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Friday, September 30, 2005

Working the slaughterhouse - a true story

Getting up at 4:00 in the morning is like performing an exorcism.

I know I'm in there, somewhere, but damned if I can find me. Banshees in my head call me back to the inky blackness of sleep. Demonic phrases like, "Call in sick" and "You don't need this job," cajole me. But, those are minor incantations.

Satan is in the details. There's a pain in my left shoulder like a heated Ishanti Dagger being jammed into the socket. My right ring finger is the bloated lead singer in a hellish band of swollen digits, screaming in pain. My left hand is sore and I can't close my right hand into a fist. I finally rise out of bed; I have to be at work by 5:30am. I work at IBP (Iowa Beef Processors).

Since the INS (Immigration & Naturalization Service) raids two weeks ago, much has been mentioned in the press about IBP's hiring practices. A standard statement made by sympathizers of the 142 immigrants arrested by the INS is that employment at IBP is undesirable, something only immigrants would even consider. Such publicity is almost beyondthe realm of spin control: "Sure, the pay is lousy, but the work is hard and the hours are long."

What's wrong with taking home a paycheck from IBP if their checks don't bounce? I was brought up to believe there was nothing dishonorable about physical labor -- in the abstract.

So, I applied for a job at the Joslin, Illinois, IBP plant. I'm not an immigrant; I'm a cable-TV dependent, well-padded American with a belief in my inalienable rights to creature comforts. If I was Republican, I'd be Pat Buchanan - if you did about a dozen lime Jello shots and squinted your eyes very tightly. I expected to be hired at IBP; I expected to succeed at whatever they handed me. I had no fear of hard work -- after all, I was once the editor of a monthly magazine.

I possessed no loathing for the assembly line process, my American automobile was made on an assembly line. I wanted to know why IBP had such a bad rap among the working class.

IBP is based in Dakota City, Nebraska. I imagine that place to be as generically Midwestern as possible. I learned the location of corporate HQ in my 2-1/2 day classroom training session. I was in a group of ten men, seven of whom were Hispanic. We watched videos on security, safety, and company history.

However, my own research had turned up more interesting nuggets than those offered by a somber talking head, who claimed to be IBP president Bob Peterson. I say, "claimed" because if I made more than $6,000,000 a year -- as president and CEO Robert Peterson is listed in Hoover's Business Index as making -- I don't think anyone would ever catch me without a grin on my face.

For instance, Video Bob didn't mention that, early in its history, when it went by the name Iowa Beef Packers, the company put your neighborhood butcher out of business. In the early 1960s, the company's highly automated plants were staffed by local unskilled workers; IBP paid better than other meatpackers, but offered few fringe benefits. Employees organized and, in 1965, walked out over the right to strike. Union relations eroded further two years later when the company began cutting meat into smaller portions -- minus fat and bone -- for shipping, thus reducing supermarkets' need for butchers.

By 1969, the company grew to eight plants in the Midwest. That same year, workers in Dakota City, Nebraska, went on strike over pay reforms. When three Iowa plants shut down as well, IBP sued the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) for sabotage and other interference.
That's when things really began to get interesting.

IBP's civil suit elicited decidedly uncivil behavior; vandalism, death threats, shootings, and 56 bombings (one at an IBP vice president's home) ensued over the next several months in a struggle based, in part, on demands for a raise of 20 cents an hour. The company eventually won $2.6 million for damages suffered in the strike.

In 1970, the company changed its name to Iowa Beef Processors. Its takeover of two Blue Ribbon facilities in Iowa drew an antitrust challenge, and the company was barred for 10 years from acquiring plants in South Dakota, Minnesota, Nebraska, and Iowa.

In the early 1970s, IBP's co-founder, Currier Holman, paid a mob-related meat broker almost $1 million to ensure that unions wouldn't interfere with New York City distribution. The company and Holman were convicted of bribery.

As IBP began new operations in Texas, Idaho, Washington, Kansas and Illinois, it ran into more trouble. It was investigated in the late 1970s for anti-competitive practices, but the inquiry was eventually dropped.

During the 1980s, IBP was fined $2.6 million by OSHA for unreported worker injuries and was penalized for hand disorders suffered by workers caused by meat-cutting techniques.

So, there were at least 2.6 million reasons for me to be sweating beneath 20 pounds of meshed metal protective gear at IBP's Joslin plant. Before my first training session with a knife, I, along with my training class -- now down to nine with a third day defection -- had to do 15 minutes of hand exercises.

We stretched our hand muscles in an immense foyer outside the production room floor. The temperature, comfortable in normal clothing, made me dizzy beneath my protective gear. I wore two mesh metal aprons, one for the front and one for the back, a mesh arm and shoulder protector, a white frock, and a safety helmet. I wore a plastic scabbard around my waist on a chain link sash that had a meat hook with an orange plastic grip and a John Deere combine colored EBT (edge burnishing tool) attached. A clear plastic sheath covered my left -- non-knife_ forearm, a mesh glove was on my left hand. Two Kevlar sleeves were on my arms and I wore yellow gloves on my hands. I was ready for war with the bloodied carcasses idling overhead on meat hooks.

It was a relief when our trainer led us into our designated worksite: the cooler. The temperature there is below freezing, so it felt good to be comfortable for a few minutes. There, standing around watching our trainer demonstrate our respective jobs, the cold crept into my body.

At 6:20a.m., on a hot July morning, my hands began to lose feeling. Still, it was hard to complain in the presence of so much death. The cooler is a gigantic storehouse of cattle corpses. I estimated a thousand carcasses just in the small area I could see. Those cows gave their lives to be on a bun near you; I could live with tingly fingers.

And therein lies the real relationship: IBP employees and IBP product. Both are brought in en masse in an orderly fashion -- herded -- to each of 25 North American IBP plants and used to maximize profit. The difference is that one group is encouraged to remain intact by the end of each day.
"We want you to leave the same way you came," a trainer named Jeff told my training class.

In each of my initial three days on the job, it struck me how similar the human influx was to the bovine entrances. The mob of humanity –predominantly Hispanic with a sizable Asian population -- reporting for A & B shifts, has to climb two sets of stairs and pass an inspection checkpoint in wafting breezes that smell like charred feces. Those carrying bags or cases have to open them for security personnel. The cattle don't have to climb the stairs, but face similar inspection procedures -- most don't carry any baggage.

Once their shift starts, the humans are on schedules as tightly regulated as the carcasses flowing from the killing floor. For my shift -- 5:45a.m. to 2:15p.m. -- the first 15 minute break comes at 8:30a.m. The cafeteria, two floors up from the processing floor, is where one can grab an early snack. Or one can use the bathroom, where signs in three languages command you not to throw toilet paper on the floor or the company will remove the toilet stall doors.

There's not time to eat and use the bathroom because employees are required to remove their frocks and protective gear to enter the bathrooms. Removing my mesh takes 2-1/2 minutes, putting it on takes the same amount of time. Walking to the cafeteria takes a full minute, as does the return trip. Factor in bathroom time versus eating time and the first break becomes an input or output choice.

The second break -- "don't call it lunch," said a co-worker -- is at 11:15a.m. It's an unpaid 30 minutes that I use to grab something to eat. I take off my equipment at my locker and sneak a glance to my right at the rotund, bespectacled white guy, who has the same break time and uses it to sit exhaustedly on the bench in front of his locker. He closes his eyes and rests his head on his chest; the blood on his apron is nearly as thick as that of a killing floor worker.

I always wonder what job he does, but my childhood lessons to avoid strangers covered in blood and bearing knives won't let me interrupt his reverie.

Exhaustion is commonplace at IBP. A worker told me codeine or speed can alleviate the strain. I demurred, but completely understood. The cows have the edge in attitude; their oblivion is complete. Ours comes in small stretches when cutting isn't what we do, it's who we are.

My job is to pull the scapula, a shoulder muscle the shape of the Aetna logo, from beneath a layer of fat. It's a four part job: hook to stabilize, outline with knife, hook the head of the scapula, rip the muscle out to let it hang.

When I pull scapulas at full count, I perform those four steps about 300 times an hour. That's 2,235 scapulas per shift. I pulled a full count on just my second day of work in the cooler. But then I missed my next day because my hands were throbbing like a Bootsy Collins bass line. When I returned, my supervisor put me on 2/3 count, which irked the Hispanic worker on my line, who had to pull the scapulas I missed, in addition to his own work.

"Juevos," he said simply.

"Juevos?" I asked.

Juevos," he said again, and grabbed his own testicles for emphasis.

The white guy on the line sympathized with my aching hands, but advised me to get used to it.

"We all live with it," he said.

Pain is just one scenario IBP workers live with, another is disease. A young Laotian woman showed me a skin disease she contracted since working at IBP called "beef rash" (numerous, small, pimple-like protrusions). Another man has "pork rash" from his previous employment at a pork processing IBP plant.

Just like the cows, we follow the movement of the conveyer, except the cows go only one way. We humans get to go back and forth, hooking, cutting and pulling, thousands of times each work day. The additional direction doesn't help break the tedium. Therefore, line workers in the cooler are prone to shouting obscenities and whistling wolf calls at the few blood-stained females who pass through the cooler.

Occasionally, the men grab each other and playfully dry hump legs, hips or buttocks.

"Watch it, motherfucker! You're holdin' up progress!" screamed a man on the line when bumped by a trainee pushing a cart full of carcasses.

Other remarks are just as profound, Daffy Duck-ish "Woo Woos" or the "llorando" of a heartbroken Mariachi.

Across the 16-yard stretch of bloody, white plastic conveyer belt at which I work, are the Grade Six master cutters: the clod pullers. Clods are 40-pound slabs of meat cut and ripped away from the carcasses. By comparison, my job is a Grade One, which means when I demonstrate proficiency, I can make $9.04 per hour, instead of the $7.00 I make now. Qualified clod pullers make $10.65. For their money, clod pullers get a face full of blood. I call them the meat dancers. Their cuts are intricate and made while walking. They twist, turn, dip, and sway with the meat. I failed the clod puller training, but understand the process better for my effort.

While walking with a shank of meat, clod pullers make jagged incisions along the joint, slice down, trace the paddle bone, rip the meat down with a forearm, cut the tendons, trace the other side of the paddle bone, rip the meat down further, then cut the clod off, hook it and throw it onto the conveyer belt. There are 10 clod pullers, and they let it be known that their side of the line is no place for "maricons" or sissies.

Immediately after they've pulled a clod, they clutch their knives to their chest -- a safety precaution -- and walk to the head of the line to have another dance.

I like to think the repetition and monotony is unnecessary, that the company could make the work more rewarding and less stressful on the human body, but I don't have experience generating $12 billion in sales as IBP does annually.

I'm sure their success reaffirms their belief that their employee situation is fine. However, I do have experience being human and there is one thing IBP makes obvious -- from their mandates on bathroom walls to their bodily function-unfriendly break schedules to the general debilitating and severe pain endured as a normal part of the job-- I am no more important to them than a Hereford.


link | posted by Jae at 12:04 PM | 6 comments


Happy Birthday Dia

Fifty years ago or 18,250 days, the American known as Dia Satori was born in a small town in Western Minnesota. She would go on to early infamy as she stole nickels from coffee cans to support her reading habit.

But, she would later make amends for that, not by doing jail time, but by becoming my great friend. Although, I'm sure she would probably have preferred the jail time. Happy Birthday, D'ster and at least 50 more.


link | posted by Jae at 9:11 AM | 0 comments


Wednesday, September 28, 2005

The Big Grab, aka why the poor are cool with Bush

I am optimistic when others are arrogant. And, there is a lot of reason to feel optimistic. It is amazing how direct Bush is being as he salivates over the re-building of New Orleans. Taxes to do it? Hell, no! We'll make do with what we've got. I'll probably have just enough time to grab my private parts when he rolls out a "public-private" partnership to rebuild New Orleans. Hello, Halliburton. Good-bye welfare. War in Iraq and Afghanistan? We need those tax cuts for the rich or the terrorists win.

So, where does the money come from? Can you say middle-class? More directly: those making $200,000 annually or less AND who rely on salary instead of capital gains.

The new definition of rich is someone who can afford not to draw a salary because living expenses are taken care of by trust funds, stock gains or any number of non-salary means. For 99 percent of America, that doesn't include them, no matter how many 'W04' stickers they put on their SUVs.

The arrogance I see is not just by the Bushies, it's also pouring out of those middle-class victims who think the poor are victimizing them. I'm not going to get directly into statistics -- you can look them up yourself -- but the poor in our society take far less than you might imagine. Whether you think welfare fraud, our social services net or anything else related to helping the poor is a serious drain on our society, you should look at the real numbers in terms of proportional outlay in comparison to, say, defense, or tax cuts or corporate "incentives." Seriously, don't listen to Rush. Go to the source, look at your state budget and then the federal budget -- except for the espionage stuff of the feds, you can figure out most of it.

Bushie arrogance RELIES on middle class arrogance. They need them to believe that their pockets are being picked by the poor. Bushies are relying on most middle class people not to talk to poor people -- because they're poor, I guess.

Here is what a middle class person would find out: poor people don't give a rat's ass; they're trying to survive. Whether it is a relatively good climate for survival -- more government aid -- or a crappy one -- Reagan-Bush Mourning in America -- it's all about not freezing to death and getting enough to eat. Health care? Yeah, right! Homeownership? Where? On the moon?

Many of the poor have little to lose. Why else risk life and limb selling drugs for essentially McDonald's wages as some young African American men do? It's not so much that McDonald's is a crappy job; it's just that it puts one into an economy that he feels unable to compete in. And, that's with good reason. Drug dealers who make $15,000 a year don't have to part with a quarter of it. They don't get audited. They don't get their bank accounts frozen for child support. They survive.

Take away welfare and the underground economy just grows a lot bigger. Why? Because poor people know survival means using their wits and assuming the government will do them wrong at every step of the way. Taking that attitude, do you really think a poor person cares who wins a presidential election? Bill Clinton, "the first black president" continued Ronnie Ray Gun's policies and put more poor people in jail than any leader of any country in the history of the world. But, poor folks remain immune because they know there's nothing coming down that federal road for them. Gwendolyn Brooks summarized the lifestyle poignantly: "... We die soon."

Health care is not an issue for many poor people, because they have resigned themselves to the fact that it's a luxury they can't afford. If welfare just went away, they would survive, still. But, politically, the curtain would be drawn and those who dangle the little bits that the poor receive would then be targets instead of "decisive leaders."

The real, unspoken war in America is on the middle class, who CAN'T travel light. They HAVE to accept double-digit college tuition hikes. They HAVE to take the tax hits. They HAVE to pay for health care. The alternative?

Well, the alternative is to be poor.

See the reality? I'm optimistic that you will.


link | posted by Jae at 1:40 PM | 3 comments


Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Strange people live here; maybe they should carry ID cards

I attended an event where some guy named Hinderaker, who was voted on as Time's blogger of the year (or something along those lines) spewed the most incredible line of B.S. He was crowned year's greatest blogger because he mobilized a bunch of right wing types to call into question whether Bush's National Guard papers were forged. The odd thing is that he really believes Bush wanted to serve in Viet Nam.

'He would have served; he wanted to serve, he just didn't have enough hours in the air," was what Hinderaker offered as a lame excuse.

What was really B.S. was the fact that he was attacking a forgery that more than likely was a crude attempt to get the message out to the public about Bush's character. In an analogy the far right can grasp: It was like someone planting Clinton's semen on Monica Lewinsky's dress AFTER THOSE TWO HAD SEX. They're arguing about the motive, but not the occurrence. Bush did NOT go to Viet Nam and his guard duty appears to be pretty shaky.

My observation is that these people have lost their bearings as far as humanity goes. It is this Bush uber alles mentality that allows Karl Rove, Tom DeLay, Donald Rumsfeld and the gang to slash and burn the concept of a free and fair America. I am a little irritated because given Bush's pattern, his impassioned speech about poverty means a WHOLE lot of people are going to get screwed while a VERY FEW of his rich buddies are going to clean up.

There's a joke about the army that fits his public speaking pattern, perfectly. A guy joins the Army and on the first day they issue him a comb -- and cut off all of his hair. On the second day, they issue him a toothbrush -- and pull all of his teeth. On the third day they issued him a jock strap -- and he went AWOL. When Bush says, 'I am in favor of this.' Or, 'I support this,' you can bet that, unless it's a far right nugget such as anti-Affirmative Action, anti-Roe v. Wade or pro-Big Business, it's a lie. Pure and simple. Don't look for meaning. Don't search for context. Don't analyze his speech. It's a lie. He doesn't support poverty reduction and he could care less that the heavily Democratic city of New Orleans is a stain on the bayou. He does care that there is money to be made.

I expect Rove and Halliburton to make more money than God with the New New Orelans Gentrification Plan.

I mean, be reasonable, Saudi (not Iraqi, for the factually impaired) terrorists gave him carte blanche to take away many of our civil liberties; do you think he's going to all of a sudden find Jesus after a natural disaster? I am taking bets that this will be one of the boldest land and development grabs in modern history and race will have nothing to do with it because those people -- many of whom are African American and non-voters -- will be pushed so far out of the loop Emperor Penguins will be delivering their pizzas.

I don't know what it will take for people to see the deterioration of America, but I hope they wake up before its Kristallnacht all over again.


link | posted by Jae at 4:02 PM | 5 comments


Friday, September 16, 2005

Another aside, Wellstone

A little ass-in-chair sleuthing. Call it a crazed version of connect-the-dots or something much more sinister.

The first partial article is from ABC News, the second is from the World Socialist Website. The bold emphases are mine.

By Paul Eng, ABC News, March 1, 2005 – “The idea of a powerful ray gun has been a staple of science-fiction writing for decades. But a "weapon" that shoots invisible beams of energy could be making its way into law-enforcement hands soon.

The technology isn't exactly something that would replace a police officer's handgun. In fact, the system being developed by Eureka Aerospace in Pasadena, Calif., couldn't even be crammed into a standard pistol holster.

But the developers say their device, which uses technology more closely related to flash cooking than Flash Gordon, may help stop criminals and terrorists in their tracks.
James Tatoian, chief executive of Eureka, says the High Power Electromagnetic System is designed to disable cars — say, those fleeing from police officers — using bursts of microwave energy.
"Basically, since the 1970s, every car is built with some sort of microprocessor-controlled system — like the ignition control and fuel pump control a lot of vital car systems," says Tatoian. "If you introduce a parasitic current into their wires, it leads to a power surge which in turn burns out those microprocessors."

Once the car's chips are disabled, the vehicle will gradually slow to a halt, allowing police or other security forces to safely approach and apprehend the driver.

Tatoian is quick to admit that the company's experimental device isn't the first or only directed energy system designed to attack cars. Others have developed similar concepts and prototypes before. And some, like Eureka, are continuing their work using partial funding from a U.S. military research project that seeks to study the feasibility of "less than lethal" weapons.” For the remainder of text, go to: http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/FutureTech/story?id=538452&page=1

and on to Paul Wellstone’s plane crash

“The acting chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board, Carol Carmody, said there was a slight irregularity in the Eveleth airport’s radio beacon, but it was not yet possible to say whether this contributed to the accident.

The plane’s altimeter and “possibly one other gauge” have been recovered and sent to the NTSB lab in Washington for analysis, Carmody said. The plane was not required to have a cockpit voice recorder and was not equipped with one.

According to air traffic control records, the flight had proceeded without incident until its last moments. Wellstone’s plane took off at 9:37 a.m. from Minneapolis-St. Paul, received permission to climb to 13,000 feet at 9:48 a.m., and received clearance to descend towards Eveleth at 10:01 a.m., at which time the pilot was told there was icing at the 9,000-11,000 foot level. The plane began its descent at 10:10 a.m., passed through the icing altitude without apparent difficulty, and at 10:18 a.m. was cleared for approach to the airport. A minute later, at 3,500 feet, the plane began to drift away from the runway. It was last sighted at 10:21 a.m., flying at 1,800 feet.

Carmody said that the impact area was 300 feet by 190 feet, with evidence of “extreme post-crash fire.” The plane apparently was headed south, away from the Eveleth runway, when it hit the ground. “The angle was steeper than would be expected in a normal stabilized standardized approach,” she said. Some press reports cited eyewitness accounts of a near-vertical plunge."

Interestingly enough, another Democratic senator, Mel Carnahan had been killed in a similarly suspicious manner two years earlier.


link | posted by Jae at 5:32 PM | 1 comments


An aside re: Bush's diverse appointments

The current political regime suggests that if you are wrong-headed on an issue, say, for instance if you never served in Viet Nam and are running against a decorated Viet Nam veteran, tear at his strengths, lie as much as possible and make sure that the discussion centers on things extraneous to the real topic, say, oh, I don't know... fabricated documents that indicate someone didn't fulfill his National Guard duty.

Case in point, Bush's handlers have REPEATEDLY said that his appointees are more diverse than Clinton's were. I found that hard to believe, but operating under the normal American mindset that someone is not going to look me in the eyes and tell me a big, bold-faced lie, I grudgingly accepted what I could not disprove myself. Wrong. Take a look at this: http://www.newsday.com/news/nationworld/ny-rnc-usdive3008,0,5162569.story


link | posted by Jae at 4:52 PM | 3 comments


Thursday, September 15, 2005

What the Government Knows and What It's Hiding

Despite receiving underwhelming response... bored crickets chirping indifferently... I will press on. My fascination with government is manifold, but mostly centered on how it interfaces with its people. Are we subjects? Fodder? Nuisances? I've been alive long enough to know that there has been a shift from a government that seeks to expand the freedoms -- and potential - of its citizenry to one that seeks to restrict. I am confused because the Republican way is allegedly one of personal freedom and limited government, but more restrictions seem to be the preferred method of government.

What I'd like to do is ask and link, i.e. ask questions about what confuses me and link to websites that intrigue me.

Here is what I'd like to ask people that stumble onto this blog: knowing that the U.S. government deals in secrets, what secrets -- weapons, internment plans, mind control, general knowledge, etc., do you think have been cultivated over years and are now being used surreptitiously? Some of the people who feel Sen. Paul Wellstone was murdered believe his plane was taken down with state of the art wavelength weaponry. Microwave guns are already in existence.... talk to me or suggest links. Secrets don't grow well in the dark.


link | posted by Jae at 5:40 PM | 0 comments


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