By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
As a union steward with Local 540 of the United Food and Commercial Workers, Valenzuela filed numerous grievances with supervisors after workers fell and hurt themselves. And she'd complained several times about that patch of cement. "I'd told the supervisors it was gonna cause someone to slip and fall, and doggone it, it was me," she says.
As she grabbed a liver box from the trolley, she lost her footing. She managed to catch herself on a pole before hitting the ground, but as she did she strained muscles in her back and arm. It wasn't the first time she'd fallen, but pushing 50, her body wasn't as resilient as it used to be. She was more sensitive to the grueling work of standing all day with two 15-minute breaks and a half-hour lunch, bagging cow livers, trimming heads and pulling spinal cords. Later, a shoulder injury from repetitive cutting required surgery on her rotator cuff. She returned to work two months after the procedure and was ordered by her doctor not to use her right arm. For "light duty," she was assigned to pull the spinal cords out of carcasses with her left arm. But in order to balance on the wet floor, she had to hold the carcasses' front legs with her right, and she wound up re-injuring it.
The most common complaints Valenzuela heard as a union steward were about the dangerous floors, the speed of the chain and dull knives that made cutting difficult and caused tendinitis. Statistics on the number of injuries at the plant each year were not available, but Valenzuela and other former employees say someone got hurt at least once a week, even once a day. Then there were the deaths. The worst she remembers is the time a maintenance worker's head was crushed in one of the roller machines that presses cow hides. OSHA reports confirm a 2001 accident investigation in the tanning department that concluded with fines of $10,000 for two serious safety violations. The reports also show that in 2003, the company was fined $12,500 after chlorine mists caused bloody noses, vomiting and headaches. Other problems investigated that year included no employee access to potable water and toilets.
Valenzuela is a small woman with sharp brown eyes and the kind of cunning that comes from surviving in a gritty, merciless world. She dropped out of school in the sixth grade to help her parents on their farm, married at 16 and had six children. When she divorced and her husband failed to pay child support, she got a job at Swift making $8.20 an hour. When she was fired 15 years later, her pay was $10.45. She blames the company for many of the injuries at the plant, saying supervisors failed to properly train workers and fix problems that caused accidents. "We had safety regulations, but a lot of the time they weren't followed because they didn't care if people got hurt," Valenzuela says. The company dismisses such claims.
"Clearly, everyone wants to work in a safe environment," says McHugh, the Swift spokesman, adding that a safe environment is vital to retain workers and that the company collaborates with the union to investigate complaints and fix problems. "Turnover is detrimental to our business."
As Valenzuela became more involved with the union, she had her daughter teach her to use the Internet to research labor law and safety regulations. She says that no matter how many grievances she filed, conditions rarely improved. When the chain was moving too quickly, more people would get hurt, and she'd go into the office to check the speed. If it was above what she says was the maximum speed of 375 to 380 head of cattle per hour, she'd notify a supervisor. They'd slow it, she says, but as soon as she walked away they'd speed it back up. Once, she says, a U.S. Department of Agriculture inspector told her, "Blanca, you need to watch this chain. I clocked it at 406, 407." Despite the safety risks linked to high chain speed, the federal government doesn't regulate it—OSHA lacks a standard that sets an industry-wide limit on speed. And while the company eventually installed no-slip panels on the floors, Valenzuela and numerous other workers say the volume of slippery cattle detritus continued to be a problem. "There were grievances filed on greasy floors, and they were settled, but the problem was never solved," she says, describing how one guy would be responsible for cleaning three areas, each equivalent to a Denny's dining room, dragging bins of gristle, blood and heavy stomachs and failing to keep up. "They didn't want to hire enough people to keep the floor clean."
Go to the Web site of the American Meat Institute and you'll find a report headlined, "If Upton Sinclair were alive today, he'd be amazed by the U.S. meat industry." It cites a host of regulations passed in the last century, including the Food and Drug Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act, and congratulates itself on a 70 percent decline in work-related injuries and illnesses since 1990. Yet a report by the Government Accountability Office questioned that data, noting that the injury reports don't include night-shift workers performing dangerous cleaning and maintenance tasks on machinery—their injuries are counted with those of regular janitors and cleaning crews.