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Slaughterhouse Workers Fight Over $8 an Hour Jobs

Melting Pot in Hell

by MARTHA ROSENBERG

Orthodox Jews and Latinos are clashing in Postville, IA. Somalis and Latinos are clashing in Shelbyville TN. Somalis, Latinos and Sudanese are clashing in Grand Island, NE. And you’d think it has nothing to do with slaughterhouses.

It’s about prayer breaks during Ramadan, paid holidays, cultural clashes and "assimilation into the American melting pot," say news reports. Not the $8 an hour knocker, sticker, bleeder, tail ripper, flanker, gutter, sawer, and plate boner slaughterhouse jobs that even Americans prisoners on work release won’t do.

Since US immigration officials began plucking 2,000 illegal Latino workers from meat packing plants in late 2006, hundreds of Somalis have taken up the cudgel, pun intended.

Unfortunately, it has led to new problems.

When Tyson Foods made Eid al-Fitr instead of Labor Day a paid holiday for Somali workers at its Shelbyville, TN plant in August there was such a backlash from other workers, they had to reverse the decision.

When JBS Swift’s Grand Island, NE plant gave striking Somali workers the concession of an earlier dinner break so they could pray at sunset, it sparked a counter demonstration of whites, Hispanics and Sudanese workers charging favoritism.

Prayer rights have conflagrated at the JBS Swift plant in Greeley, CO and Gold’n Plump poultry processor plants in Cold Spring and Arcadia, WI.

And the death of a slaughterhouse worker from TB at a Tyson Foods slaughterhouse in 2007–the employee was reported as "injured while helping prepare an animal for slaughter"–brought tempers to a froth in Emporia, KN.

"Was Tyson attempting to deceive the public as to the reason or cause for this employee’s death?" asked a commentator on the Emporia Gazette’s web site.

"When the Gazette ran a story that Tyson’s was testing employees and none of them had TB…who was lying to us, the Gazette or Tyson’s?" posted another.

Entries raising questions about the safety of workers and food products at the plant followed.

The plant has since closed.

Of course the Poster company for immigration abuse is Postville, IA-based Agriprocessors, the nation’s biggest kosher slaughterhouse, which lost half of its work force to an immigration raid in May.

Agriprocessors has been charged with illegally using child labor, physical and sexual abuse of workers, acts of inhumane slaughter, unsafe working conditions, requiring 11-17 hour shifts with no overtime pay, paying wages below minimum wage and shorting pay checks.

Even Barack Obama commented on the Agriprocessors ethical black hole on a campaign stop in Davenport, IA, remarking, "They have kids in there wielding buzz saws and cleavers. It’s ridiculous."

But read about Postville since the raid and you’d think you were reading a Steinbeck novel.

You’d think the robed Somalis and Hasidic Jews, "beetle nut spitting" Palauans and Guatemalans in post-arrest ankle bracelets as the Des Moines Register describes them were gathered for an international film festival instead of to disembowel animals for $6 an hour.

You’d think the Somalis and Palauans were in Iowa for the crisp fall air instead of as the result of a concerted campaign by Big Meat to hire two cheap labors pools allowed to work legally in the US due to special arrangements with the government.

The story is not about the niceties of religious observance, cultural assimilation and the wonders of the melting pot in small towns in America that happen to have slaughterhouses.

It’s about jobs that can only be filled with children, people with TB, African refugees and Pacific islanders used to earning $2.50 an hour.

It’s about the fact that America cannot afford its cheap meat habit without imported labor.

It’s about what’s for dinner.

MARTHA ROSENBERG is staff cartoonist on the Evanston Roundtable. She can be reached at mrosenberg@evmark.org