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Thursday, August 11, 2016

Slaughterhouse Live

An article I wrote for the River Cities Reader (Davenport, IA). I went undercover to investigate the IBP meat packing plant in nearby Joslin, IL. There had been several ICE raids and the Hispanic community felt they were being targeted. For example, raids typically occurred on paydays, which meant those detained and deported lost their bi-weekly wages. More importantly, the raids seemed to do nothing to harm IBP's hiring of more Hispanic and Asian workers.


Slaughterhouse Live
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 beyond the 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 Jell-O 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. What I wanted to know was 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 8:21 AM |


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