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

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

'Hog Hell' In Tar Heel

Eric Shlosser, author of Fast Food Nation, has an article -- Hog Hell -- about Smithfield Packing Company in Tar Heel, North Carolina. We've written a lot about the union busting, racism and poor health and safety conditions at the plant (see below), but Schlosser always manages to find information that hasn't been discussed before:
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."
Schlosser notes that this year marks the 100th anniversary of Upton Sinclair's, The Jungle. And guess who's celebrating?
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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