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II. Historical Background


Killing and cutting up the animals we eat has always been bloody, hard and dangerous work. Concentrated in the nation’s large cities, especially in the Midwest, meatpacking plants at the turn of the twentieth century were more than sweatshops. They were blood shops, and not only for animal slaughter. The industry operated with low wages, long hours, brutal treatment, and sometimes deadly exploitation of mostly immigrant workers. Meatpacking companies had equal contempt for public health.

Upton Sinclair’s classic 1906 novel The Jungle exposed real-life conditions in meatpacking plants to a horrified public. But what most shocked the popular conscience was Sinclair’s portrayal of vermin, animal feces, human blood and body parts going into meat people ate, and the deceptive practices used to sell such adulterated products. Sinclair’s exposé led directly to rapid passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Federal Meat Inspection Act of 1906.15

The American public paid little attention to the treatment of the central character of Sinclair’s novel, a Lithuanian immigrant named Jurgis Rudkus who worked in the meatpacking plants. Sinclair reportedly lamented, “I aimed at the public’s heart, and I hit it in the stomach.”16 Inside the plants, workers faced constant wage cuts, production line speedup, injuries and disease, and instant dismissal and blacklisting if they protested conditions. Outside, they lived with no medical care, no education, and no decent housing. Rudkus and his coworkers were “aliens” both legally and culturally: not citizens, unable to speak good English, ignorant of their rights, and afraid to turn to governmental authorities for help. A century later, abusive working conditions and treatment still torment a mostly immigrant labor force in the American meatpacking industry.

Gaining Ground

In the early twentieth century, addressing wages, hours, and working conditions for meatpacking employees took more than an electrifying novel. It took the large-scale trade union organizing drives of the 1930s by the newly-formed Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and passage of the National Labor Relations Act in 1935. CIO organizing was best known in the auto, steel, electrical, and rubber industries, but industrial organization reached meatpacking factories, too. Workers formed the United Packinghouse Workers of America (UPWA) and bargained collectively with Wilson, Swift, Armour, and other large beef and pork processing firms. As one of the CIO’s progressive unions that stressed class consciousness and racial and ethnic solidarity, the UPWA was known for its internal democracy and openness to African-American and immigrant workers as well as women’s participation and leadership in the union.17

For about forty years in the middle of the twentieth century, from the 1930s to the 1970s, meatpacking workers’ pay and conditions improved. Master contracts covering the industry raised wages and safety standards. In the 1960s and 1970s, meatpacking workers’ pay and conditions approximated those of auto, steel, and other industrial laborers who worked hard in their plants and through their unions to attain steady jobs with good wages and benefits. Meatpackers’ wages remained substantially higher than the average manufacturing sector wage—15 percent higher in 1960, 19 percent higher in 1970, 17 percent higher in 1980.18

Sliding Back

The 1980s saw the destruction of good jobs in the meatpacking industry.19 Many companies relocated from decades-old, multi-story urban factories to single-floor layouts in rural areas closer to cattle and hog feedlots. New companies became industry powerhouses, especially Iowa Beef Processors (IBP). IBP overtook old-line producers by automating more of the process, squeezing skills out of the job. IBP reduced every stage in the process to mindless, repetitive cutting with the same hand and arm motion in what the industry calls a disassembly-line process. IBP and its copycat producers stepped up line speed and cut wages to levels far underneath union-negotiated standards. In 1983, meatpacking workers’ pay fell below the average U.S. manufacturing wage for the first time. Since then, the decline has accelerated—15 percent lower in 1985, 18 percent lower in 1990, 24 percent lower in 2002.20

Employers transformed the sector during the 1980s from one in which workers had secure organizations bargaining on their behalf to one where self-organization is a high-risk gauntlet for workers. Where they did not relocate, many companies shut down their plants, dismissed their long-time organized workers, then reopened with a nonunion immigrant workforce. An early business profile of the new reality of meatpacking industry labor described the dynamic this way:

[Iowa Beef Processors] rewrote the rules for killing, chilling, and shipping beef. . . . The company has fought tenaciously to hold down labor costs. Though some of its plants are unionized, it refused to pay the wages called for in the United Food & Commercial Workers’ [UFCW] expensive master agreement, which the elders of the industry have been tied to for 40 years. Iowa Beef's wages and benefits average half those of less hard-nosed competitors. . . . If a company chooses to hang tough in slaughter, there's only one way to go—imitate Iowa Beef and become a low-cost producer. SIPCO is pressing hard into the boxed-beef business and has launched a frontal assault on labor costs. . . . Esmark shut down three slaughterhouses and paid the necessary severance and closing costs; then SIPCO reopened the plants. That ploy allowed the company to wriggle out of the UFCW's master agreement and hire workers who would toil at reduced wages and benefits.21  

Employers fiercely resisted organizing efforts by workers in the new plants and in the reopened plants. Firing key leaders and threatening to close plants where workers tried to form new unions were common tactics. Threats were all the more credible in the wake of companies’ widespread closures of union-represented plants in urban centers. Where workers in new plants succeeded in organizing, they often had to endure long, bitter strikes to win contracts with marginal improvements.

As the traditional structure of the industry and its labor relations fragmented, employers drove many workers’ wages down to a fraction of what they had been, with parallel worsening of benefits and working conditions. The frequency of meatpacking workplace injuries soared. Injury rates had been in line with other manufacturing sectors with trade union representation, but since the breakdown of national bargaining agreements meatpacking has become the most dangerous factory job in America, with injury rates more than twice the national average.22 

From Little Chicken to Big Chicken

The trajectory of the poultry industry was different, but it has ended at the same place today. Until the second half of the century, killing and cutting up chickens for human consumption was undertaken primarily by small enterprises operating locally. The poultry processing industry was based mainly in the South, thanks to a chicken-raising tradition, cheap land, low heating and cooling costs for raising large numbers of birds in enclosed conditions, and low wages for unorganized workers.

In the 1930s, a Northwest Arkansas farmer named John Tyson saw opportunity in shipping chickens to St. Louis and Chicago for next-day sale in markets there. After three decades developing egg and chicken processing operations in Arkansas, Tyson Foods acquired nineteen other businesses in the late 1960s and was on its way to becoming the largest chicken processor in the world. The company did not stop there.

In the last half of the twentieth century, attracted by price, convenience and health claims, Americans tripled their per-capita consumption of chicken. Tyson Foods rode America’s gastronomical revolution to the top of the food processing business. Getting millions of processed chickens to supermarket shelves every day became a gigantic business, not only for Tyson but for other major chicken producers like Perdue, Pilgrim’s Pride, Holly Farms, and Hudson Foods. Success in the marketplace depended on achieving expanded operations with economies of scale, low costs, and accelerated production speeds. The industry stayed based in the South; poultry plants in Southern states employ nearly three hundred thousand workers and supply nearly 90 percent of the nation’s broilers.

Meat and Chicken Combined

As the tiny chicken gradually overtook the mighty steer and hog on America’s dinner tables, Tyson’s growth in poultry portended its ultimate emergence as the world’s largest processor and marketer of chicken, beef, and pork combined. The company bought out Holly Farms and Hudson Foods in the 1990s. During the 1990s, IBP, Inc. had consolidated its own position as the biggest meat and pork producer in the United States. In 2001, Tyson Foods swallowed up IBP in an acquisition. In 2003, Tyson announced the end of the IBP brand in connection with a unified marketing strategy under the Tyson name.23 

In Upton Sinclair’s day, five meatpacking companies made up the fabled Chicago-based Beef Trust that dominated the American red meat market. Today a like number of firms, such as Tyson, Perdue, and Pilgrim’s Pride in chicken; Tyson, Excel, and Swift in beef; and Tyson and Smithfield in pork, bestride the meat and poultry sectors in the United States. Smaller processors like Farmland Foods, Hormel Foods, Sara Lee Meats, and others fill product niches and regional markets. Tyson by itself is twice as big by any measure—pounds or head of production, number of plants, or number of employees—as the next largest meatpacking or poultry processing firm.24

Bringing in the Third World

Large quantities of meat are heavy and bulky to ship long distances by air or sea, and the perishable nature of these products usually requires that high volume, mass-market production take place within quick reach of retail outlets. International trade in meat products is usually specialized in premium and niche product lines. Chickens are easier to transport and can be exported in large quantities with sufficient economies of scale. For example, in normal times more than 5 percent of U.S. chicken production is exported to Russia.25 An avian flu outbreak in early 2004 cut back on U.S. chicken exports, but the market was expected to return.26

Unlike workers in many U.S. manufacturing sectors, most meat and poultry workers do not face employers’ threats to move their plants to other countries where wages and workers are suppressed.27  Some analysts argue, however, that this fact has not blocked a “Third World” strategy by the U.S. meat and poultry industry. They contend that instead of exporting production to developing countries for low labor costs, lax health, safety and environmental enforcement, and vulnerable, exploited workers, U.S. meat and poultry companies essentially are reproducing developing country employment conditions here.28

As the twentieth century turned into the twenty-first, the meatpacking industry was returning to the jungle. A new best-selling book, this time nonfiction, caught the public’s imagination. Author Eric Schlosser used the astonishing growth of McDonald’s and other fast-food restaurants as the “hook” to expose, as he put it, “what really lurks between those sesame seed buns.” With its engrossing portrayal of firms cutting food safety corners, putting workers’ lives and limbs at risk, exploiting immigrants and other abuses that recall Chicago packing plants a century ago, Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation is as shocking as Sinclair’s Jungle.29  The stories told by meat and poultry industry workers interviewed for this report echo Schlosser’s account.

[15] See James Harvey Young, Pure food: securing the Federal Food and Drugs Act of 1906 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989).

[16] See Cecilia Rasmussen, “Muckraker’s Own Life as Compelling as His Writing,” Los Angeles Times, May 11, 2003, p. Metro 4.

[17] For profiles of the UPWA, see Rick Halpern, Down on the Killing Floor: Black and White Workers in Chicago's Packinghouses, 1904-54 (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1997); Roger Horowitz, Negro and White, Unite and Fight! A Social History of Industrial Unionism in Meatpacking, 1930-90 (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1997); Rick Halpern and Roger Horowitz, Meatpackers: An Oral History of Black Packinghouse Workers and Their Struggle for Racial and Economic Equality (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1996); Cheri Register, Packinghouse Daughter (Perennial Publishers, 2001).

[18] See U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Industry Wage Surveys, 1960-2002.

[19] See Michael J. Broadway, “From City to Countryside: Recent Changes in the Structure and Location of the Meat- and Fish-Processing Industries,” in Donald D. Stull, Michael J. Broadway and David Griffith, Any Way You Cut It: Meat Processing and Small-Town America (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas 1995).

[20] See U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Industry Wage Surveys 1960-2002, wage data by industry available online at:, accessed on November 17, 2004.

[21] See Alexander Stuart, “Meatpackers in Stampede,” Fortune, June 29, 1981, p. 67.

[22] In 2001, the overall rate of workplace injuries and illnesses per one hundred workers in private industry was 5.7, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). In the manufacturing sector, it was 8.1 injuries and illnesses per one hundred workers. In the meatpacking industry, it was twenty injuries and illnesses per one hundred workers. See U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Incidence rates of nonfatal occupational injuries and illnesses by industry and selected case types, 2001” (2002). A methodological change in BLS recordkeeping substantially reduced the reported “incidence rate” for 2002. See further discussion below, footnotes 149-150 and related text.

[23] See Jerry Perkins, “Tyson Foods retires IBP brand and logo; Meatpacker's record goes down in history,” Des Moines Register, May 2, 2003, p. 1D.

[24] See “Corporate Blockbusters: The 25th Annual Top 50,” Meat&Poultry Magazine, July 2003, p. 30.

[25] See Carl Weiser, “Russia moves to lift ban on U.S. chicken,” Gannett News Service, April 1, 2002.

[26] See Christopher Leonard, “Nations ban U.S. poultry imports; Flu spooks EU, Mexico, S. Korea,” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, February 25, 2004, p. 1; Meredith Cohn, “Bird flu yet to hurt industry; Impact on consumer is not discernible; Exports are affected; Tests negative in area near Maryland farm,” Baltimore Sun, March 9, 2004, p. 1D.

[27] See Kate L. Bronfenbrenner, “Uneasy Terrain: the Impact of Capital Mobility on Workers, Wages, and Union Organizing” (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Trade Deficit Review Commission, 2000).

[28] See Lourdes Gouveia, “Global Strategies and Local Linkages: The Case of the U.S. Meatpacking Industry,” in Bonnanno, eds., From Columbus to ConAgra: The Globalization of Agriculture and Food (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1994).

[29] See Eric Schlosser, Fast Food Nation (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2001).

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