Confessions of a Tyson Foods Meatpacker

David's story begins in Chicago, in more ways than one. Chicago used to have a considerable meatpacking industry, but the meatpacking industry wised up and moved their operation to rural areas. The move essentially symbolized that industry's version of what McDonald's did to restaurants.

No longer requiring skilled, union labor, now the plants can bring the poor into the tiny towns where they operate and quietly exploit them. Columbus Junction, IA (population 1845) is one such town.

Before his brief career in meatpacking, David lived in Chicago. He told me the best job he could find was $7.50/hr and the work was not available daily. Each day a temp agency would tell him there was lots of work available tomorrow, so he would wake up for work at 4am. So would everyone else who needed a job. David realized he was getting screwed.

Then David met a recruiter for the Tyson hog plant he eventually went to work for. "They sell you a nice dream," he said. For example, you don't have to work on your birthday and you'll be paid anyway. Or you can work that day for double pay. This and other benefits start once you are "qualified," i.e. pass a 90-day probationary period. David was fired on day 92.

Compared to his $7.50/hr unreliable jobs in Chicago, the $11/hr (and up) job with Tyson sounded fantastic. David took the job, and the company transported him to Columbus Junction to report to work.

Working at Tyson
David told me the plant slaughtered 2000 hogs per shift, or 2 million per year. The stink of the plant was unbearable. David told me it gets into your pores. The floors were slick with blood, grease, and fat, and the plant was full of sharp knives. For work, each employee had to buy quite a bit of safety equipment. The only item provided by Tyson was a "froc" - a white coat.

David's job was working with ham - cutting it, removing the bone, packaging it up, and weighing it. A slow line required workers to handle one ham every 15 seconds; a fast line one every 11 seconds. "By the time you touch a ham, you need to let it go," David said, "but you should've done everything required first."

David told me the plant throws nothing away. Blood, meat that falls on the floor, everything goes somewhere to make a profit. If you drop something on the floor, they tell you to wash it off and put it back on the line.

David was fascinated with the fact that they sell hog rectums. Believe it or not, the Chinese will eat them. David also observed that many of the hogs slaughtered are pregnant with piglets. He doesn't know what happens to the piglets, but he knows that nothing goes to waste in the plant.

During each shift, workers received 15 minute breaks, which were timed with stopwatches. Unfortunately, their safety equipment took about 5 minutes to take off or put on. Despite the slick floors and abundance of knives, workers ran at break time, knowing if they didn't that they wouldn't have any break at all.

Bathroom Breaks
Since Tyson obviously isn't too big on allowing employees any break time, they don't take pleasure in allowing them to use the restroom either. David suffers from a urinary tract problem so (as he put it) when he has to go, he has to go.

The first two times David requested to use the restroom, his supervisors told him to hold it. David tried to comply but his bladder was unwilling. While working on his line, he urinated on himself - twice. Each time, 4 or 5 supervisors surrounded him, looking for evidence of alcohol or drug use. They found neither.

He had told his supervisors about his urinary tract problem, they didn't believe him. You'd think they would have figured out he was telling the truth after he proved it once, but they didn't. After the second time, they let him go when he needed to.

Race, Sex, Favoritism, and Money
The plant included some blacks, but the workers were mostly Mexican. David estimated there were about 3% whites, typically in the senior administrative positions. He felt his demeanor as an inner city black played some role in his firing, as the rural whites weren't used to people like him, but he saw much more injustice on the basis of sex.

At the Tyson plant, women were assigned easier work than men. David's work was extremely difficult as it involved lifting heavy boxes. After he was injured and assigned to light detail, even then the women got easier work. He was told to pair gloves together for employees who needed them. He told me of a girl nearby just standing around doing nothing who couldn't be bothered to help.

One's salary was determined by hard hat color. Each person began with a light blue hat and $11/hr. The next color up was white - and $11.60/hr. David earned his white hat but continued to receive $11/hr because he had not worked for 90 days yet. All around him, other people did easier work for $11.60/hr or even $12.35/hr.

David told me that he learned about favoritism as he worked there. Employees who lose their equipment must pay for new ones. $.25 per hairnet, $.25 per scrubber. The people who distribute this equipment provide it to their friends for free.

Most employees were injured in one way or another, David told me. As they stood around repeating the same motions all day, they developed neck pain, tendinitis, and other injuries. The medical supplies provided for such problems were meager - tape, alcohol, muscle rub, and Tylenol. Many employees should be on light detail but they are not.

David suffered from tendinitis in his right hand during his time there. He told me it lasted for 3 or 4 weeks, during which time he was not able to make a fist. The supervisors encourage workers to work with both hands, but David told me many can only use one hand because the other one is injured.

Injuries can also come from knives. David described knives sharper than any I have ever experienced. "They cut through ham like butter, better than butter," he said.

One worker noticed that his mom's kitchen knife was dull so he brought home in sharpener from the plant and sharpened it for her. That was a mistake: she cut herself while trying to wash it. Another anecdote he heard was that a knife fell and hit a guy's foot. It went right through the shoe and the foot.

David's Injury
On December 3, David broke his ankle while riding his bike to work. He crossed onto company property and noticed that the ground was icy. The company had neither shoveled the snow or salted the roads. David fell and heard a snap.

He hobbled into the medical office, where he waited for over FOUR HOURS to receive medical attention. During that time, he took (and passed) a Breathalyzer and a drug test. Then a supervisor asked him for a written statement of how he was injured.

No sooner than he had provided it, a second supervisor asked him for the same thing. He said he did it already but the supervisor insisted. He wrote the same statement, word for word. Another person came in, asking if he was really, actually on company property when he fell. The person was about to review security tapes, to see if David was telling the truth.

David, who was in pain this whole time, figures it would have been far more efficient to just give him a polygraph test in the first place. He's an honest man and he was telling the truth. Why should he suffer four hours of intimidation before anyone gives him medical care?

Obviously Tyson did not want to pay worker's comp. As it happens, even though David WAS telling the truth, they did NOT pay worker's comp. Now David has a lawyer who is trying to help him with that. After the injury, Tyson put him on light detail. Then they fired him.

The injury was December 3 and I spoke to David on February 16. His ankle still hurts. He figures it should have healed by now, but he's talked to people who had similar injuries years ago and they told him their ankles still hurt at times. He's got a follow-up doctor's appointment on February 27 and he's hoping that his injury does not cause pain for the rest of his life.

I'm impressed by David and grateful to him for his courage in telling his story. He wants people to know how he was mistreated. He wants them to know what goes on. Tyson relies on workers being ignorant and helpless but David is obviously neither. He put two and two together and he knows darn well that a company as profitable and large as Tyson could afford to treat its workers humanely.

You Call This America?
This is the part of the diary where I go on an angry rant. What the hell does Tyson think its doing, and what the hell is wrong with the supervisors who comply with practices that force a grown man to urinate on himself? Why do we let them get away with it? And they don't just get away with it - they profit!

The injustices David described to me make me furious. They make me furious, and they also make me frustrated. Why? Well, let me tell you.

I grew up maybe 50 miles from where David lived in Chicago. I was lucky. I was born to upper middle class parents in an upper middle class suburb. My upper middle class suburb had excellent public schools, which enabled me to get a scholarship to a private university.

At the end of my four years of college, a software company recruited me, then trained me as a software analyst. It's true I had a rough year in there - I suffered abuse at work and severe health problems - but I picked myself up and moved on. With my software skills, I'm set for life. Even in this economy, jobs are numerous and easy to come by. Health care is included.

How the hell is that fair to David? That I won some cosmic lottery and he lost. While talking to him, I wanted to help. I wished I had some good advice to give. I remembered that Loyola's medical center in Chicago has an outstanding urology department. They could probably help him! But that takes health insurance.

What about a job at Whole Foods? I worked there when I had nothing else. The minimum pay is $10/hour, an 8 hour shift comes with 2 15-minute breaks and a 30 minute lunch, and all of your safety equipment (including non-slip shoes) are provided. The shoes are yours to keep. Free shoes! But how the hell do you get a job at Whole Foods if you are stuck in Columbus Junction, Iowa? Or inner city Chicago?

This is supposed to be the land of opportunity, in which any person, regardless of their status at birth, can work their way up in society. Without health care for all, that idea seems little more than a sick joke. And don't even get me started on the way we fund public schools.

The very fact that Tyson has gotten away with this behavior up until now (and will most likely continue to get away with it) shows even more flaws in our system. Where was OSHA? Why should Tyson be allowed to run their lines so fast and allowed to maintain conditions in which most workers are injured from their jobs? Why can they keep a man in pain for four hours before he receives medical care? Why?

David's story is NOT unique to Tyson. The sad, simple truth is if you are eating meat and you do not specifically know exactly where it came from, chances are that many human beings were exploited to produce it.

I would never advocate vegetarianism as a one-size-fits-all solution to this problem. If you can afford it, you'll find that humane, sustainable options are out there. Try http://www.eatwellguide.org to find some near you. If this isn't feasible for you, consider giving up meat for one meal a day or one day a week. Any reduction in the profits these criminals receive on our behalf is a good start.


leslie hatfield said...

Thanks for mentioning the Eat Well Guide as a viable alternative to the slaughterhouse issue. Meat production is a huge problem for everyone--the workers, the animals, the consumers (who may be exposed to diseases like e. coli and mad cow because of unsafe production lines) and local economies. Supporting local farmers, while somewhat more expensive (cutting back a little can help here, too) is better for you, the animals, and your local economy.

Eat Well has some new applications in the works this year that will make it even easier to find food you can trust. We've even developed a widget you can embed on your blog page (http://downloads.eatwellguide.org/widgets/search/)
so users can search directly from your site.

Again, thanks for writing about this issue. I can only imagine what these workers go through.

There is a better way--there are still family farmers out there, who manage to produce delicious meat while keeping their humanity (and that of their employees) intact.

disclosure: I work for the Eat Well Guide.

Mr Dude said...

die slow

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