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The Meat Mob Muscles In
By: Merritt Clifton
From ANIMAL PEOPLE June 1997 edition
Reprinted by Permission - 24 April 2003
DeCoster of Eggs
The egg-and-chicken producer DeCoster Farms, of Turner, Maine, was fined $46,250 in June 1988 for 184 labor standards violations of federal labor--and was then caught, in September 1992, keeping as many as 100 workers from Mexico, Texas, and Central America in virtual slavery. Confined to company housing when not on the job, the Spanish-speaking workers were threatened with deportation if they left without authorization, and were not allowed visitors. Priests, social workers, and truant officers were barred. Fined $15,000 for those offenses in January 1993, DeCoster took the case to the Maine Supreme Court, which ruled against the company in January 1995.
That was just the start of a drama now running for more than 28 months. Trying to enforce the court verdict, U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich on July 12, 1996 announced that DeCoster would be fined $3.6 million for continuing noncompliance with health and safety standards. Violations recorded by OSHA included failures to install required guards on equipment, 10 months after a worker lost parts of three fingers because the guards were missing; workers not paid overtime despite logging from 80 to 100 hours a week on the job; workers paid below the minimum wage or not at all; hiring children as young as nine; preventing workers from attending Catholic services; and allowing supervisors to physically intimidate staff.
Owner Austin "Jack" DeCoster appealed the fine and appointed a blue-ribbon panel of prominent Maine business people to oversee improvements. Within three months they all quit in frustration. In the interim, DeCoster was fined by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection for building an unauthorized wastewater treatment system; OSHA testing found fecal contamination in workers' drinking water; and DeCoster replaced an allegedly abusive manager with John William Glessner Jr., 34, who held a similar post at one of the 30 DeCoster hog operations in Iowa until shortly after he and another DeCoster hog plant manager were convicted in July 1996 of the 1995 beating of worker Lucas Ortega. Ortega, 19, was allegedly pulled from his apartment and down a flight of stairs by his hair, tied hand and foot with duct tape, then slapped and punched.
After the blue-ribbon panel quit, DeCoster evicted employees from substandard company housing two weeks before Christmas. Another OSHA fine followed, this time $117,000 for alleged serious mishandling of pesticides. Still resisting federal directives, DeCoster in January 1997 paid for a newspaper ad defending his practices, signed by 75 workers, many of whom later told media they had not known what they were signing.
As result of the appeal, DeCoster on May 20 won a reduction in the biggest fine to $2 million, barely half the original amount, with the remainder suspended on condition that at least 90% of the allegedly abusive conditions are corrected within one more year.
About 100 workers will divide $21,000 in settlement of unpaid wage claims.
According to Susan Rayfield of the Portland Press Herald, DeCoster announced the deal with a "free" chicken banquet for workers, then docked them for the time they spent eating it, canceled overtime, and speeded up the production lines.
DeCoster's Iowa egg plant was meanwhile fined $489,950 on October 24, 1996, for 15 serious safety violations.
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