Cogs in the Great Machine

excerpted from the book

Fast Food Nation

by Eric Schlosser

Perennial Books, 2002, paper

You can smell Greeley, Colorado, long before you can see it. The smell is hard to forget but not easy to describe, a combination of live animals, manure, and dead animals being rendered into dog food. The smell is worst during the summer months, blanketing Greeley day and night like an invisible fog. Many people who live there no longer notice the smell; it recedes into the background, present but not present, like the sound of traffic for New Yorkers. Others can't stop thinking about the smell, even after years; it permeates everything, gives them headaches, makes them nauseous, interferes with their sleep. Greeley is a modern-day factory town where cattle are the main units of production, where workers and machines turn large steer into small, vacuum-sealed packages of meat. The billions of fast food hamburgers that Americans now eat every year come from places like Greeley. The industrialization of cattle-raising and meatpacking over the past two decades has completely altered how beef is produced-and the towns that produce it. Responding to the demands of the fast food and supermarket chains, the meatpacking giants have cut costs by cutting wages. They have turned one of the nation's best-paying manufacturing jobs into one of the lowest-paying, created a migrant industrial workforce of poor immigrants, tolerated high injury rates, and spawned rural ghettos in the American heartland. Crime, poverty, drug abuse, and homelessness have lately taken root in towns where you'd least expect to find them. The effects of this new meatpacking regime have become as inescapable as the odors that drift from its feedlots, rendering plants, and pools of slaughterhouse waste.

The ConAgra Beef Company runs the nation's biggest meatpacking complex just a few miles north of downtown Greeley. Weld County, which includes Greeley, earns more money every year from livestock products than any other county in the United States. ConAgra is the largest private employer in Weld County, running a beef slaughterhouse and a sheep slaughterhouse, as well as rendering and processing facilities.

To supply the beef slaughterhouse, ConAgra operates a pair of enormous feedlots. Each of them can hold up to one hundred thousand head of cattle. At times the animals are crowded so closely together it looks like a sea of cattle, a mooing, moving mass of brown and white fur that goes on for acres. These cattle don't eat blue grama and buffalo grass off the prairie. During the three months before slaughter, they eat grain dumped into long concrete troughs that resemble highway dividers. The grain fattens the cattle quickly, aided by the anabolic steroids implanted in their ear. A typical steer will consume more than three thousand pounds of grain during its stay at a feedlot, just to gain four hundred pounds in weight. The process involves a fair amount of waste. Each steer deposits about fifty pounds of urine and manure every day. Unlike human waste, the manure is not sent to a treatment plant. It is dumped into pits, huge pools of excrement that the industry calls "lagoons." The amount of waste left by the cattle that pass through Weld County is staggering. The two Monfort feedlots outside Greeley produce more excrement than the cities of Denver, Boston, Atlanta, and St. Louis-combined.

When the slaughterhouse in Greeley first opened, its rural location was unusual. Meatpacking plants were much more likely to be found in urban areas. Most large American cities had a meatpacking district with its own stockyards and slaughterhouses. Cattle were shipped there by rail, slaughtered, carved into sides of beef, then sold to local butchers and wholesalers. Omaha and Kansas City were prominent meatpacking towns, and the United Nations building now stands on land once occupied by New York City's stockyards. For more than a century, however, Chicago reigned as the meatpacking capital of the world. The Beef Trust was born there, the major meatpacking firms were headquartered there, and roughly forty thousand people were employed there in a square-mile meat district anchored by the Union Stockyards. Refrigerated sides of beef were shipped from Chicago not only throughout the United States, but also throughout Europe. At the dawn of the twentieth century, Upton Sinclair considered Chicago's Packingtown to be "the greatest aggregation of labor and capital ever gathered in one place." It was in his view the supreme achievement of American capitalism, as well as its greatest disgrace.

The old Chicago slaughterhouses were usually brick buildings, four or five stories high. Cattle were herded up wooden ramps to the top floor, where they were struck on the head with a sledgehammer, slaughtered, then disassembled by skilled workers. The animals eventually left the building on the ground floor, coming out as sides of beef, cans of beef, or boxes of sausage ready to be loaded into railcars.

The working conditions in these meatpacking plants were brutal. In The Jungle ( 1906) Upton Sinclair described a litany of horrors: severe back and shoulder injuries, lacerations, amputations, exposure to dangerous chemicals, and memorably, a workplace accident in which a man fell into a vat and got turned into lard. The plant kept running, and the lard was sold to unsuspecting consumers. Human beings, Sinclair argued, had been made "cogs in the great packing machine," easily replaced and entirely disposable. President Theodore Roosevelt ordered an independent investigation of The Jungle's sensational details. The accuracy of the book was confirmed by federal investigators, who found that Chicago's meatpacking workers labored "under conditions that are entirely unnecessary and unpardonable, and which are a constant menace not only to their own health, but to the health of those who use the food products prepared by them."

The popular outrage inspired by The Jungle led Congress to enact food safety legislation in 1906. Little was done, however, to improve the lives of packinghouse workers, whose misfortune had inspired Upton Sinclair to write the book. "I aimed for the public's heart," he later wrote in his autobiography, "and by accident I hit it in the stomach." For the next thirty years, unions battled to gain representation among Chicago's stockyard and slaughterhouse workers, who were mainly eastern European immigrants. The large meatpacking firms used company spies, blacklists, and African-American strikebreakers to thwart organizing efforts. Nevertheless, most of Chicago's packinghouse workers had gained union representation by the end of the Depression. After World War II, their wages greatly improved, soon exceeding the national average for workers in manufacturing. Meatpacking was still a backbreaking, dangerous job, but for many it was ~ also a well-paid and desirable one. It provided a stable, middle-class, income. Swift & Company, the largest firm in the industry until the early 1960s, was also the last of the big five meatpackers to remain privately controlled. Much like Ken Monfort, Harold Swift ran the company founded by his father with a paternalistic concern for workers. Swift & Company paid the industry's highest wages, guaranteed long-term job security, worked closely with union officials to address worker grievances, and provided bonuses, pensions, and other benefits.

In 1960 Currier J. Holman and A. D. Anderson, two former Swift executives, decided to start their own meatpacking company, convinced that by slashing costs they could compete with the industry giants. The following year Iowa Beef Packers opened its first slaughterhouse-a meat factory that in its own way proved as influential as the first Speedee Service McDonald's in San Bernardino. Applying the same labor principles to meatpacking that the McDonald brothers had applied to making hamburgers, Holman and Anderson designed a production system for their slaughterhouse in Denison, Iowa, that eliminated the need for skilled workers. The new IBP plant was a one-story structure with a disassembly line. Each worker stood in one spot along the line, performing the same simple task over and over again, making the same knife cut thousands of times during an eight-hour shift. The gains that meatpacking workers had made since the days of The Jungle stood in the way of IBP's new system, whose success depended upon access to a cheap and powerless workforce. At the dawn of the fast food era, IBP became a meatpacking company with a fast food mentality, obsessed with throughput, efficiency, centralization, and control. "We've tried to take the skill out of every step," A. D. Anderson later boasted.

In addition to creating a mass production system that employed a de-skilled workforce, IBP put its new slaughterhouses in rural areas dose to the feedlots-and far away from the urban strongholds of the nation's labor unions. The new interstate highway system made it possible to rely upon trucks, instead of railroads, to ship meat. In 1967 IBP opened a large plant in Dakota City, Nebraska, that not only slaughtered cattle but also "fabricated" them into smaller cuts of meat -into primals (chucks, loins, ribs, rounds) and subprimals (such as chuck rolls). Instead of shipping whole sides of beef, IBP shipped these smaller cuts, vacuum-sealed and plastic-wrapped, as "boxed beef." This new way of marketing beef enabled supermarkets to fire most of their skilled, unionized butchers. It also left IBP with a great deal of leftover bones, blood, and scraps of meat that could be rendered into profitable byproducts such as dog food. IBP soon added "grinders" to its plants, machinery that made hamburger meat in enormous quantities, driving small processors and wholesalers out of business. The company's low wages and new production techniques transformed the entire beef industry, from the feedlot to the butcher counter.

... In the 1980s large numbers of young men and women from Mexico, Central America, and Southeast Asia started traveling to rural Colorado. Meatpacking jobs that had once provided a middle-class American life now offered little more than poverty wages. Instead of a waiting list, the slaughterhouse seemed to acquire a revolving door, as Monfort plowed through new hires to fill the roughly nine hundred jobs. During one eighteen-month period, more than five thousand different people were employed at the Greeley beef plant-an annual turnover rate of about 400 percent. The average worker quit or was fired every three months.

Today, roughly two-thirds of the workers at the beef plant in Greeley cannot speak English. Most of them are Mexican immigrants who live in places like the River Park Mobile Court, a collection of battered old trailers a quarter-mile down the road from the slaughterhouse. They share rooms in old motels, sleeping on mattresses that cover the floor. The basic pay at the slaughterhouse is now $9.25 an hour. Adjusted for inflation, today's hourly wage is more than a third lower than what Monfort paid forty years ago when the plant opened. Health insurance is now offered to workers after six months on the job; vacation pay, after a year. But most of the workers will never get that vacation. A spokesman for ConAgra recently acknowledged that the turnover rate at the Greeley slaughterhouse is about 80 percent a year. That figure actually represents a decline from the early 1990s.

Mike Coan candidly discussed the whole subject during a 1994 interview with Business Insurance, an industry trade journal. At the time, he was the corporate safety director of ConAgra Red Meat. "There is a 100 percent turnover rate annually," Coan said, in an article that applauded Monfort's skill at keeping its insurance costs low. Another

ConAgra meat executive agreed with Coan, noting that "turnover in our business is just astronomical." While Monfort did keep some long-term employees, many slaughterhouse jobs needed to be filled several times every year. "We're at the bottom of the literacy scale," Coan added; ". . . in some plants maybe a third of the people cannot read or write in any language."

During a federal hearing in the 1980s, Arden Walker, the head of labor relations at IBP for the company's first two decades, explained some of the advantages of having a high turnover rate:

Counsel: With regard to turnover, since you [IBP] are obviously experiencing it, does that bother you?

Mr. Walker: Not really.

Counsel: Why not?

Mr. Walker: We found very little correlation between turnover and profitability . . . For instance, insurance, as you know, is very costly. Insurance is not available to new employees until they've worked there for a period of a year or, in some cases, six months. Vacations don't accrue until the second year. There are some economies, frankly, that result from hiring new employees.

Far from being a liability, a high turnover rate in the meatpacking industry-as in the fast food industry-also helps maintain a workforce that is harder to unionize and much easier to control.

For more than a century, California agriculture has been dependent on migrant workers, on young men and women from rural villages in Mexico who travel north to pick by hand most of the state's fruits and vegetables. Migrant workers have long played an important role in the agricultural economy of other states, picking berries in Oregon, apples in Washington, and tomatoes in Florida. Today, the United States, for the first time in its history, has begun to rely on a migrant industrial workforce. Thousands of new migrants now travel north to work in the slaughterhouses and meat processing plants of the High Plains. Some of these new migrants save their earnings, then return home. Some try to establish roots and settle in meatpacking communities. And others wander the country, briefly employed in one state after another, looking for a meatpacking plant that treats its workers well. These migrants come mainly from Mexico, Guatemala, and El Salvador. Many were once farm workers in California, where steady jobs in the fields are now difficult to find. To farm workers who've labored outdoors, ten hours a day, for the nation's lowest wages, meatpacking jobs often sound too good to be true. Picking strawberries in California pays about $5.50 an hour, while cutting meat in a Colorado or Nebraska slaughterhouse can pay almost twice that amount. In many parts of rural Mexico and Guatemala, workers earn about $5 a day.

As in so many other aspects of meatpacking, IBP was a trailblazer in recruiting migrant labor. The company was among the first to recognize that recent immigrants would work for lower wages than American citizens-and would be more reluctant to join unions. To sustain the flow of new workers into IBP slaughterhouses, the company has for years dispatched recruiting teams to poor communities throughout the United States. It has recruited refugees and asylum-seekers from Laos and Bosnia. It has recruited homeless people living at shelters in New York, New Jersey, California, North Carolina, and Rhode Island. It has hired buses to import these workers from thousands of miles away. IBP now maintains a labor office in Mexico City, runs ads on Mexican radio stations offering jobs in the United States, and operates a bus service from rural Mexico to the heartland of America.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service estimates that about one-quarter of all meatpacking workers in Iowa and Nebraska are illegal immigrants. The proportion at some slaughterhouses can be much higher. Spokesmen for IBP and the ConAgra Beef Company adamantly deny that they in any way seek illegal immigrants. "We do not knowingly hire undocumented workers," an IBP executive told me. "IBP supports INS efforts to enforce the law and do[es] not want to employ people who are not authorized to work in the United States." Nevertheless, the recruiting efforts of the American meatpacking industry now target some of the most impoverished and most vulnerable groups in the Western Hemisphere. "If they've got a pulse," one meatpacking executive joked to the Omaha World-Herald in 1998, "we'll take an application."

The real costs of this migrant industrial workforce are being borne not by the large meatpacking firms, but by the nation's meatpacking communities. Poor workers without health insurance drive up local medical costs. Drug dealers prey on recent immigrants, and the large, transient population usually brings more crime. At times, the meatpacking firms have been especially brazen in assuming that public funds will cover their routine business costs. In September of 1994, GFI America, Inc.-a leading supplier of frozen hamburger patties to Dairy Queen, Cracker Barrel Old Country Store, and the federal school lunch program-needed workers for a plant in Minneapolis, Minnesota. It sent recruiters to Eagle Pass, Texas, near the Mexican border, promising steady work and housing. The recruiters hired thirty-nine people, rented a bus, drove the new workers from Texas to Minnesota, and then dropped them off across the street from People Serving People, a homeless shelter in downtown Minneapolis. Because the workers had no money, the shelter agreed to house them. GFI America offered to pay the facility $17 for each worker and to donate some free hamburgers, but the offer was declined. The company's plan to use a homeless shelter as worker housing soon backfired. Most of the new recruits refused to stay at the shelter; they had been promised rental apartments and now felt tricked and misled. The story was soon picked up by the local media. Advocates for the homeless were especially angry about GFI America's attempt to misuse the largest homeless shelter in Minneapolis. "Our job is not to provide subsidies to corporations that are importing low-cost labor," said a county official.

The high turnover rate in meatpacking is driven by the low pay and the poor working conditions. Workers quit one meatpacking job and float from town to town in the High Plains, looking for something better. Moving constantly is hard on their personal lives and their families. Most of these new industrial migrants would gladly stay in one job and settle in one spot, if the wages and the working conditions were good. The nation's meatpacking firms, on the other hand, have proven themselves to be far less committed to remaining in a particular community. They have successfully pitted one economically depressed region against another, using the threat of plant closures and the promise of future investment to obtain lucrative government subsidies. No longer locally owned, they feel no allegiance to any one place.

In January of 1987, Mike Harper told the newly elected governor of Nebraska, Kay Orr, that ConAgra wanted a number of tax breaks- or would move its headquarters out of Omaha. The company had been based in the state for almost seventy years, and Nebraska's tax rates were among the lowest in the United States. Nevertheless, a small group of ConAgra executives soon gathered on a Saturday morning at Harper's house, sat around his kitchen table, and came up with the basis for legislation that rewrote Nebraska's tax code. The bills, drafted largely by ConAgra, sought to lower the state taxes paid not only by large corporations, but also by wealthy executives. Mike Harper personally stood to gain about $295,000 from the proposed 30 percent reduction in the maximum tax rate on personal income. He was an avid pilot, and the new legislation also provided tax deductions for ConAgra's corporate jets. A number of state legislators called Harper's demands "blackmail." But the legislature granted the tax breaks, afraid that Nebraska might lose one of its largest private employers.

... In 1990, IBP opened a slaughterhouse in Lexington. A year later, the town, with a population of roughly seven thousand, had the highest crime rate in the state of Nebraska. Within a decade, the number of serious crimes doubled; the number of Medicaid cases nearly doubled; Lexington became a major distribution center for illegal drugs; gang members appeared in town and committed drive-by shootings; the majority of Lexington's white inhabitants moved elsewhere; and the proportion of Latino inhabitants increased more than tenfold, climbing to over 50 percent. "Mexington"-as it is now called, affectionately by some, disparagingly by others-is an entirely new kind of American town, one that has been transfigured to meet the needs of a modern slaughterhouse. You would never think, driving past the IBP plant in Lexington, with its colorful children's playground out front, with Wal-Mart and Burger King across the street, that a single, innocuous-looking building could be responsible for so much sudden change, hardship, and despair.

In Lexington I met a cross-section of IBP workers. I met Guatemalan Indians who spoke no English and barely spoke Spanish, living in a dark basement strewn with garbage and used diapers. I met Mexican farm workers struggling to get used to the long Nebraska winters. I met one IBP worker who'd recently been a housekeeper in Santa Monica and another whose previous job was collecting manure from fields in rural Mexico and selling it as fertilizer. I met hard-working, illiterate, religious people willing to risk injury and endure pain for the benefit of their families.

The smell that permeates Lexington [Nebraska] is even worse than the smell of Greeley. "We have three odors," a Lexington resident told a reporter: "burning hair and blood, that greasy smell, and the odor of rotten eggs." Hydrogen sulfide is the gas responsible for the rotten egg smell. It rises from slaughterhouse wastewater lagoons, causes respiratory problems and headaches, and at high levels can cause permanent damage to the nervous system. In January of 2000, the Justice Department sued IBP for violations of the Clean Air Act at its Dakota City plant, where as much as a ton of hydrogen sulfide was being released into the air every day. As part of a consent decree, IBP agreed to cover its wastewater lagoons there. "This agreement means that Nebraskans will no longer be forced to inhale IBP's toxic emissions," said a Justice Department official. As of this writing, IBPis also preparing to cover its Lexington wastewater lagoons.

On July 7, 1988, IBP held a public forum at a junior high school in Lexington, giving local citizens an opportunity to ask questions about the company's proposal to build a slaughterhouse there. The transcript of this meeting says a lot about how IBP views the rural communities where it operates. Would there be much turnover among workers at the new IBP plant, someone asked. Once the slaughterhouse was running, an IBP executive replied, it would have a stable workforce. "Ninety percent of our people," he said, "or 80 percent will be fairly stable." Would local people be hired for these jobs, someone else asked. "We will not bring in an hourly workforce," the IBP executive promised. A local IBP booster, who had just returned from a visit to the company's slaughterhouse in Emporia, Kansas, suggested there was little reason to worry about the "type of people" the plant might attract or the potential for increased crime. He said that in Emporia, apparently, "they work them so hard at IBP that they're tired and they go home and go to bed." An IBP executive, a vice president of public relations, confirmed that assessment. "And people who work on our lines work hard," he told the gathering. "As the chief of police [in Emporia] said, they go home at night and go to bed rather than carouse around town." Another IBP executive, a vice president of engineering, assured the audience that the new plant in Lexington would not foul the air. No odor would be noticeable, he promised, even "a few feet away" from the plant. In any event, the smell emitted by slaughterhouse lagoons would be "sweet," not objectionable. And the smell from the slaughterhouse itself, the IBP vice president said, would be "no different than that which you produce in your kitchen when you cook."

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