Upton Sinclair’s landmark 1905 book, The Jungle, exposed the food contamination and worker exploitation hidden in the fetid stockyards and meatpacking plants of Chicago and other major American cities. The muckraking journalist dubbed the nasty and brutish meat factories “a monster … the Great Butcher … the spirit of capitalism made flesh.”
The nauseating details of worker and consumer abuses that Sinclair exposed were so horrific that the ensuing public revulsion and outrage were transformative. Congress quickly passed a food purity law (the 1906 Meat Inspection Act), and union organizing drives sparked nationwide contract bargaining that eventually gave long-oppressed meatpacking workers the clout to improve factory conditions and pay. Indeed, by 1970, the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and the United Packinghouse Union had won enforceable safety rules and solid middle-class wages–about $25 an hour in today’s dollars. Now, the median wage for hourly workers in meatpacking plants is down to about half that–$13.23 per hour–some 30% less than production workers in other manufacturing jobs.
Unfortunately, there seems to be something in financial elites that causes them to start itching, twitching, and breaking out in plutocratic hives anytime economic democracy such as Sinclair inspired begins to flower. Sure enough, around 1970–just when working families, consumers, environmentalists, and others were making real progress against corporate powers–the baronies of industry and high finance initiated a radical counter-offensive.
Back to the Jungle
One of their core efforts was a long-term propaganda campaign to get lawmakers, the media, educators, and the public to accept an Orwellian absurdity to legitimize unethical, anti-social corporate behavior. “Shareholder primacy,” as they dubbed their malevolent principle, asserted that the corporate hierarchy’s SOLE purpose and overarching moral duty is to maximize stockholder profits. (See the Lowdown, February 2016).
Under this self-serving theory, CEOs and board members must do everything legally possible to lower wages, shortcut safety, squeeze out competitors, cheapen quality, minimize environmental protections, dodge taxes, avoid scrutiny and safety, and otherwise manipulate the system to funnel revenues into shareholders’ pockets.
A century ago Sinclair condemned the “unspeakable” practices that went on in “packing houses all the time.” But today’s conditions would leave him no less appalled. While unions and other reformers have set higher standards for cleanliness and safety, there’s a big difference between what’s put on paper and what actually occurs. Progress in standards, it turns out, has been efficiently canceled out by (1) the sheer enormity of today’s facilities, (2) the massive volume of animals slaughtered and butchered day and night, and (3) the treacherous work speeds corporate bosses demand.
The Big Three multinational giants dominating the US meat market (Brazil’s JBS, Arkansas’ Tyson Foods, and China’s Smithfield Foods) run factories typically covering hundreds of acres. There, 1,000 or more low-paid workers stand elbow-to-elbow in “The Chain”–high-speed “disassembly” lines that snake through the factories. Slogging through 10- to 12-hour shifts, they wield assorted saws, knives, hammers, cleavers, and other sharp and heavy tools of animal dissection made slippery by gore as they kill, gut, pluck, skin, cut, split, strip, bleed, debone, and package thousands of animals every single day. Periodically, industry lobbyists get government OKs to squeeze in more workers and speed up The Chain to force more “product throughput” … and profit.
Inevitably and constantly, stuff happens to the workers– gashes, crushed hands, amputations, gouged eyes, carpal tunnel, burns, respiratory damage, and PTSD from all the stress and carnage. OSHA’s official injury reports show an average of 17 severe injuries a month, including two amputations a week. The extent of the bloody toll, however, remains hidden since corporations are allowed to largely “self-report” injuries, supervisors and managers discourage workers from documenting or even discussing injuries, and federal inspections and regs are lax.
Meanwhile, the odds are stacked against workers who file an injury claim. Owing to paperwork minutiae and aggressive corporate lawyering, their chance of winning compensation is among the lowest of all industries. Then, too, more than half of frontline meatpackers are refugees and immigrants (some undocumented) for whom filing an official complaint would endanger family, home, and job.
The result is that gruesome health and safety records persist because of (1) internal corporate cultures of denial and intimidation, combined with (2) local, state, and federal regulators’ standard practice of treating industry executives and investors as esteemed clients to be coddled, not as safety violators to be sanctioned. So The Chain keeps running, and nothing changes–except maybe the appearance of another “Safety First” poster in the break room.
Pandemic in the plants
Until recently, few people considered the sources of their meat. Then, a coronavirus walked into one after another of Meat Inc.’s humongous rural factories, where more than 90% of US bacon, hamburger, chops, wings, and other animal parts are processed. Within weeks, the industry’s business model–immense plants, side-by-side congestion, worker powerlessness, and profit-driven executive suite carelessness–had created hotbeds of contagion. Suddenly, such out-of-the-way towns as Crete, Greeley, Cactus, Grand Island, Wilkesboro, Forest, Souderton, and Dakota City topped news of a surge of deadly COVID-19 cases across rural America. Although the toll is undoubtedly higher, by June 30, some 262 meat factories in 33 states had acknowledged outbreaks that infected 30,427 workers and killed 113.
In counties with few doctors and often no hospitals, bodies piled up, workers were refusing to show up, plants were forced to shut down, supermarkets and restaurants across the country rationed meat sales, and–worst of all in the corporate view–profits plummeted. What to do?
Do the old corporate shuffle, of course: Deny there’s any crisis, hide the numbers of ill and dead, blame immigrants, get Trump to order workers back on the job and grant blanket legal immunity to the corporations for any resulting harm to working families –and speed up The Chain.Sure enough, when workers began testing positive and dying, major meatpackers responded by not reporting data, halting worker testing (“Testing does not stop the virus,” rationalized a JBS spokesperson), and scoffing at workers’ concerns. (“They always denied it and said not to talk about things that we didn’t understand,” said a JBS meat cutter in Nebraska who was later infected and spread COVID to her husband and mother.) As the virus ran rampant in April and May, callous corporate bosses resorted to gimmicks. For example, JBS, the $50 billion Brazilian conglomerate, tried to lure its low-wage, vulnerable workers back on The Chain with a cheap bribe: a 5-pound package of ground beef. Worse are public officials who abet that greed. In Iowa, when county health officials demanded that Tyson test workers, the elected county attorney balked at “overstepping our bounds” and weakened the demand to an easily ignored request. Two weeks later, the state health office finally intervened to run tests: 730 people–58% of plant workers–had the virus.
Similarly, a slew of North Carolina county health directors asked state officials not embarrass Smithfield Foods by releasing plant- specific numbers of infected workers. Why? Because disclosure “may negatively impact [their] relationship” with corporate executives.
This conspiracy of silence is killing workers, families, and communities. “Are you telling me that it doesn’t matter that workers are infected because the plant is worth more than the workers’ health?” a pork plant worker emailed city officials in Missouri. Yes, that’s precisely what they’re saying. One city official suggested hand sanitizer.Ali Baba had nothing on Donald Trump. “Open sesame,” The Donald cried on April 28, and all the doors to the meatpackers’ caves swung open. However, instead of finding the treasures of the Forty Thieves, thousands of factory workers were gifted with a presidential decree that required them to risk their lives and families by going back to work.
Ignoring science and the Common Good and siding with meat executives, our cheeseburger-gobbling president invoked the 1950 Defense Production Act to decree that chicken nuggets, pork rinds, and Slim Jims are “scarce and critical material essential to the national defense.” Thus, public health officials are now prohibited from closing any plants, and slaughterhouse workers must obey private corporate orders to return to The Chain or lose their jobs and become ineligible for unemployment benefits. To mask their crime, the Trumpistas issued minimal worker-protection guidelines–but even they are voluntary, letting bosses ignore them.
Unsurprisingly, just over a month after Trump’s executive order, COVID cases tied to slaughterhouses jumped by more than 100%, with 11 Smithfield plants and 24 Tyson plants admitting to new outbreaks. Meanwhile, Trump’s “regulators,” headed by spineless Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue, allowed owners to speed up The Chain –effectively mandating more injuries. In April alone, as the pandemic raged, workers at 15 of Big Chicken’s factories were forced to process as many as 175 birds per minute.
Even more contemptible, Trump & Co. are granting corporate entities federal protection from legal liability for the inevitable harm they’ll cause. We’re free to kill you, goes this corporate proposition, but the law will ban your family from bothering us through any legal recourse.
It’s obvious that plain old greed is part of today’s corporate ethic, but we need to confront an even more repugnant enabler of avarice: Disdain for workers. Bosses harbor a deep-seated attitude that its almost 200,000 frontline meatpackers–
|51%||immigrant, some undocumented|
|80%||people of color (44% Latinx, 25% Black, 10% Asian)|
are lesser humans, unworthy of having their wellbeing interfere with the high calling of industrial money making. Hence, the executive-suite’s abject failure to respond to what clearly was, and still is, a fast-spreading health crisis, is exacerbated by intense, behind-the-scenes lobbying demands that the federal government force employees back into petri-dish plants. How ironic, that to justify federal intervention corporate execs deemed slaughterhouse workers “essential,” even while valuing their lives so little that they would sacrifice them to profit.
Especially disgusting was the attempt by industry and its political accomplices to blame the outbreaks on workers! Trump’s top health official, Alex Azar (a former lobbyist for Big Pharma), led this shameful assault in a May phone call with some Congressional leaders. Azar theorized that fault for the spread of COVID lay in workers’ untidy habits of group socializing and close-quarter living. He suggested a solution: More police should patrol worker neighborhoods to enforce social distancing.
Azar’s elitist contempt quickly spread as an official GOP talking point:
- Trump economic advisor Kevin Hassett coldly described workers as nothing but “human capital stock”
- a Smithfield spokesperson asserted that immigrants are not like “your traditional American family”
- and Wisconsin’s Republican Chief Justice Patience Roggensack, declared that workers stricken with COVID-19 at a JBS plant were not “regular folks.”
What we face here is not just standard corporate minginess, but an evil mentality that reduces workers to inferior, disposable beings: It not only dehumanizes the workplace, but workers themselves. It’s bad enough that some elites have always held such beliefs, but far worse that in the case of the meat industry, this lethal dehumanization is now accepted as the guiding ethic of both corporate and governmental policy. We must call out and reject this raw immorality, because dehumanization is the key to exploitation–it opens the gates to let racism, sexism, classism, and all other isms of inequality walk in.