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Workers in the meatpacking industry have been deeply affected by the consolidation in that industry. The top four processors in each sector control between 50 and 80% of the market in beef, hogs, and poultry. The power of these companies makes it easier for the managers of these firms to block unions, drive down wages, and force employees to work faster and in less safe environments.

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In 2008, more than 500,000 people worked in meat slaughtering and processing. Their average hourly wage hovered just above $12. Some workers receive wages under $9 an hour. Slaughterhouse employees are predominantly people of color, immigrants, and young men. Nearly 40% of slaughterhouse workers were born outside the United States and many are undocumented.

Meatpacking is one of the most dangerous professions in the world. Workers must navigate slippery floors, perform repetitive motions for long hours, wield sharp knives and industrial saws, and process hundreds, if not thousands, of animals each day. At these breakneck paces, one wrong move can result in anything from a laceration or a pulled muscle, to far more gruesome and permanent injuries. The Food Chain Workers Alliance reports that 65% of meatpacking and food processing workers have been injured on the job. Data reported to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in 2015 revealed that amputations and hospitalizations are a regular occurrence at Tyson Foods meatpacking plants.

And these numbers probably understate the problem. According to the United Food and Commercial Workers, the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration “miss from 20 percent to as much as 50 percent of the nation’s workplace injuries.” Also, slaughterhouse employees, and especially undocumented workers, are often fearful of retaliation if they report an injury.

Over the last 30 years, slaughterhouse companies have greatly increased the speed of their “disassembly” lines, as consolidation has left each company responsible for more of the country’s share of processed meat. In the 1970s, typical line speed for the beef industry was around 175 cattle per hour. Now, some plants slaughter more than 400 animals per hour. In the chicken industry, the line speed averages around 70 chickens per minute but can reach as many as 140 chickens per minute. In hog processing, the line speed can reach 1,300 animals per hour. In many cases, the managers have ramped up line speed without accompanying growth in the number of workers on the line, meaning that each worker must perform more actions every minute. When a company increases line speeds without increasing the number of workers on the line, this increases the likelihood of injuries, and can make contamination more likely, leading to the spread of E. Coli and Salmonella.

Slaughterhouse jobs were once highly respected and, by the mid-twentieth century, thanks mainly to successful unionization, provided many workers with middle-class salaries. For instance, in Green Bay, Wisconsin, slaughterhouse workers were such a part of the community that the local football team, the Packers, was named after them, and the team’s first captain was working at Indian Packing at the time of the team’s founding. Slaughterhouse workers today continue to fight for better protections to help cope with their dangerous work environment, as well as higher pay. But workers have often faced intimidation from employers when they attempt to unionize. The National Labor Relations Board has found management at Tyson and Perdue plants in North Carolina, Arkansas, and Alabama guilty of illegally threatening workers’ freedom of association.

Slaughterhouse workers first attempted to unionize in the 1880s with varying degrees of success. In 1906, Upton Sinclair published The Jungle in an attempt to draw attention to the poor labor conditions and low unionization of workers in slaughterhouses, but readers were more impacted by lurid descriptions of unsanitary conditions and health violations. After passage of the National Labor Relationship Act in 1935 made it easier to unionize, work and union conditions improved rapidly for slaughterhouse employees.

But beginning in the 1980s, increasingly powerful meatpackers leveraged their position as one of few employers in a given region to suppress unionization. Union organizers today face several obstacles, among them that the industry has a turnover rate of about 100%. And the process of slaughtering is now highly specialized, making it harder for workers to work together. But there is still a strong union presence in some packing plants: in 2011, the UFCW represented 60% of beef and about 72% of pork slaughterhouse workers.

Workers have won some recent union victories. In 2008, workers at a North Carolina slaughterhouse owned by Smithfield successfully voted to join the UFCW. This win came after nearly 15 years of unionization attempts, which had been derailed by the management’s routine usage of intimidation, immigration raids, firings, and detainment to dissuade organizing. Workers in slaughterhouses owned by National Beef, Farmland Foods (a Smithfield subsidiary), and JBS have also voted to join the UFCW in recent years. In the chicken industry, advocacy groups successfully pressured the USDA in 2014 to keep the line speed to 140 chickens per minute, rather than increasing the speed to 175 birds per minute.


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