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The Meat Mob Muscles In
By: Merritt Clifton
From ANIMAL PEOPLE June 1997 edition
Reprinted by Permission - 24 April 2003
North Carolina in particular is favored by both the hog and poultry industries not only because of lax pollution regulations, but also because of a "right-to-work" law that prohibits contracts which require employees to pay union dues. As the heavily unionized red meat industry contracts in the midwest through increasing centralization and mechanization, the virtually non-unionized poultry industry and non-unionized segment of the pork industry employ ever more people--who are collectively getting an ever smaller share of the returns. Since 1963, the percentage of unionized meat workers in the U.S. has dropped by half. Union wages in meatpacking averaged $19 an hour in 1980, but have dropped below $12--still close to double the average wage throughout the industry.
Abuses are both rife and familiar.
Egg City, long one of the biggest poultry producers in California, was unionized by the United Farm Workers in 1979 after a five-year struggle led by the late Cesar Chavez, but a bankruptcy judge in 1986 invalidated the contract, enabling new management to impose an across-the-boards 30% wage cut. Chavez, a vegetarian, died while trying to revive the organizing effort. The workers remained unrepresented when Egg City closed due to obsolesence in October 1996.
In 1989 National Public Radio and the Washington Post reported that Perdue workers in Lewiston, North Carolina, were routinely fired if they reported injuries. Former labor organizer Henry Spira, now president of Animal Rights International, amplified the charges in newspaper ads.
"Up to 30% of the workers in that factory are afflicted with repetitive motion syndrome," the ads stated, "a potentially crippling disorder of the hands or wrists caused by having to cut up to 75 chickens per minute. A Perdue personnel memo stated that it was normal for about 60% of workers to go to the (company) nurse for pain killers and to have their hands bandaged. Donna Bazemore, a former employee, told National Public Radio that she'd seen women urinating and vomiting on the work line because they were not allowed to leave it to go to the bathroom. None of the Perdue factories is unionized. And in 1986, Frank Perdue told the president's commission on organized crime that he sought help from organized crime figures to keep it that way."
Eight years later, the noise has subsided, but little seems to have changed at the worker level. Indeed, the illness and injury rate for the meat industry across the boards has risen to 36 lost-time cases per 100 workers per year, as federal safety inspections have dropped 43% since 1994.
Preventing workers from using restrooms at will still seems to be standard practice in poultry plants, as a local television program in May 1996 reportedly used a hidden camera to document yet another instance of it at the Hudson Farms poultry processing plant in Noel, Missouri.
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