workers was 25 percent. Given the chronic underreporting of injuries in the industry, particularly when it comes to cumulative stress disorders, the actual injury rate is probably much higher. In Walla Walla, the union examined plant injury logs and found that 781 injuries had been recorded in 1999 and 2000, while in a recent union-sponsored survey of just under 500 workers, two-thirds said they had suffered a work-related health problem in the past twelve months.
The reasons for this are no secret. Four giant competitors--IBP, ConAgra, Excel (owned by Cargill) and Farmland National Beef--dominate the beef industry, together controlling over 85 percent of the US market. Because profit margins are much slimmer than in other manufacturing sectors, the companies are especially intent on keeping labor costs as low as possible and volume as high as possible--which translates into hiring cheap labor, discouraging unions and maintaining intolerably high chain speeds, even if those things contribute to the industry's astronomical turnover rates. Because so many meatpacking workers are recent, non-English-speaking immigrants, some of them in the country illegally, they are less likely to complain about unsafe conditions. Meanwhile, inspections by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration dropped to an all-time low by the late 1990s. No one expects that trend to be reversed under President Bush, who last year proposed cuts in OSHA's budget and, in a move urged by the meat industry and other business groups, repealed workplace ergonomics standards that had been under development for ten years.
Trying to take on a giant meatpacker is not an easy task; in Amarillo more than 500 workers who walked out lost their jobs. (Some have since been hired back.) And it's highly unlikely that a few revitalized union locals could, on their own, force the powerful packers to slow down the breakneck pace of production--the primary cause of the industry's stunningly high injury rates. But after years of industry unionbusting and co-optation, the recent worker actions cut promisingly against the grain.
"There are things that explain these explosions," says David Levin, a Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) organizer, who has met with meatpacking workers in Pasco and Ft. Morgan. "One is just the incredible speedup and pressure in the workplace, and the safety hazards that come with that. Then there is the really abusive and disrespectful treatment of workers. You're made to work faster than you can safely, and then treated disrespectfully in this often racist way by management. When people are facing these problems as individuals, they seem insurmountable, but in combination it can be an explosive concoction."