Confined Space
News and Commentary on Workplace Health & Safety, Labor and Politics

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

The New Jungle: They Don't Kill Cows. They Kill People

The good news is that conditions in meatpacking plants have gotten better since Upton Sinclair published The Jungle 100 years ago.

The bad news is that things are still pretty bad.
He works in a world of long knives and huge saws, blood and bone, arctic chill and sweltering heat. For Martin Cortez, this is life on the line as a meatpacker.

It's no place for the squeamish. Some workers can't stomach the gore - chopping up the meat and bones of hundreds of cattle, day after day. Cortez has been at it more than 30 years. It also can be very dangerous. Some workers have been slashed, burned or scarred. He has not.

Even so, Martin Cortez, a soft-spoken man with sad eyes, doesn't recommend the work. The thrashing animals, the heavy lifting ... all that goes into putting steak and hamburger on America's dinner tables, he said, makes for a backbreaking day on the killing floor.

"You know what I like to say to newcomers?" he said. "They don't kill cows. They kill people."
Now we have Mexican and Central Americans,along with immigrants from Somalia, Sudan and Vietnam, whereas 100 years ago the immigrants working in the plants were from Eastern Europe.

And although things have gotten better over the past 100 years, they're not where they should be in 21st century America:
"It's not as bad as it was in the sense of the sheer brutality of 100 years ago - before labor laws and food safety laws," said Lance Compa, a Cornell University labor law expert who wrote a stinging Human Rights Watch report on the meat and poultry industry last year. "But for the times we're in now, the situation is much in line with what it was 100 years ago."

"It's extremely dangerous when it shouldn't be," he said. "Workers are exploited when they shouldn't be. The companies know it."

Others also say even with better regulation, if the meatpacking industry is judged against other workplace progress, it falls short.

"It's a new "Jungle," measured not against the standard of yesterday, but the standard of today," said Lourdes Gouveia, director of the Office for Latino/Latin American Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
Many of the safety problems are still there. According to a recent Government Accountablity Office report,
The industry still is plenty dangerous with knife-wielding workers standing long hours on fast-moving lines, chemicals, animal waste and factory floors that can be dark, loud, slippery or unbearably hot or bitter cold.

The risks are many: cuts and stabbings, burns, repetitive stress injuries, amputations and worse. Knife accidents blinded one meat worker and disfigured the face of another, the GAO said, citing OSHA records.

And other things are getting worse as well.
In the new meatpacking capitals, he said, paychecks have been shrinking. In 2004, the average annual wage for a worker in a slaughtering plant was about $25,000 - compared with $34,000 for manufacturing, according to federal figures.

It wasn't always that way.

The workers had their heyday in the 1950s and 1960s, when the union flexed its muscle and helped push up wages, turning meatpacking into a stable, middle-class job.

"For blue-collar people without much education, packinghouse workers were able to have second homes, send their kids to college so they don't have to do (the same job)," Horowitz said. "It became the American success story."

It didn't last.

In the late 1970s into the 1980s, big changes came. A new tough breed of competitors, mostly nonunion, led by Iowa Beef Processors - now part of Tyson Foods - emerged. Old-line companies went bankrupt. The master contract, one that covered several plants with a standard wage, vanished.

Meatpacking wages that were 15 percent above the average manufacturing salary in 1960 dropped to 20 percent below by 1990, said Don Stull, a University of Kansas anthropology professor and industry expert.
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