By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Experts such as Lance Compa, a professor of U.S. labor law at Cornell University who wrote a Human Rights Watch report on meatpacking, and Eric Schlosser, the author of Fast Food Nation and a magazine contributor who's written widely about the beef industry, point out that starting in the '60s, when hundreds of meatpackers still competed in the marketplace, a few companies moved their plants away from urban union strongholds and slashed wages. Now a handful of large corporations control the majority of the market—Swift calls itself the world's second-largest beef and pork processor—and union membership and wages have plummeted while the number of immigrant workers from Mexico and Central America has surged. Meatpacking is one of the lowest-paid industrial jobs with one of the highest turnover rates.
Critics such as Compa say these conditions are the result of ineffective governmental oversight and an unscrupulous emphasis on production and yields. Early in his presidency, Bush—who received substantial campaign contributions from Swift's co-owner, Hicks, Muse, Tate & Furst, now called HM Capital Partners—nullified an ergonomics standard on the meatpacking industry, drafted under President Clinton, that was soon to take effect. "The Bush administration has pulled way back on enforcement of OSHA standards," Compa says. "The companies' overriding priority of production overcomes health and safety considerations—getting the product out the door becomes the be-all and end-all at the plants, and that pressure is felt right down to the line supervisor level."
Many plant supervisors, including those at Swift, receive bonuses based on product yields, which provides little incentive to report injuries or slow the chain. "It goes right to the top company management," Compa says. "They create the culture. It's a low-margin industry, and volume is how you make money. If one company did it alone they'd be at a competitive disadvantage. That's where the government comes in."
High on the Cactus workers' list of complaints was that when they were injured and had to work with restrictions, they were singled out and punished by supervisors. And the treatment worsened if supervisors suspected they'd complained to government inspectors. Clara Tovar, a 45-year-old naturalized citizen from Mexico who worked at the plant for four years, says she slipped and fell on the stairs on the way back from lunch one day, tumbling down the entire staircase. She went to see the nurse, and when she returned to the line to resume trimming cheek meat, her supervisor glared at her. "Where the fuck have you been?" she recalls him saying.
"I fell," she told him.
He laughed derisively. "You didn't fall. And if you don't do your job, I'm gonna fire you."
Things didn't improve after she complained to OSHA inspectors about the plastic gloves, which were reused. Though the supervisors insisted they'd been washed, Tovar and other former workers say the gloves were consistently covered in hair and blood. People were getting rashes on their hands. So one day, she and Salcido, the woman who eventually applied for food stamps after being fired, waited in line outside the office to talk to OSHA personnel doing an inspection. The line was long, and supervisors came and told them to return to work or be fired. So that day when they got off, she and Salcido followed the inspectors out of the plant and told them about the gloves. The inspectors said they would look into it. But in the remaining time that the women worked there, they say, the gloves remained just as dirty.
Tovar's supervisors suspected she'd complained to OSHA. When the doctor recommended she sit while cutting, she was given a broken chair. When she had to go to the bathroom, a supervisor would follow her and count down outside the restroom. She once caught several supervisors imitating the way she walked and laughing. "It got to a point where I was crying all the time," she says. Supervisors called her a crybaby. One day, Salcido found her in the bathroom weeping. Tovar told her she wanted to quit. "You can't quit," her friend told her. "If you quit, they win." Tovar says she called OSHA and told someone what was happening. They agreed it sounded like the supervisors were trying to force her to quit because she'd complained, but no one told her about the OSHA program created to protect whistleblowers. Instead, she says, a safety worker recommended she get a lawyer.
Many of the workers interviewed, especially women, told similar stories of poor treatment by male supervisors. One, Margie Salazar, said one supervisor would only allow certain women to go to the bathroom. When she questioned it, he explained that it was because they were "pretty." She also said he touched women on the ass. Another former worker said a manager commented on her breasts, and a deposition in one of the lawsuits shows that a former human resources manager was fired in response to sexual harassment allegations. "The supervisors are mean," Salazar says. "They turn down your self-esteem, make you feel like you're not worth nothin' anymore."