Feb 21, 2005
Human Rights Watch just published a study of the U.S. meat and poultry industry that records the inhuman working conditions and illegal efforts to crush union organizing at meatpacking companies. It interviewed workers who cut up carcasses for meat at a rate of 25,000 hogs per day in South Carolina or five million chickens a day in Arkansas or 50,000 cattle a day in the Midwest.
The report documented repetitive motion injury and life-threatening wounds. It showed the way the biggest corporations use immigrant workers – threatening them with calling the Immigration services if the workers complained about any conditions. It detailed corporate maneuvers against unionization efforts over a period of years.
There are three corporations at the heart of this report. One is Tyson Foods, which calls itself "the world leader in producing and marketing beef, pork and chicken"; another is Smithfield Foods, half of whose South Carolina hourly employees are immigrants; and a third company is Nebraska Beef, founded by a former executive of a beef processor which had closed down. Then the new owners re-opened the plant when they obtained multi-million dollar tax credits.
Human Rights Watch is known for documenting torture in many parts of the poorer parts of the world. If they choose to spend time and money on a study of the U.S. meatpacking industry, it is an indication of the depth of the problem.
But while the conditions in producing meat are particularly appalling, the world's richest country has plenty of other industries in which conditions for workers are growing worse. U.S. workers experience speed-up, intimidation against organizing and company avoidance of existing laws in all kinds of jobs.
Still, the meatpacking bosses not only appear among the worst; they are returning workers to conditions documented a century ago! In a book called The Jungle, which came out in 1906, author and socialist, Upton Sinclair, was commissioned to write about the horrors faced by the mainly immigrant workers at Chicago's meat-packing companies.
Workers in this industry and others began more than a century ago to organize unions, first the Amalgamated Meat Cutters in the early 1900s and then the Packinghouse Workers in 1937. There was an enormous upsurge of factory militancy at that time. Workers found out they could fight the companies every step of the way. They also discovered they couldn't count on politicians for a thing.
Meatpacking workers will have to return to the militancy of their grandparents before their working conditions will improve.