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Hard Time on the Killing Floor Inside Big Meat

Inside Big Meat

by JEFFREY ST. CLAIR

(The following is an excerpt from JEFFREY ST. CLAIR’s new book, Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of Nature, published by Common Courage.)

All is not right at the IBP Inc. plant in Pasco, Washington, one of the nation’s biggest slaugherhouses. According to workers, meat at the plant is routinely contaminated with cattle feces because workers on the processing line are not give enough time to wash their hands. Under pressure from aggressive plant managers, meat that falls on the floor, which is often littered with meat byproducts and entrails, is often immediately placed back on the line without being cleansed. Cutting tools and conveyor belts, workers tell CounterPunch, are also regularly coated with pus from abscesses and tumors that haven’t been properly cut out of the meat. Meat cutters at the plant also told me that often cows are not rendered unconscious before being sent down the line. Instead, workers say they often hear cows frantically mooing as they are skinned and dismembered alive.

All of these problems are a function of the excessive speed of the meat processing line, a complex and dangerous network of conveyor belts and overhead chains and hooks. "They keep that line moving as fast as possible and they don’t want it stopped for any reason," an IBP worker told us. "They don’t care about the cows or the cow shit on the meat. They’ve got quotas to meet." IBP plants, workers say, aren’t slaughterhouses so much as meat factories.

Workers say that IBP doesn’t give them adequate breaks and cheats them out of pay for the 30 minutes a day it takes to put on and remove the protective clothing, glasses and gloves they must wear to work the cutting line. According to union shop steward Maria Martinez, many workers are often denied bathroom breaks, forcing them to urinate in their pants so they won’t fall behind.

The workers know that when they fall behind they risk being fired. Early in the morning on June 4 2000, IBP managers yanked a meat cutter of the cutting line, saying that he wasn’t keeping up with the flow of the meat. When his fellow workers saw him be taken away, twenty of them followed him to the plant manager’s office. Many of them carried their knives with them. The production line came to a halt.

The workers told the manager that all of them were having problems doing their jobs safely because the pace of the line was too fast. "The velocity of the machines was so fast, we couldn’t work properly,:" said Malquiadez Perez, another shop steward. But the manager’s didn’t want to hear any of this. They told the meat cutters that they had 60 seconds to return to their places on the line or they would be fired on the spot.

Maria Martinez, an organizer with the TDU, told the IBP managers that the group would go back to work if all of them could return, including the meat cutter who had been fired for not keeping up with the pace of the line. The manager told Martinez no, demanded that they workers turn over their knives and told them they were fired.

This action led 800 other workers at the plant to walk off the job as well, carrying their knives with them. The action effectively shut down the slaughterhouse. On June 8, the union voted to go on strike.

The strike was settled on July 7, when after heavy-handed tactics from James Hoffa’s national office of the Teamster, workers narrowly approved a new contract on a 276-258 vote. Under the terms of the deal, union members will be given a say in the composition of the plant’s safety committee and wages for most workers will be increased by $1.32 an hour. But many union leaders opposed the contract, saying it failed to address the key issues that prompted the walk out.

"This strike was never about money," says Maria Martinez. "It was about worker safety and consumer protection. And we didn’t get what we were fighting for."

However, the issue is not over yet. In response to letter from Martinez and others, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service has opened a probe of IBP for possible violations of worker safety, meat quality and animal cruelty laws. The Humane Slaughter Act of 1958, for example, prohibits companies from butchering animals while they are conscious.

For its part, IBP denies all the charges against it. The Dakota Dunes, South Dakota-based company says that it recently installed a "steam vacuum system" that will "sanitize" the meat even if it becomes contaminated by feces and pus on the line. IBP claims that the June 4 walkout was a set up and had nothing to do with the dismissal of the meat cutter. Company spokesman Gary Mickelson says that the IBP security people had "picked up rumors the night before that the workers were planning an action the next day." Mickelson says the entire affair "was staged by the union."

But this is far from the first time the $13 billion company has been accused of shoddy practices and worker safety violations. Indeed, since it’s founding in 1960 (then called Iowa Beef Packers), the company has gained a reputation as being fiercely anti-worker and for being quick to call in scabs and violent strikebreakers. In the early, 1969 the company’s confrontations with its workers reached a bloody crescendo when it closed down three Iowa plants, increased automation and tried to bust the United Food and Commercial Workers when it demanded a 20 cents an hour pay raise for workers. The following year the Federal Trace Commission hit the company with an anti-trust suit, which prohibited IBP from acquiring any new plants in South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa or Nebraska. As a result, IBP invested in the Pasco plant in Washington and several others in the Pacific Northwest and Texas.

In 1972, IBP’s founder and former CEO, Currier Holman, was convicted of paying a New York mob boss $1 million to insure that unions would disrupt the distribution of IBP meat on the east coast. More investigations for monopolistic practices followed, even after the company was acquired by Armand Hammer’s Occidental Petroleum in 1981. In 1985, OSHA hit IBP with a then-record $2.6 million fine for manipulating data on the high rate of worker injuries at its plants. Of particular concern for OSHA was the design of IBP’s cutting machines, which caused repetitive motion disorders in hundreds of IBP workers.

After Hammer died in 1990, IBP was spun off in a public stock offering. Today, Archer-Daniels-Midland is the IBP’s biggest shareholder, owning more than 14 percent of the company. This didn’t change the company’s practices much. Although IBP executives appeared at a press conference with Clinton administration officials in 1996 denouncing the practice of hiring illegal foreign workers, a few months later the company was busted for employing 64 undocumented meat cutters at its huge pork plant in Storm Lake, Nebraska. But the firm’s cozy relationship with high level figures in Congress and the Clinton administration probably save it from prosecution. The IBP board hosts the dreadful Wendy Gramm and JoAnn Smith, Assistant Secretary of Agriculture for Meat Inspection during the Bush presidency. Gramm and Smith are handsomely compensated at the tune of $30,000 for a week’s worth of work for the company.

Although IBP claims that it pays its meat cutters for a full day’s work, factory workers say that they must come in a 5:30 each morning to begin sharpening their knives and putting on the cumbersome gear, about a half an hour before the meat line cranks up. At the end of the day, another half-hour is spent cleaning up the workstations, gear and knives. Workers say they are not compensated for this time nor are they given two 10-minute breaks required by federal law for laborers who work more than an eight-hour day. IBP calculates the "official" workday at 7 hours and 56 minutes and claims it is only required to give the workers one 15-minute break and a half-hour lunch break in the grueling day. In 1997, the Tenth Circuit Court in suit brought by workers at a different plant ruled that IBP was required to pay workers at that plant for the time spent putting on and off the cutting gear and preparing the knives and workstations. A similar suit was recently filed against IBP’s Pasco factory.

Allegations about contaminated meat coming from IBP plants has put the company on the defensive and has prompted it to invest heavily a new PR campaign disguised as a "food safety initiative." On May 17, IBP spent $150,000 to start up the "Safeguarding Our Last Links Campaign", which will be run the Food Marketing Institute, the meat industry’s trade association. The Last Links campaign will not focus on the growing crisis of e.coli contamination in meat plants, but on teaching consumers how to keep meat "safely" stored in refrigerators and how to clean countertops and silverware. The campaign, IBP’s CEO Robert Peterson said, is designed to "help consumers learn safe food handling practices."

Of course, this might be a tough sell, coming from a company whose workers say they are forced to urinate in their pants on the factory floor as they butcher live cows and put meat coated with pus and feces on the packaging line.

Spokane, 2000.