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Rant. Muse. Eat. Sleep. Recycle.

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 |


Blogger Renegade Eye commented at 8:21 PM~  

That was pure Upton Sinclair moment.

Anonymous Anonymous commented at 8:19 AM~  

I'd gladly pay a cover to hear 'the bloated lead singer in a hellish band of swollen digits, screaming in pain."

Blogger Olive commented at 2:37 PM~  

In the new Corpocracy, you’re only hope of survival is to live above the law (as do the GOP-elite) or below the radar. That means, if you can’t be filthy rich, than you may be better off dirt poor, because only the dirt poor have the luxury (I don’t mean that the same way Barbara and Laura Bush mean it) of falling off the radar. Even the working poor, as Jae points out, emit heat – they generate w-2’s, get parking tickets, incur doctor bills etc -- and, therefore exist in numerous data-bases from which their personal information can be harvested for pound-of-flesh collection purposes.

+ + +

The shiny new personal-bankruptcy law takes effect this month. It was written by and for credit card companies, with MBNA -- the largest single contributor to the Bush ‘04 campaign – the lead author.

Not only does the law make it more difficult for consumers to get that all-American second chance after disaster strikes, it gives credit card companies (which have become synonymous with ‘predatory lending’) many more ways to entrap them. I’m all for personal accountability, but it should work both ways. The GOP and their credit-card company benefactors are being disingenuous when they say they’re just trying to curb credit card abuse:

“A vast majority of personal bankruptcies in the United States are the result of severe misfortune. One recent study found that more than half of bankruptcies are the result of medical emergencies. The rest are overwhelmingly the result either of job loss or of divorce. To the extent that there is significant abuse of the system, it's concentrated among the wealthy - including corporate executives found guilty of misleading investors - who can exploit loopholes in the law to protect their wealth, no matter how ill-gotten.”—NY Times 3/9/05

Republicans refused to hear any talk about level playing fields and shot down amendments that would have made it easier for military veterans, seniors and the sick to qualify for bankruptcy protection. They also denied a 30 percent ceiling on the interest rates credit card companies can charge.

What the 30 billion industry bought itself is more ways to collect late fees, balance transfer fees, cash advance fees and over the limit fees with no limit as to what those fees can be.

Meanwhile, they continue to market their product using deliberately misleading language that is MEANT to deceive the consumer into thinking he’s getting something he’s not.

I had an MBNA card. I consistently sent in my payment a week to ten days before the due date. MBNA consistently sat on the payment until after the due date had passed, then cashed the check, then charged late fees, collection-call fees and then (surprise, surprise) increased my interest rate. When I complained, they gave me some song and dance about processing time--as if it's my duty to take into consideration their time-management and administrative issues. In my quaint world, getting ones payment in by the due date had always been good enough.

“Buyer Beware” doesn’t begin to instruct in neo-con world. Buyer better duck-and-cover.

Anonymous Anonymous commented at 9:48 AM~  


Anonymous Anonymous commented at 1:27 PM~  

Credit card companies also used to give you 30 days to pay your bill. Now you are lucky if you get two weeks. Last week, I got a bill from my credit card company and opened it immediately. I noticed the due date was just 10 days from the time I opened the bill. And they want you to mail the bill at least two weeks before the payment is due so they have time to process it. How is this possible? What a racket!

Blogger Virgil commented at 7:37 AM~  

I know your pain, dude. I worked the live hang/kill floor positions on back dock for Tyson for over about a decade.

I can remember that first night that I showed up for work after the transfer from debone to back dock. I thought I knew what to expect, since I had caught chickens before. The sheer number of chickens that we had to deal with at one time at such a quick pace, and seeing the brutality involved because of these combined factors, led me to believe that it wouldn't be much worse on back dock. It certainly paid better, even better than debone. At that time, killing was the best paying job on the dock.

I figured that, since you could work down there, inside, standing in one spot (and not in the cold, as in debone), as opposed to running around the houses all night, things would be better. I had hunted and grown up on a farm, so I had also been exposed to the slaughter of the animals and the blood that goes along with that. I really had not expected things to be so bad.

Little did I know how completely naive I was...

It was like a kid on his first day of school. Since I was the new guy, by the time I got on the line, everything was in full production. By the time I finished the necessary paperwork in the office, the plant had been in full production for over an hour.

It was in the summertime. The smell is worse then. I could smell the blood long before I got all the way back there.

Back then, they still had the old grate in the floor. This was before they put in the blood pump to pump the blood out to off-haul. Back then, the killer worked up on a catwalk. Underneath it, there was an open-topped 500-gallon trailer that they pulled out with a tractor when it got full, and replaced with another one. (Although, there were some nights when the guy responsible for pulling the trailer out started hitting on a jug out back and didn't get the job done. Now those were the really nasty nights, but let's stick with what happened normally at that time on a given night, without going to the occasional extremes for the purposes of this post.)

The problem was that it took only about 2 hours to fill the trailer, but we would work for 2-1/2 hours before break, so they couldn't change the trailer until break time. So, what didn't fit in the trailer, overflowed on the floor, and you walked around in it. Sometimes it would be 7 or 8 inches deep by break time. We are talking about a room that was about 8 ft. wide by about 12 ft. long. The trailer was exactly the size of the room, and fit underneath it.

I remember when I first walked in there on back dock, the first thing I did was to slip in the accumulated blood, and almost fall in it. I caught myself on the wall. The guy that was killing just laughed at me and said, "That's your first lesson. Everything you touch is gonna get blood on ya. You might as well get used to it."

As he was saying this to me, I was watching this blood clot about the size of my thumbnail slide down the bridge of his nose and rip off on his chin in little drops. I wondered why he didn't wipe it off.

Then I looked down at his hands and I saw why...

There was nothing that he could have used that wouldn't have gotten more on him. Then I realized what he meant about touching anything. Blood sprays all over the killer every time their throats are cut.

I also noticed that he never took his eyes off the line. Not one time.

So, I walked up to the line and took his place, while he backed off. It didn't take me long to figure out why he didn't take his eyes off the line, either. It only takes (snaps his fingers) that long to miss half a dozen if you don't pay attention at all times. (Of course, you still miss some, even doing your best, but it is your job not to.)

You have a killing machine that is killing a certain number of chickens. (There is a great dispute over how many it actually kills, but I have been there, so I figure I am pretty close to what the actual numbers are.) It was doing pretty good that night. It was only missing about 2 out of 7. But, the thing is that it isn't going to kill 5 and then miss 2. You stand there for a bit, watching them go by, trying to look at each one of their throats to make sure they have been slit, as they spray blood everywhere. Sometimes the ones that are missed by the machine have so much blood on them from the others, that it is hard to tell, unless you watch very closely. Other times, they will be only partially slit. When this happens, you have to stick your thumb in the hole in their throat to see if you can feel their neck bone. The way you tell if you felt it or not, is that, after sticking your thumb in the hole, you move your thumb back and forth over it, squeezing a bit. If they are cut right, you will touch their backbone and they will have a jerking, flopping fit. (It also wakes them up from being stunned and probably hurts like hell because they are not dead yet. At his point, they still have at least 60% of their blood still in them, which is enough to keep them alive.)

Then, sometimes, you get a bunch all at once that the machine misses and slit like mad to get them all. That is more often what happens than what most people think of when I say "2 out of 7." That's just a number to give you an idea of the number the killer is responsible for killing himself. That number changes from one second to the next and is not static. How well the hangers are doing directly affects that number, because of things like the "one-leggers"and such. If they aren't hung perfectly, that machine won't kill them.

Anyway, I stood there and they began to sling blood on me. The smell and the heat started getting to me. Then, here came a one-legger behind that...

I puked all over every damn one of those chickens.

I tried to cut one of their throats and there just wasn't any keeping it down. It was coming out. Everywhere. Everything in my stomach. Even some things that I didn't know were still there.

But, I somehow managed to get them all cut.

By the time break time came, I was just an "idiot." That's just all there is to it. In the industry, they call it being "line-crazy."

I realized later that they make a killer's first night his worst night. On purpose.

If you are going to quit, they want you to do it then.

I also found out later that for every 15 or 20 people that try out for that job, they might keep one. Most people just cannot handle it. (That's probably a good thing, huh? Wouldn't you be at least a little leery of someone who enjoyed this type of work?)

When break time comes, or any time chickens quit coming down the line to the killer, it was his job to also push the blood down and wash down the killing machine. You pushed the blood down with a big, industrial-size squeegee.

This was probably the most disgusting part of the job.

I've seen blood clots that were 8-10 ft. long, 4 ft. wide, and probably about a foot thick. No exaggeration.

This is what the big squeegee was for. Well, calling it a squeegee is kind of misleading, but it is hard to describe. You certainly couldn't call it a shovel. It was something they made specifically for cleaning out the blood tunnel down there at the plant.

It was not uncommon for the killer to have to get some help to push these massive blood clots down the drain. They were huge and heavy. Some of them would weight several hundred pounds. It was not uncommon to see a 300-400 lb. blood clot.

You used the squeegee to push the blood clots down to the drain. But, they had gotten so thick that they were almost the consistency of meat in a lot of cases. When that happened, you had to stomp them down so that the matter would flow between the little squares of the grate covering the drain that kept the big chunks from going down the drain.

Stomping it down is just what it sounds like. You got in there and walked around in it in rubber boots, stomping around.

And every time you stomped on it, it splattered all over you.

T., who became my partner in there, and I would usually end up having to do this. What we would do would be to bring two changes of clothes with us - one for 1st break and one for 2nd break. We bought these clothes at yard sales so that we could just throw them away if we had to. After we would get through, we stripped off the bloody clothes and took turns hosing each other off. There were 2 hoses and we would blast each other at the same time with them for about 5 minutes or so to get all the clotted blood off. These were big hoses, similar to fire hoses, that we kept turned down quite a bit so that they didn't hurt us, but were still powerful enough to get that nasty stuff off of you and out of your hair. Many times we just had to throw away our shirts.

When I went to work at the plant I was in debone. That is where most people start, unless you come down there with some kind of experience or training to do something else. I worked on that part of the line for about 7 weeks. It was cold, but not really too bad of a place.

The work was fast and we did it all by knife in the old way. There was a big chance of being cut by someone else because of the
crowding on the line. One night I got mad because somebody kept stepping on my feet.
I pushed them off of my feet and screamed at them a few times and the supervisor decided to send me to back dock to "tone me down."

When I got back there, it was the shock of my life. I had caught chickens, but I was not prepared for what I saw. When I first walked in the door I saw one bird that someone had pulled the head off of that was flopping around at my feet. That was the first thing I saw when I walked in the door. Yes, I was indeed horrified. I backed up to get away from it, but I couldn't go very far because there was nowhere to go. I got far enough back that it couldn't sling it in my face, though.

They guy that was showing me around (the utility) chuckled and told me to "get used to it. That one was just a runt, anyway." I
thought that this guy was the hardest guy I had ever seen. I thought that he was hard and heartless.

I decided I would have to approach this situation the same way that I handled my work in the military. Decide what I was doing was benefiting people in the end. After all, at the time, I ate chicken and I realized that
if people eat it that someone has to kill them.
I figured I could handle it if I had to. My time in the military taught me that I could handle
just about anything if I had to.

But, I had never really comprehended they run through there a night. It was shocking the
high amount of killing that went on every night just at that one little plant.

As time wore on, I realized that I wasn't going to get used to it. Just doing what was necessary to get the job done was bad enough. That was horrendous in itself. I
absolutely could not bring myself to join in on the rest of the stuff--the little "games" I witnessed. And I couldn't stand
to watch someone else do it.

Being a new guy, I didn't want to show any weakness to the experienced hangers back
there, so I just sucked it up for a long time.
Whenever I would see them doing something like that, I would just turn around and walk off.

It didn't take long before I quit eating chicken after I went to work there. For a long time I
felt more justified in what I was doing because I had to have a job, but by not buying the chicken, I felt I wasn't supporting the company.
That was my first form of protest, albeit a silent one, known only to myself. I just quit eating the chicken and said nothing.

It just built up from there. I got louder in my defense of the
chickens the longer I was there and more outspoken about the working conditions, which (of course) cost me my job. That was
the biggest favor Tyson ever did me--firing me.

Now I have plenty of time on my hands to continue to speak up about the horrendous conditions down there. And I wll.

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