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The Meat Mob Muscles In
By: Merritt Clifton
From ANIMAL PEOPLE June 1997 edition
Reprinted by Permission - 24 April 2003
Former Perdue executive Thomas Shelton, meanwhile, has become an industry power in his own right, modeling his empire, Case Farms, after the Perdue operation-- apparently down to the details.
On January 23, 1997, Case employees Carlos Matheu and Luis Gonzalez testified at a National Press Club news conference hosted by the National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice that they and other Case production line personnel must ask permission to use restrooms, are obliged to work with cuts on their hands, must buy their own safety equipment, and on one occasion in August 1996 were locked inside the Case slaughterhouse in Morganton, North Carolina, after they threatened to go on strike.
Of the 550 Case indoor workers, an estimated 90% are Spanish-speaking. Case made a particular effort to attract Guatemalan immigrants, who are reputedly especially docile, a legacy of centuries of political repression in their native land.
The Case hiring practices "forced the city of Morganton to absorb an influx of newcomers that is straining services and fueling resentment," Craig Whitlock of the Raleigh News & Observer reported in November 1996. But prospective workers who expected to earn as much as $7.50 an hour found themselves actually earning much less.
Conditions were so bad that in May 1995, after Case fired three workers who complained, 300 workers walked out, then voted to join the Laborers International Union of North America. Resisting National Labor Relations Board orders to negotiate, which have been upheld in federal court, Case is still pursuing appeals. The workers still don't have a contract, but safety and sanitation are reportedly better, and the average wage is up to $6.85 an hour.
Case is also resisting unionization in Holmes County, Ohio.
"Case Farms has about 350 workers and a turnover rate of more than 100% a year," United Food and Commercial Workers Union organizer Louis J. Maholic told Karen Long of the Cleveland Plain Dealer in March 1997. "They don't last long. They process 90 birds per minute, with lots of cut injuries, with their hands slippery from eviscerating chickens, and crowding that causes them to cut each other with sharp knives. They know nothing of workers' compensation and go without medical care. Some of these workers go two shifts and sleep in the lunchroom."
Perhaps the most notorious recent example of meat industry labor abuse came on September 3, 1991, when 25 workers were killed and 56 injured in a fire at the Imperial Food Products Ltd. chicken processing plant at Hamlet, North Carolina. A medical examiner found that illegally locked and/or blockaded doors contributed to most of the deaths. Incredibly, a USDA inspector had approved locking one fire door--which he had no authority to do. Although the plant had previous fires in 1980 and 1983, state labor inspectors had never visited. Owner Emmett Roe in 1992 pleaded guilty to 25 counts of manslaughter, drawing a 20-year prison sentence, of which he actually served four and a half years, 65 days for each of the dead, at a minimum security facility with neither fences nor armed guards. He was paroled on April 18, 1997. The surviving injured workers and families of the dead only won the right to sue the state for failure to enforce safety codes on February 4, 1997, after a five-year battle that went to the state Court of Appeals. Damage claims will be limited to $100,000 per victim.
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