Upton Sinclair's 1905 book, The Jungle, exposed the food contamination and worker exploitation hidden in the stockyards and meatpacking plants.
By 1970, the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and the United Packinghouse Union had won enforceable safety rules and solid middle-income wages—about $25 an hour in today's dollars. By 1980, the largest meatpackers were buying up smaller competitors, relocating plants from unionized urban areas to anti-union rural counties, dehumanizing and de-skilling workplaces, slashing wages, setting injury-causing work processes and imposing strict labor rules that leave workers with little power to complain about, much less to stop, abuses. Now the median wage for hourly workers in meatpacking plants is down to about half that—$13.23 per hour—some 30% less than production workers in other manufacturing jobs.
Around 1970 a long-term propaganda campaign described as "shareholder primacy," was launched asserted that a corporation's SOLE purpose and duty is to maximize stockholder profits. Under this theory, CEOs and board members must do everything legally possible to lower wages, shortcut safety, squeeze out competitors, cheapen quality, minimize environmental protections, dodge taxes, avoid scrutiny and safety, and otherwise manipulate the system to funnel revenues into shareholders' pockets.
When a corporation sets up a workplace that routinely results in maiming, mangling, sickening, disabling, and even killing workers, those outcomes are not "accidents." They are intentional decisions by executives and investors to increase profits by treating the human beings who produce the corporate product as disposable.
Over a century ago, Sinclair condemned the "unspeakable" practices that went on. Today's conditions would leave him no less appalled.
While reformers have set higher standards for cleanliness and safety, there's a big difference between what's put on paper and what actually occurs. Progress in standards, it turns out, has been efficiently canceled out by the sheer enormity of today's facilities; the massive volume of animals slaughtered and butchered day and night; and the treacherous work speeds corporate bosses demand.
The Big Three multinational giants dominating the U.S. meat market (Brazil's JBS, Arkansas' Tyson Foods and the Chinese-owned Smithfield Foods) run factories typically covering hundreds of acres. There, 1,000 or more low-paid workers stand elbow to elbow in "The Chain"—high-speed "disassembly" lines. In 10 or 12 hour shifts, they wield assorted saws, knives, hammers, cleavers and other sharp and heavy tools for animal dissection made slippery by gore as they kill, gut, pluck, skin, cut, split, strip, bleed, debone and package thousands of animals every single day. Periodically, industry lobbyists get government OKs to squeeze in more workers and speed up The Chain to force more "product throughput"...and profit.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration official injury reports show an average of 17 severe injuries a month including two amputations a week. The extent of the bloody toll, however, remains hidden since corporations are allowed to largely self-report injuries.
The Chain keeps running and nothing changes.
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