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Meatpacking: It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way

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Not only does meatpacking not have to be COVID-19’s favorite place to spread, but the other horrible conditions that define this industry don’t have to be that way either. In fact, they weren’t for about two decades, thanks to organizing through the United Packinghouse Workers of America and Amalgamated Meat Cutters. An excerpt from Jake Rosenfeld’s forthcoming book:

Is there something inherent about meat processing that renders the occupation low-paying and highly dangerous? Our own history suggests otherwise. Sandwiched between Sinclair’s time and the present day were a few decades in which slaughterhouse work was, all things considered, well compensated and not as risky.

Winning such gains was no easy feat, seeing as how the workforce had been deliberately constructed to sow internal divisions. Then as now, employers used language and other cultural divisions to retain their workplace power by inhibiting worker solidarity. There was nothing accidental about this strategy. In 1904, economist John Commons toured a Chicago plant and was startled to find that all the recent hires were Swedish. A manager explained the strategy: “It is only for a week. Last week we employed Slovaks. We change among different nationalities and languages. It prevents them from getting together.”

Beginning in the 1930s, the efforts of the United Packinghouse Workers of America (UPWA) and the Amalgamated Meat Cutters (AMC) finally got the workers together. By the 1960s, these two unions represented nearly all slaughterhouse employees outside of the South. This density allowed for industry-wide wage bargaining and safety standards to which all the major employers adhered. From the end of World War II up through the 1980s, pay for meat-packers often exceeded average wages in manufacturing. In 1970, for example, cutters and trimmers earned nearly $24 an hour in today’s dollars. Frontline slaughterers took home nearly $26 an hour. For a full-time worker, that averages out to over $54,000 a year—a solid, middle-class salary in many parts of the country.

By the mid-1980s, however, these hard-won gains in income and safety had been lost. In 1985, the annual injury rate in the industry topped 30 percent, meaning that for every 100 slaughterhouse workers, 30 suffered an injury requiring more than just first aid. This rate was quadruple the average across the private sector. And no pay raise compensated workers for the danger. Real wages peaked in the late 1970s, and declined precipitously throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

IBP, once the country’s largest beef processor, led the charge away from the highly organized, largely urban industry structure that predominated during the post–World War II decades. Other companies mimicked IBP, relocating to rural locations, de-skilling many positions, and shifting to non-union labor. Today, IBP is a subsidiary of the giant Tyson Foods company. Last month, a Tyson plant in Waterloo, Iowa, shut down after hundreds of workers contracted COVID-19. By early May, more than a thousand plant workers were sick; three had died. Last Friday, the plant reopened.

Too often in our history, employers and politicians have prioritized keeping Americans’ stomachs full, not their workers alive. But the post–World War II period when workers had gained real power shows that you can do both. Doing so requires listening to workers’ concerns and paying them a fair wage commensurate with the risks they take. It means shuttering plants until they meet basic safety standards, such as testing all workers to see if they’re infected with a deadly, easily transmissible virus. And it means updating our increasingly obsolete set of labor laws to empower unions, the organizations that delivered hard-fought gains in safety and pay to meatpacking workers in the mid-20th century.

As Shane Hamilton shows in his excellent book Trucking Country, it wasn’t just companies such as IBP who are responsible. It was also the Eisenhower administration, who decided to combine two goals in one–unionbusting and lowering meat prices–by helping the meat industry move out of Chicago and to the rural Midwest. It wasn’t an outsourcing deal either. The big Chicago companies mostly were heavily undermined by this and some went under at the same time as the UPWA. We have this vision of Eisenhower being some moderate, but his administration was horrible on many, many issues. The United Food and Commercial Workers has organized some of these plants, but progress is very, very slow in making conditions better for the workers.

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