The Jungle Endures: Packing Meat in the U.S.

beef packers

       On August 7th, 2019, in what was billed by Mike Hurst, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi, as the largest single-state immigration enforcement action in U.S. history, ICE raided seven poultry packing plants in Mississippi. The plants included three owned by Peco Foods, one owned by Koch Foods in Morton, Mississippi, one Pearl River Foods in Carthage, and the A & B Inc. in Pelahatchie. All three of these are smallish towns with populations of no more than a few thousand, none rank anywhere in the top 30 largest places in Mississippi. At least 600 agents, clad in back body armor and packing heat, took part in the raids. When the dust settled 680 undocumented immigrants were in custody.

In the immediate aftermath of the raid, with children and other relatives of the detained frantic for information, Hurst proclaimed ‘For those who take advantage of illegal aliens. To those who use illegal aliens for a competitive advantage or to make a quick buck, we have something to say to you: if we find you have violated federal law, we are coming for you.’ Despite such bluster no top executives at any of the companies have been charged with anything. In fact, several weeks later, Koch Foods (no relation to the Koch brothers of Koch Industries) filed a lawsuit with the Attorney General’s office stating that the raid was performed illegally. Ironically this lawsuit was brought almost exactly a year after Koch Foods settled a 2011 class action brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for its treatment of Hispanic employees including employment discrimination, sexual harassment of female workers, disparate treatment based on race, and retaliation against complaints. The settlement cost the company $3.75 million. As for the workers swept up by ICE, roughly half were released within a few days pending review. No doubt others were less fortunate.

Packing plants, or slaughterhouses, have been targets for such raids for some time. December 2006 saw ICE hit six Swift & Co plants across six states, in what ICE declared ‘Operation Wagon Train.’ Heavily armed agents backed up by local police in riot gear rounded up nearly 1300 workers, a couple of hundred of which were charged with crimes. The Agriprocessors plant in Postville, Iowa (another small town of about 2000 people) was hit in May 2008. Almost 400 people, including teenagers, were chained together single file and hustled on to buses by agents wearing bullet proof vests and carrying rifles.

It is probably indisputable that Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, the story of a Lithuanian immigrant family confronting the brutality of Chicago’s meat racket, was the most influential novel of the 20th century, at least as far as its practical social effect. Published in book form in 1906 (it was published a year earlier in serial form for the radical newspaper Appeal To Reason), Sinclair’s scenes of rat carcasses being grinded into the sausage casings helped grease the skids of Congress to pass the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act- the latter led to the founding of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) , just four months after the novel’s publication. Still Sinclair thought that the main point had been missed, lamenting ‘I aimed for the public’s heart and by accident hit it in the stomach.’

If Sinclair surveyed a packing plant today, he’d recognize a familiar scene: the astronomical employee turnover rate, exploited immigrants, the accelerated line speeds. Just this past September, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) gave the go ahead to eliminate limits on production line speeds at pork packing plants, deeming such restrictions an ‘unnecessary regulatory obstacle to industry innovation.’ Data from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) shows that packing plant workers are three times more likely to suffer serious injury than the average American worker; repetitive motions injuries among beef and pork processing workers were nearly seven times other industries. Amputations, second-degree burns, head trauma, and fractures are common. OSHA data from 2015 to 2017 (reviewed by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism) show an average of two amputations a week. Human Rights Watch reported in 2019 that on average eight workers a year died from incidents sustained on the job between 2013 and 2017. These numbers come when the Bureau of Labor Statistics implausibly reports that the injury rate at meatpacking plants had declined significantly in recent times. Such an absurdity comes in part from an OSHA ruling back during the George W. Bush years that cumulative trauma injuries didn’t have to be recorded separately by packing companies- from 2001 to 2003 a third of the total of official injuries vanished. There is also the obvious underreporting of injuries by workers, an ancillary benefit of having a workforce with large numbers of undocumented workers. A study from U.S. Government Accountability Office acknowledged that that collecting data on injuries is challenging since ‘workers may underreport injuries and illness because they fear losing their jobs.’

It was the meat industry where the assembly line has its roots. Henry Ford himself was inspired by visiting the Armour and Swift plants. Production organized by disassembly lines brought about proletarianization of the industry and thus unrest. Meatpacking was the most strike prone of all U.S. industries from 1881 to 1905. The first few generations saw bursts of militancy, limited success, followed by crushing defeat at the hands of worker division, seasonal employment that ensured a large reserve army of local labor, and the sheer firepower of the state (dozens of workers were killed in conflict with police in the strikes of 1877). In 1904, two years before The Jungle’s publication, a major strike erupted at Chicago’s Union Stockyards. The Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen of North America had been chartered in Cincinnati in January 1897. It wasn’t long before the union was a major presence in Chicago. In 1904 Amalgamated sought a minimum wage for all common workers in the yards. The union managed to unite striking workers across ethnic and class lines for nearly two months yet time was on the packers’ side. While black strikebreakers tend to get the greatest spotlight, all sorts scabs were readily available (one case included a large group of immigrants sent straight from Ellis Island). Though turnover among strikebreakers was high, some walked off when they realized strike was going on, the packers had enough to outlast the union.

The First World War provided workers a chance to make gains. Production rose dramatically during the war. In the three years prior to the war’s outbreak average monthly beef exports ran to just over a million pounds. In June 1918 exports exceeded 92 million pounds. Profits rose along with exports. Aggregate profit for the four largest firms from 1912 to 1914 was $19 million. Registered profits reached $46 million in 1916 and $68 million in 1917.  With labor momentary in shorter supply due to the draft and immigration being severely limited (the shortage was filled in part by married women and the Great Migration of American Americans from the South), the U.S. government, anxious to keep productivity rising and avoid crippling strikes, set up an arbitration system for labor disputes. As James Barrett put it in his book Work and Community in the Jungle, ‘Each time management sensed a restlessness among workers, they hiked the rate another 2.5 cents.’ By 1919 there were 45,000 workers in the Chicago plants.

With exports crashing after the war and leftover manufacturing inventory unable to be sold the country entered into recession in 1920. The unemployment rate reached double digits a year later. The number of meatpacking workers in Chicago dropped by 40 percent to 27,000. For those still working, however, the common hourly wage at a high of 53 cents. Though with prices falling hard and the industry reporting a decline in profits, the packers went on the offensive (the capital offensive was mirrored nationally, it is the reason 1919 was the largest strike year in U.S. history). In February 1921 they scrapped the arbitration system and imposed a wage cut. Only a government orchestrated compromise prevented a strike but only delayed the inevitable. From there the packing companies put out company newspapers, attempted to establish company unions, and instituted limited stock options for workers. When another expected wage cut was introduced in November, Amalgamated called a national strike. It was doomed from the start. In a midst of economic crisis, high unemployment brought back local labor surpluses. In Chicago black strikebreakers had a large effect. In the aftermath of the gruesome 1919 Race Riot local black institutions such as churches and newspapers were generally anti-union. Given their recent experience as tenant farmers in the deep South, many African-Americans saw even the stockyards as an improvement not to be jeopardized. On top of this, the state came down heavily on the side of the packers. Early in the strike Judge Dennis Sullivan issued a sweeping injunction effectively outlawing picketing. Sullivan ruled ‘I have come to conclusion that there are no absolute rights in society day. All rights are relative…As I understand the law in Illinois, there is no such thing as ‘peaceful picketing.’ Two thousand policemen flooded into Packingtown to enforce the order provoking rioting. The union called off the strike in defeat on February 1st 1922.

It wasn’t until the emergence of the United Packinghouse Workers of America (UPWA), originally charted by the CIO in October 1937 as the Packinghouse Workers Organizing Committee, that lasting gains were made. In the aftermath of an organizing wave, master agreements for the industry were signed in the 1940s. UPWA was successful in uniting workers along racial lines, and unlike Amalgamated, was more aligned with the radical Left (in 1950 it created an Anti-Discrimination Department to fight racial discrimination at plants). For a generation meat packing provided a solid living. In 1950 wages for meatpacking were only slightly lower than U.S. manufacturing. By 1960 wages in meatpacking were 15 percent higher, a number that basically held through the 1970s.

At the same time the seeds of this period’s demise were eagerly being planted. Production began to be moved from its traditional strongholds of meatpacking districts in cities such as Chicago, New York, and Kansas City, to rural areas. These meatpacking districts had been centered along railroad lines where livestock was shipped. The industry shift to the country moved packing closer to the livestock saving transport costs while moving away from urban unions. The shift was widespread including reaching places like Kansas and Nebraska where production was moved from Omaha, Wichita, and Lincoln to rural communities like Norfolk and Lexington. IBP (originally named Iowa Beef Producers) emerged, with a $300,000 grant from the U.S. Small Business Administration, as an industry equivalent of Wal-Mart, pioneering boxed beef (thereby leading to the decline of skilled butchers) and dragging the rest of the industry to extreme cost cutting.

The rise of IBP inspired emulators such as ConAgra and Excell and expanded to chicken and pork production. Older companies were forced to adopt. It sparked an era of union concessions and decline, highlighted by the defeat of the high-profile strike of workers at a pork packing plant in Austin, Minnesota. By the time the anti-union work of the 1980s was done wages in meatpacking were 20 percent lower than manufacturing. By 2002 they were 24 percent lower; today they are 44 percent lower. Regulations were withdrawn and line speeds were once again increased unilaterally by companies. Even by official statistics, injuries surged in the 1980s.

It is an oft-stated defense of poor immigrants that they take the jobs nobody else wants. True enough- it is an open secret that an overwhelming percentage of farm hands in the country are undocumented workers. However, the first question to be asked is why such undesirable jobs exist in the first place. The implication is that Americans are too prosperous for such toil. Yet a survey conducted by the Federal Reserve in 2018 reported that 40 percent of American adults wouldn’t be able to cover an unexpected $400 bill. That such jobs don’t appeal to many of that population should go someway toward showing how awful these jobs are; given that turnover rates at packing plants is basically 100 percent, workers from anyplace aren’t putting down stable roots, rather floating from job to job.

As documented in Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, another book that tugged on the public’s stomach more than its heartstrings, the largest plants have long recruited workers from Mexico and Central America to exploit. One of the plants that was raided in Mississippi used to be owned by B.C. Rogers. In 1994 the company launched what was called ‘The Hispanic Project’. It placed ads in Spanish speaking newspapers in Florida, provided transportation, and housed newcomers in run down trailers, all with the goal of replacing African-American who were attempting to organize the plant (see Angela Stuesse’s Scratching Out a Living: Latinos, Race, and Work in the Deep South). Within four years around 5000 workers were recruited. The workers arrested in Mississippi were making about $12.50 an hour. Adjusted for inflation, the union wages of the 1970s would add up to about $50 per hour.

With the country locked down in a pandemic, some attention has justly been focused on the hundreds of thousands of workers suffering through the travail at Amazon’s distribution centers while Jeff Bezos makes out better in the crisis than perhaps anyone in the world. Meatpackers face even more dangerous conditions. A Smithfield Foods Inc. pork plant in South Dakota reported almost 300 cases of COVID-19 before finally being shuttered. Lest it be forgotten by those enduring long lines at the supermarket, the meat aisle is still stocked , and it is still a dark, scary jungle out there.

Joseph Grosso is a writer and librarian in New York . His book Emerald City: How Capital Transformed New York will be published this fall by Zer0 Books’  Here’s the link




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