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The Meat Mob Muscles In
By: Merritt Clifton
From ANIMAL PEOPLE June 1997 edition
Reprinted by Permission - 24 April 2003
A similar struggle is underway at the 2.5-million-hen AgriGeneral egg farm near LaRue, Ohio. Opened over much local opposition in September 1995, AgriGeneral promised to create jobs in the community, but when locals were unwilling to endure 13-to-16-hour days at $5.50 an hour with no overtime, migrant workers were imported from Mexico. In November 1996, the Ohio Department of Health hit AgriGeneral for 30 violations of health and safety codes at company housing. The Ohio EPA meanwhile proposed a $128,000 fine for illegal AgriGeneral wastewater discharges, noting that another AgriGeneral egg farm in Ohio hadn't cleaned up its act until after it was fined $100,000 in 1985 for allegedly causing a 1983 fish kill.
Matters escalated after the United Food and Commercial Workers Union tried to organize the AgriGeneral work force, parallel to the organizing effort at Case Farms. In mid-March 1997, 25 current and former Agri-General workers sued for unpaid back wages, with legal help from the Ohio Public Interest Research Group and the Equal Justice Foundation. They further accused AgriGeneral of obliging them to pack and ship bad eggs. Three of the then-current workers were fired within a week. Agri-General said it simply had no work for them, but it had published "help wanted" ads in a local newspaper right up to the day of the firings. On April 31, 1997, AgriGeneral counterattacked, suing Ohio PIRG and OPIRG director Amy Simpson under a new state law against disparaging food products without a scientific basis. Critics contend the law is unconstitutional.
Workers won two rounds elsewhere on March 25, 1997, when the Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined the Cagle's Inc. poultry slaughtering plant at Macon, Georgia, $1.27 million for 23 alleged deliberate violations of federal safety rules plus three more accidental violations that were deemed "serious." On the same day, the Labor Department announced that Hanover Foods Corp., of Clayton, Delaware, would be fined $498,000 for similar violations.
The size of the fines is impressive, but companies are often allowed to pay OSHA fines by making safety improvements, so that in effect they may not actually be penalized, just forced to comply with laws long flouted.
Despite all that, the major item on the 105th Congress calendar pertaining to poultry industry labor is the 1997 Family Farmer Cooperative Marketing Amendment to the Agricultural Fair Practices Act of 1967, introduced by Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) with little chance of passage. The Kaptur bill would require "good faith" bargaining on the part of processors with organizations of farmers, many of whom argue that under the current contract production system they are in effect sharecroppers who bear a disproportionate burden of both initial investment and ongoing operating costs. In effect, farmers would be empowered to unionize, even as they fight unionization by their own personnel.
Kaptur bill would implement recommendations issued by the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration. The National Contract Poultry Growers Association previously sought state-level legislation to facilitate unionizing farmers, but a proposed "bill of rights for poultry growers" was defeated in Alabama, Louisiana, North Carolina, and Oklahoma. The Arkansas Contract Poultry Growers Association couldn't even find a legislative sponsor for such a bill. A bill somewhat strengthening the position of poultry growers did get through the Mississippi legislature in 1996, but was vetoed by the governor.
The National Contract Poultry Growers meanwhile joined the National Farmers Union, National Family Farm Coalition, and Citizen Action in attacking the November 1996 announcement by Labor Secretary Robert Reich that a "targeted enforcement project" would investigate complaints by the National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice about worker housing and safety in Arkansas and North Carolina.
"Sweatshop conditions will not be tolerated," Reich said.
The National Broiler Council called it "just one more attempt by labor unions and their supporters to drum up support for their organizing campaigns."
Any cabinet-level action by the Clinton administration with potential wide-ranging impact on the poultry industry would run afoul of top-level lobbying pressure from longtime Clinton backer Don Tyson, senior chairman of the Tyson Foods Inc. board. Tyson, 66, is son of company founder John Tyson. Semi-retired since the end of 1994, Don Tyson remains "an active unofficial lobbyist," according to Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reporter D.R. Stewart, who recently examined Tyson Inc. filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission to discover that, "In 1996, Tyson, whose reputation for wild parties is exceeded only by his business acumen, received $720,000 in salary; $571,720 in travel and entertainment expenses; and $398,119 for income tax liabilities related to his travel and entertainment budget," which increased 35.4% post-retirement.
Tyson retired, at least on paper, after Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy resigned under intense criticism for accepting gifts, airline tickets, and admission to sporting events from Tyson Inc. lobbyist Jack Williams. A federal jury on March 21, 1997 convicted Williams on two counts of making false statements to federal investigators. Tyson himself paid a civil penalty of $46,125 for violating insider trading laws in connection with the 1992 Tyson Foods purchase of Arctic Alaska Fisheries Corporation.
The labor problems of the poultry industry are also surfacing at some of the newer hog slaughtering plants--such as the Lundy Packing Company, of Clinton, North Carolina, whose owners and directors reportedly include U.S. Senator Lauch Fairclough. After sick workers complained to United Food and Commercial Workers health and safety director Jackie Nowell in 1993, federal testing found 43 people with antibodies to brucellosis among a killing floor staff of 154. Sixteen of the 43 people with apparent exposure had apparently actually suffered the disease. The outbreak apparently resulted from inhaling microscopic droplets of blood from infected hogs. Fines totalling $13,500 were eventually levied against Lundy for violating indoor air quality standards, but were reduced on appeal.
Fairclough, with $19.8 million worth of holdings in nine different hog operations, blamed the episode on "a mean union." The same Lundy plant came under Occupational Health and Safety Administra-tion scrutiny again in August 1996, after night shift worker Solomon Velasquez, 18, was decapitated while hosing out an industrial blender. Nowell told OSHA that Velasquez, a native of Guatemala, had been working with dangerous equipment since age 16, in violation of child labor laws; that some of the equipment lacked lock-down devices to prevent it from being accidentally turned on during cleaning; and that two other workers had lost hands in similar accidents during 1995, which were not reported to state authorities. In addition, another worker lost several fingers in such an accident just a month before Velasquez was killed.
Labor unions are strongest in the beef sector, but Iowa Beef Packers Inc., with a recruited work force largely of Hispanic and Laotian immigrants, illegally withheld $7 million in unpaid wages from 1986-1988 until April 1, 1996, when U.S. District Judge Earl O'Connor of Kansas City found the firm to be in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act and ordered payment.
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