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Week of 12.15.06

Meatpacking in the U.S.: Still a "Jungle" Out There?

Swift & Co. Packing House, Chicago, 1905. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress
Swift & Co. Packing House, Chicago, 1905. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress
In 1906, Upton Sinclair's novel "The Jungle" uncovered harrowing conditions inside America's meat packing plants and initiated a period of transformation in the nation's meat industry. The Pure Food and Drug Act and the Federal Meat Inspection Act were both passed later that year, and labor organizations slowly began to improve the conditions under which the country's meat packers toiled. But some critics say America's meat business has been in decline for decades and that the poor conditions found in slaughterhouses and packing facilities today are often little better than those described by Sinclair a century ago.

1930's - 1980

During the 1930s, trade union-organized drives led by the newly-created Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) began to organize workers across different industries, including meat packing. Over the next 40 years, unions such as the United Packinghouse Workers of America (UPWA) were able to improve both the pay and working conditions of meat packing employees in the U.S. The UPWA was also known for its progressive ideals and its support of the civil rights movement during the 1960s.

Worker at Hormel meatpacking plant, Austin, MN, 1941. Photo: John Vachon. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Worker at Hormel meatpacking plant, Austin, MN, 1941. Photo: John Vachon. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
The average wage of animal slaughterers and processors remained comparatively strong from the 1960s through the early 1980s. The average wage earned by a meat packing employee during the 60s and 70s was 14-18 percent higher than their counterpart in the larger U.S. manufacturing sector. The peak average hourly wage of a meat packing employee during this period was nearly $20 an hour when adjusted for inflation.

1980's - 1990's

The 1980s were a transitional decade for America's meat packing industry. Developments such as improved distribution channels allowed meat packing companies to move out of urban, union-dominated centers and relocate to rural areas closer to livestock feedlots. New industry powerhouses like Iowa Beef Processors (IBP) sought to undercut the competition by operating on slim profit margins, increasing worker speed and productivity, and cutting labor costs. Such tactics encouraged industry consolidation, increased hazards for workers, and renewed resistance to employee organizing efforts.

In 1988 the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) announced fines totaling more than $3.1 million against IBP for exposing workers at its plant in Dakota City, Nebraska to cumulative trauma disorders resulting from highly repetitive meat cutting tasks. The OSHA report held that IBP knew about the problems but "did not attempt to devise or implement solutions."

By the late 1990s, the meat packing industry had consolidated such that the top four firms accounted for approximately 50 percent of all U.S. poultry and pork production and 80 percent of all beef production.

2000 - Current

Responding to the concerns of labor and public advocates, former Nebraska Governor Michael Johanns (currently U.S. Secretary of Agriculture) issued the "Nebraska Meatpacking Industry Workers Bill of Rights" in June of 2000. Though only a voluntary set of guidelines, the bill recognized the rights of meat packing employees to organize, work in safe conditions, and to seek help from the state.

Workers on the line at Smithfield Packing Co.'s Tar Heel, NC plant
Workers on the line at Smithfield Packing Co.'s Tar Heel, NC plant
Animal slaughter, meat packing, and meat processing are difficult, dirty jobs that see a high rate of employee turnover. Key workplace hazards for meat and poultry laborers include excessive processing line speed, work spaces sullied with animal remains, cutting in close quarters, and cumulative stress disorders due to repetitive motions.

In March of 2001, Congress overturned an OSHA approved ergonomics standard with President Bush signing the repeal. The OSHA regulations, approved under the Clinton administration, had been praised by union leaders as an important step toward protecting manual laborers from injuries.

In early 2005, Human Rights Watch released a report entitled "Blood, Sweat, and Fear: Workers' Rights in U.S. Meat and Poultry Plants" which concluded that the working conditions in America's meat packing plants were so bad they violated basic human and worker rights. This was the first time the human rights organization had criticized a single a U.S. industry.

Though pro-industry organizations such as the American Meat Institute (AMI) point out that the number of staff injuries in meat processing facilities have been declining over recent years, meat packing remains one of the most dangerous factory jobs in America. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that there was an average of 12.6 injuries or illnesses per 100 full-time meat packing plant employees in 2005, a number twice as high as the average for all U.S. manufacturing jobs. Some experts maintain that this number is actually too low as many workers' injuries go unreported due to employee misinformation or intimidation.

Losing Ground: U.S. Meat Packing Wages*

*Wages adjusted to 2006 values. Data as of 9/06.
Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Today, America's meat industry is the nation's largest agricultural sector and sales of meat and poultry exceed $100 billion a year in the U.S. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the animal slaughtering and processing industry employed a total of 506,000 people at the close of 2005. The average earnings of production workers that year was $11.47 an hour, about 30 percent less than the average wage for all manufacturing jobs in the U.S. According to REAP, a union-affiliated group, union membership among meat packing employees has plunged from 80 percent in 1980 to less than 50 percent today.

The face of the average meatpacking plant worker has also changed. Over the past two decades, the number of immigrant laborers in meat packing plants—and in the Midwestern areas in which they are primarily located—has increased dramatically. According to the USDA, the percentage of Hispanic meat-processing workers rose from less than 10 percent in 1980 to nearly 30 percent in 2000.

Sources/Related Links:

» Human Rights Watch: Blood, Sweat, and Fear Workers' Rights in U.S. Meat and Poultry Plants

» Amber Waves: Meat-Processing Firms Attract Hispanic Workers to Rural America

» The Nation: The Shame of Meatpacking

» Mother Jones: The Chain Never Stops

» Dallas Morning News: Processing plants' dangers don't scare off migrants

» Meat Packing Industry

» REAP: A Review of The U.S. Meat Packing Industry

» U.S. Department of Labor: Bureau of Labor Statistics: Animal Slaughtering and Processing