Hog Hell

Hog Hell

Low wages, segregation and dangerous working conditions in a North Carolina factory reveal a meatpacking industry where labor laws no longer matter.


This year marks the hundredth anniversary of Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle. Its depiction of unchecked greed and exploitation in the American meatpacking industry unfortunately remains relevant. A few months ago the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit upheld a December 2000 ruling by an administrative law judge at the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). The case involved the behavior of the Smithfield Packing Company between 1992 and 1998 at its plant in Tar Heel, North Carolina–the largest hog slaughterhouse in the world. According to the appeals court, Smithfield had violated a wide variety of labor laws and created “an atmosphere of intimidation and coercion” in order to prevent workers at the plant from joining the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union.

Here are some of the details: Smithfield threatened to close the plant if workers voted to join the UFCW. It harassed workers who supported the union and paid other workers to spy on them. It forced union supporters to distribute anti-union literature. It fired workers for backing the union. It asked workers to lie during their testimony to the NLRB and refused to hand over company videotapes that the government had subpoenaed. During a union election in 1997, two UFCW supporters were beaten and arrested by security officers and deputy sheriffs. The chief of security at the slaughterhouse–who also served as a local deputy sheriff–carried handcuffs and a gun on the job. Between 2000 and 2005 he ran a company police force, operating in the plant and staffed with other deputy sheriffs, that arrested almost a hundred workers, including UFCW supporters.

One of the most remarkable things about Smithfield’s behavior is that it was criticized by a branch of the federal government. Since George W. Bush took office in January 2001, the meatpacking industry has wielded more power than at any other time since the early twentieth century. The Bush Administration has worked closely with the industry to weaken food safety and worker safety rules and to make union organizing more difficult. The US Department of Agriculture now offers a textbook example of a regulatory agency controlled by the industry it’s supposed to regulate. The current chief of staff at the USDA was, until 2001, the chief lobbyist for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. Meanwhile, the sort of abuses criticized in the NLRB’s Smithfield decision are still being committed. A recent Human Rights Watch report on the US meatpacking industry found “systematic human rights violations.” Lance Compa, the author of the report, teaches labor law at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. Compa interviewed many workers at the Smithfield plant in Tar Heel. What’s happening there, he says, is “a modern-day version of The Jungle.”

While visiting Chicago slaughterhouses for research in 1904, Upton Sinclair met Eastern European immigrants employed at dangerous, dirty, low-wage jobs. Union organizers and injured workers were being harassed and fired. The publication of The Jungle two years later caused a public uproar–about the widespread contamination of meat, not the mistreatment of meatpacking workers. The book helped President Theodore Roosevelt gain passage of two important pieces of legislation, the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act. But it didn’t accomplish much for meatpacking workers. Conditions gradually improved in the nation’s slaughterhouses, thanks to years of labor organizing. The industry fought hard against unions, pitting one Eastern European immigrant group against another and recruiting African-Americans as strikebreakers. By the 1930s, however, most of the industry was unionized. And by the 1950s meatpacking workers had one of the highest-paid manufacturing jobs in the United States. It wasn’t always a pleasant job, but it provided a solid, middle-class income.

In 1970 the typical American meatpacking worker earned about 20 percent more than the typical factory worker. Today he or she earns about 20 percent less. Enormous changes have swept through the industry over the past thirty years, as big companies swallowed up small ones, moved slaughterhouses from urban areas (where unions were strong) to rural areas (where unions were weak), imported poor immigrants from Mexico and ruthlessly cut wages by as much as 50 percent. Today meatpacking workers have one of the lowest-paid manufacturing jobs in the United States–and one of the most dangerous. At a modern slaughterhouse hundreds of people work at a furious pace, close to one another, wielding sharp knives. The most common injury is a laceration, as workers stab themselves or a worker nearby.

When my book Fast Food Nation was published in 2001, the meatpacking industry had the nation’s highest rate of serious injury. It was about three times higher than the national average for factories, despite widespread underreporting of slaughterhouse injuries. The rate of cumulative trauma injury in meatpacking was about thirty-three times higher than the national average. Today it’s impossible to know how many meatpacking workers are really getting hurt. In 2002 the Occupational Safety and Health Administration changed the form that companies must use to record meatpacking injuries–and thereby reduced the injury rate by 50 percent. “Recordable safety incident rate in plants cut in half since 1996,” the American Meat Institute announced in a press release, giving the industry credit for the miraculous decline, picking 1996 as a year of comparison to mislead journalists and never mentioning that the 50 percent drop was due entirely to the government’s bookkeeping change.

Tar Heel is located in one of the poorest regions of North Carolina, with a faltering rural economy and sharp racial divisions among the local whites, African-Americans and Native Americans. The Smithfield plant, which opened in 1992, only added to the racial tension. Charlie LeDuff, a New York Times reporter who worked undercover at the plant in 2000, described a brutal, segregated workplace where whites were employed as supervisors, blacks did the heavy lifting on the kill floor and Mexican immigrants were given the worst jobs. Inmates on work-release, wearing green prison uniforms, were placed with the Mexicans. In one sense the company was an equal-opportunity employer, LeDuff noted: “The Smithfield plant will take just about any man or woman with a pulse and a sparkling urine sample, with few questions asked.” Testifying before a US Senate committee a couple of years later, Sherri Bufkin, a former supervisor at the slaughterhouse, explained some of Smithfield’s racial policies. “Management hired a special outside consultant from California to run the anti-union campaign in Spanish for the Latinos, who were seen as easy targets of manipulation because they could be threatened with immigration issues,” Bufkin said. “The word was that black workers were going to be replaced with Latino workers because blacks were more favorable to unions.”

The NLRB decision strongly condemned Smithfield’s actions during union elections in 1994 and 1997, both of which ended with the UFCW’s defeat. The fact that it took so many years for the federal government to act suggests that the nation’s labor laws have become largely meaningless. Smithfield was neither fined nor indicted for breaking the law. None of its executives were punished. The company was merely ordered to post the NLRB decision at the Tar Heel plant, rehire several workers who were illegally fired and hold another union election. “Smithfield looks forward to an election by secret ballot,” Joseph Luter IV, the president of Smithfield Packing Company, wrote in an editorial in June. Although Smithfield has decided to accept the NLRB’s findings, the company still denies that any of them are true. Gene Bruskin, director of the UFCW’s Smithfield campaign, thinks it’s impossible to hold a free or fair election at the Smithfield plant. Bruskin hopes that growing pressure from civil rights leaders, religious groups and immigrant-rights groups will convince Smithfield executives to sit down with the union and discuss how workers can join the UFCW without being threatened or harassed. On August 30 UFCW supporters from around the country plan to demand justice for Smithfield workers at the company’s annual shareholder meeting in Richmond, Virginia.

Meanwhile, the industry continues to peddle its version of reality. In June the American Meat Institute held a luncheon for journalists in Washington, DC, to celebrate Upton Sinclair and the passage of the 1906 Meat Inspection Act. French champagne was served, glasses were raised in honor of the centennial and a commemorative booklet was handed out. It outlines the industry’s labor, environmental and food safety policies, with the title: “If Upton Sinclair were alive today… He’d be Amazed by the U.S. Meat Industry.” That much is true. He would be amazed–by how little has fundamentally changed, how brazenly a new set of immigrants is being exploited in a familiar way, how old lies are being repeated. But you’d never catch him at that luncheon, sponsored by an industry that tried so hard to destroy him. If Upton Sinclair were alive today, you would find him in Tar Heel, North Carolina, fighting for the union and angry as hell.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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