The History of the People who Slaughter our Dinner
Of course we all wake up every morning with a long day ahead of us. Imagine anticipating that your long, hard day’s work will consist of standing for 10 hours straight on a chicken assembly line, slicing off beak after bloody beak. This is assuredly along the lines of what runs through every slaughterhouse worker’s mind in the morning.
But in order to even begin to understand the context of his or life, we must first explore the history of the treatment of an American slaughterhouse worker in social and societal terms. At the turn of the 20th century, it was made public by Upton Sinclair’s expose The Jungle that the grievances of workers at meat processing plants included absurdly long working hours, dangerous working conditions, and the industry’s struggle against unionization. Slaughterhouses and meatpacking plants would simply employ newer-arrived immigrants when their workers would strike. In the 1930s and 1940s, interracial committees of these workers were organized in Chicago, where black workers made up the majority, and in Omaha, where they were actually a minority. This led to the creation of the C.I.
O.’s United Packinghouse Workers of America, an institution that, for the first time, effectively established unionization for all slaughterhouse workers. Many reforms in wages, hours, conditions and benefits, like health insurance, were made. In 1957, the union demanded a progression of rights and benefits for all of the workers who were employed by the meatpacking stockyard in Omaha. With the propelling force of the Civil Rights Movement in 1960, workers all over the nation made even more gains that allowed them to achieve more of a middle class status. However, at this time, it became difficult again for workers to organize, but for a new reason – because of the relocations of many meatpacking stockyards and slaughterhouses to rural areas.
They were moved in order to achieve greater proximity to facilities where livestock were raised and to facilitate transportation’s shift from rail to truck. In the late 1900s, even more types of labor issues arose. Wages and jobs fell because of changes such as the sharp increase in new technology. In the 1970s, America’s top 4 beef companies controlled 80% of the market, as opposed to a former 20% – a monopoly that was just as dangerous to workers as it was to consumers. In 1971, the major meatpacking plant in Chicago shut down, and in 1999, the prominent meatpacking plant In Omaha shut down, leaving thousands of workers jobless.
Now, slaughterhouses are even more isolated, having been relocated to the desolate expanse of the U.S. High Planes. This has made it even more difficult for workers, already seen by society as outcasts, to access resources that are provided by unions. In addition, most workers are paid low wages once more, and have no health insurance – in fact, they are encouraged to hide their injuries in order to cut their companies’ insurance bills.
Lastly, undocumented immigrants continue to be employed – about 38,000 of the 150,000 slaughterhouse workers in 2001 were undocumented. What does this information tell us about the meat industry, our government and our society? If you examine this overview of the past 100 years of slaughterhouse workers’ history, in terms of aspects like unionization, employment and social status, you could say that we have taken steps back or not nearly enough steps forward.