Schlosser introduces Greeley, a “factory town” in Colorado with one primary industry—meatpacking—that covers the town in a terrible, unique smell. Schlosser rues that meatpacking companies “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.” He believes that companies like ConAgra, which runs the meatpacking plant in Greeley, have pursued company profits at the total expense of safety for workers and consumers of beef products.
Schlosser moves his attentions to the meatpacking industry, which, unlike the fast-food industry, did once have significant union protections for its workers. But these union plants, as Schlosser will go on to describe, moved out from Chicago (with its pro-union sentiments) to the Plains and Mountain West, where unions were far less common. The de-unionization of the meatpacking industry has had dire consequences for workers in that industry, and for the meat that’s produced, as Schlosser will show.
Schlosser notes that, in Greeley, the meatpacking plant was originally worked as a small business and controlled by the Monfort family with “compassionate paternalism.” The Monforts negotiated with meatpackers who were in a union, and job conditions and wages remained strong. Schlosser notes that meatpacking plants, in the earlier part of the 20th century, tended to be found in cities—such as the stockyards in Chicago, detailed in Upton Sinclair’s famous expose, The Jungle (1906). After the book prompted President Theodore Roosevelt and Congress to pass sweeping food-safety regulations, urban meatpacking entered a more stable period—worker wages were relatively high, unions negotiated with management, and meatpacking companies were largely run privately—without stockholders.
Schlosser uses the historical example of Chicago meatpacking in the early 20th century, as depicted in The Jungle, as a counterpoint to unionization in meatpacking in the middle of the 20th century. Schlosser, here as elsewhere, notes that pro-union, pro-worker legislation was common from about the time of FDR’s New Deal in the 1930s until the 1970s, when deregulation began in earnest at the federal level, as initiated by Republicans in Congress. Deregulation became a kind of de facto government program during the Reagan years of the 1980s, and it was during the 1970s and 1980s that meatpacking plants began to move westward, beyond union influence.
But, as Schlosser writes, the rise of Iowa Beef Packers (IBP) changed meatpacking “and proved as influential as the first Speedee Service McDonald’s in San Bernardino.” In the 1960s, IBP began breaking down the meatpacking process into smaller units—chopping this or that part of the cow—just the same way that McDonald’s food assembly lines allowed for quicker production of hamburgers and fries through small, easily replicable processes. This meant that meatpacking jobs, like fast-food jobs, became largely automated, and required fewer skills. This allowed IBP to depress wages, to fight back against unionization, to move plants farther out to the anti-union Mountain West (away from Chicago and other cities). Schlosser notes that only one meatpacking plant, one used for “old hogs,” still existed in Chicago at the time of the writing of Fast Food Nation—a massive collapse for a major industry in the region.
Once again, Schlosser finds an connection between the meatpacking industry and the fast-food industry, which the meatpacking plants serve and stock with beef. By making meatpacking a series of very small, easily imitated tasks, IBF has managed to move more beef through the factory—to increase “throughput,” which, as Schlosser has noted before, is one of the primary goals of many executives in the food production industry. Unfortunately, this diminishment of individual tasks in the plant, and the consequent increase in the speed of the plant, will have severe safety impacts, as Schlosser later discusses.
Schlosser then tracks the changes in meatpacking during the 1970s and 1980s—the Monfort plant in Greeley was purchased by ConAgra, one of the largest agribusinesses in the US. In Greeley under ConAgra’s ownership, union influence in the plant waned, wages decreased, and job conditions became worse, as oversight and support for workers declined among management.
Again, Schlosser notes that the tendency, since the ‘70s and ‘80s, runs toward consolidation in meatpacking, as it has in other deregulated American industries. That a handful of companies control the meatpacking industry allows those companies an inordinate say in the practices of the entire field—which often results in lower quality beef for consumers.
Although ConAgra was sued several times in the ‘80s and ‘90s by the federal government for various violations of labor and business practices (often involving mistreatment of cattle and chicken suppliers), ConAgra executives testified that having high worker turnover was a “plus” for the company, since “vacations don’t accrue until the second year.” Thus workers at ConAgra and other meatpacking plants, more than ever before, were considered “cogs in the great machine.”
Again, just like in the fast-food industry, executives in meatpacking agree that it is perhaps better for that industry that workers don’t stay very long. By not staying, workers do not have to be afforded the full plate of benefits longer-tenured employees might rightfully earn. Thus, the meatpacking industry has every incentive to cycle employees out as quickly as possible and, by extension, to make the job not at all pleasurable.
Schlosser notes “about one-quarter of all meatpacking workers in Iowa and Nebraska are illegal immigrants.” This pattern is seen across the nation, since meatpacking jobs pay so little, have poor benefits, and are largely unsafe—thus they are far from desirable jobs, and are often worked by people with few other options for gainful employment. Schlosser writes, ruefully, that meatpackers like IBP and ConAgra have also negotiated deals for tax breaks with local and state authorities by promising to keep plants and the jobs they supply in certain locations if tax breaks are provided, only to move plants later to locations where lower wages might be paid.
Schlosser notes here, as elsewhere, that a kind of collusion between major players in deregulated industries and the federal and state governments in the US creates situations like this, where governments do everything they can to lure businesses, yet in which businesses then make no promises save for the “bottom line” promise, that maximum profit is delivered to company shareholders, and to executives.
Schlosser closes the chapter by describing the town of Lexington, in Nebraska, known now by some white residents pejoratively as “Mexington.” There, turnover among residents is high, because of the IBP plant in town—the town’s school and facilities are poor, and few government or transitional resources exist for laborers and their families. Just as he began the chapter with the smell over Greeley, Schlosser notes that the smell in Lexington is powerful and terrible—a physical reminder of the difficulties and deprivations workers in the meatpacking industry must now suffer.
Schlosser bemoans the current state of the meatpacking industry from the perspective of labor. More than anything, Schlosser notes that meatpacking jobs used to be good, stable, safe, unionized—a pathway to the middle class for anyone willing to work them. They weren’t perfect jobs, nor was the industry perfect, but they were far better than the jobs currently available in that field.