[lit-ideas] from NYT, Herbert's column today

  • From: Carol Kirschenbaum <carolkir@xxxxxxxx>
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Thu, 15 Jun 2006 16:52:34 -0700

from NYT Select

Herbert focuses on the pork industry. In Fresno, it's beef. Horrendous labor 
conditions. Mostly immigrant (illegal) workers. The emotional trauma alone 
is unbelievable. A "living wage" does not really address the exploitative 
issues here. Where is OSHA, for instance?

Op-Ed Columnist
  Where the Hogs Come First
Published: June 15, 2006
Tar Heel, N.C.

 Think pork. Sizzling bacon and breakfast sausage. Juicy chops and ribs and 
robust holiday hams.
The pork capital of the planet is this tiny town in the Cape Fear River 
basin, not far from the South Carolina border. Spending a few days in Tar 
Heel and the surrounding area - dotted with hog farms, cornfields and the 
occasional Confederate flag - is like stepping back in time. This is a place 
where progress has slowed to a crawl.

Tar Heel's raison d'être (and the employment anchor for much of the region) 
is the mammoth plant of the Smithfield Packing Company, a 
million-square-foot colossus that is the largest pork processing facility in 
the world.

You can learn a lot at Smithfield. It's a case study in both the butchering 
of hogs (some 32,000 are slaughtered there each day) and the systematic 
exploitation of vulnerable workers. More than 5,500 men and women work at 
Smithfield, most of them Latino or black, and nearly all of them 
undereducated and poor.

The big issue at Smithfield is not necessarily money. Workers are drawn 
there from all over the region, sometimes traveling in crowded vans for two 
hours or more each day, because the starting pay - until recently, $8 and 
change an hour - is higher than the pay at most other jobs available to 

But the work is often brutal beyond imagining. Company officials will tell 
you everything is fine, but serious injuries abound, and the company has 
used illegal and, at times, violent tactics over the course of a dozen years 
to keep the workers from joining a union that would give them a modicum of 
protection and dignity.

"It was depressing inside there," said Edward Morrison, who spent hour after 
hour flipping bloody hog carcasses on the kill floor, until he was injured 
last fall after just a few months on the job. "You have to work fast because 
that machine is shooting those hogs out at you constantly. You can end up 
with all this blood dripping down on you, all these feces and stuff just 
hanging off of you. It's a terrible environment.

"We've had guys walk off after the first break and never return."

Mr. Morrison's comments were echoed by a young man who was with a group of 
Smithfield workers waiting for a van to pick them up at a gas station in 
Dillon, S.C., nearly 50 miles from Tar Heel. "The line do move fast," the 
young man said, "and people do get hurt. You can hear 'em hollering when 
they're on their way to the clinic."

Workers are cut by the flashing, slashing knives that slice the meat from 
the bones. They are hurt sliding and falling on floors and stairs that are 
slick with blood, guts and a variety of fluids. They suffer repetitive 
motion injuries.

The processing line on the kill floor moves hogs past the workers at the 
dizzying rate of one every three or four seconds.

Union representation would make a big difference for Smithfield workers. The 
United Food and Commercial Workers Union has been trying to organize the 
plant since the mid-1990's. Smithfield has responded with tactics that have 
ranged from the sleazy to the reprehensible.

After an exhaustive investigation, a judge found that the company had 
threatened to shut down the entire plant if the workers dared to organize, 
and had warned Latino workers that immigration authorities would be alerted 
if they voted for a union.

The union lost votes to organize the plant in 1994 and 1997, but the results 
of those elections were thrown out by the National Labor Relations Board 
after the judge found that Smithfield had prevented the union from holding 
fair elections. The judge said the company had engaged in myriad "egregious" 
violations of federal labor law, including threatening, intimidating and 
firing workers involved in the organizing effort, and beating up a worker 
"for engaging in union activities."

Rather than obey the directives of the board and subsequent court decisions, 
the company has tied the matter up on appeals that have lasted for years. A 
U.S. Court of Appeals ruling just last month referred to "the intense and 
widespread coercion prevalent at the Tar Heel facility."

Workers at Smithfield and their families are suffering while the government 
dithers, refusing to require a mighty corporation like Smithfield to obey 
the nation's labor laws in a timely manner.

The defiance, greed and misplaced humanity of the merchants of misery at the 
apex of the Smithfield power structure are matters consumers might keep in 
mind as they bite into that next sizzling, succulent morsel of Smithfield 

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