Schlosser begins the chapter by describing an actual visit to a meatpacking plant, “one of the nation’s largest,” “somewhere in the High Plains.” The journey through the plant begins normally enough, with very small pieces of meat not dissimilar from what one might see “in the supermarket.” But as Schlosser moves further and further inside, he finds things that are difficult to understand or put into words: hundreds of workers standing near each other, slicing up larger chunks of cattle, standing in pools of blood inches deep, or workers “popping” cattle in the head, knocking them out, while another worker then slits the cattle’s throat to kill it. Schlosser notes the high, cold sky outside and contrasts it with the industrial horror inside.
This chapter presents some of the most disturbing images and descriptions in the book—and they are all the more disturbing for being real, for taking place in the world—for affecting people in the meatpacking industry throughout the Great Plains region. Schlosser makes no bones about his disgust at factory executives and plant managers, who allow deplorable and unsafe working conditions in the meatpacking industry to remain—mostly because those executives want to maximize profit and minimize government “intrusion” into their safety practices.
Schlosser notes that, although a great number of machines have been introduced to the meatpacking process over the past decades, the different sizes of cattle mean that the most important cuts—unlike in the chicken industry, where poultry are bred to be roughly the same size—must be performed by hand, with knives. Workers, especially at IBP plants (where a great many “efficiencies” in meatpacking have been introduced), must make a series of quick cuts into cattle coming off the assembly line—and the speed of this line, to Schlosser, is almost inconceivable. Schlosser notes that some plants today now slaughter 400 cattle an hour, up from 175 cattle an hour only two decades previous.
Speed becomes one of Schlosser’s primary focuses. Because profit margins for meatpacking are so low—because, in other words, increased technological efficiencies in production of meat make meat easier to package and sell—plants must now push workers to the brink, to extract every penny of profit. But this speed has consequences. For workers, it means lots of quick cuts with knives in close quarters. And for the cattle, it means a great deal of slaughter, of blood-letting, also in close quarters.
Conditions for workers at IBP and other major meatpacking plants are torturous. Because of the speed of the line, worker injuries are common, and workers have very little sick leave, meaning that many continue to work hurt, and are encouraged by supervisors to do just that. Other workers take drugs, like methamphetamine, or “crank,” to keep working as fast as possible on the line. It is also not uncommon for female workers to engage in sexual relationships with supervisors as a way to “transfer to an easier job at the plant.”
As a consequence of the “need for speed” in the meatpacking industry, employees who want to keep their jobs must do what they can to maintain the pace. Taking drugs is one way—although, of course, drugs might make employees less able to cut safely, or to do an adequate job. That, coupled with the health effects of sustained drug use over time, contributes to some of the major challenges for labor in the current meatpacking industry.
Some of the worst jobs at meatpacking plants are those of cleaning-crew workers, who come in late at night, and must rinse out the fetid plants with a 100-degree mixture of chemical solvents and water. This mixture often produces a fog in the plant, making it nearly impossible to see—and increasing the risk that workers might get lodged in or fall into a machine, or “succumb to hydrogen sulfide fumes.” Schlosser notes that, despite the seriousness of a vast array of injuries that occur in meatpacking plants—both to meatpacking employees working “on the line,” and to cleaners who disinfect the factories after hours—OSHA rarely fines agribusinesses for failing to protect worker safety. And, when OSHA does manage to fine these companies, the fines are often triflingly small—maybe a few thousand dollars, in comparison to the companies’ multi-billion-dollar profits.
Schlosser has a keen eye for parts of the labor economy that might not necessarily appear to those quickly glancing over a factory. For many, a tour through the meatpacking plant might foreground those working with knives, or near enormous chopping machines. But Schlosser digs deeper, and notes that there is a job at the plant even lower on the wage scale—and even less safe—than working on the line. Cleaners aren’t directly employed by the plant; thus they are afforded even fewer labor protections than those meager few given out to non-unionized workers. Schlosser is clearly horrified by the dangers to which cleaning crews are exposed.
Schlosser describes the overall state of safety inspections, supposed to be conducted by OSHA, at plants like the IBP plants in Nebraska and Iowa. In general, Schlosser notes that regulations enforcing worker safety began to be altered in the 1980s, to reflect a more “friendly” and less “adversarial” relationship between meatpacking and the government—another instance of the government deregulation of industry during the Reagan administration. OSHA, which once conducted safety checks of meatpacking plants in person, agreed in the 1980s to allow plants to “self-monitor,” which led to many plants keeping “two sets of safety books,” one with actual accidents listed and another trimmed down list that was supplied to OSHA.
It is exactly this idea of “friendliness” between government and large corporations that Schlosser tracks throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s. Of course, friendliness is a euphemism: what it means, in practice, is far less oversight of how plants conduct business. The plants argue, for their part, that they can regulate themselves—but, as Schlosser points out, this is far from the case, for plants have no economic incentive to spend extra money to make themselves safe. Thus it ought to be the role of government, Schlosser implies, to force those plants to set up adequate safety regulations—even when the “bottom line” might not justify them.
Schlosser states that OSHA is essentially in the pocket of meatpacking plants, aided by a government oversight system that, because it does not monitor plants directly, cannot offer effective discipline to keep plants safe. Schlosser adds to this that workers’ compensation benefits, in places like Colorado, have fallen drastically over the past decades, especially in the meatpacking industry, where essentially any injury short of on-site amputation can cause protracted legal arguments over the meatpacking company’s willingness to pay out any worker claims. Some serious injuries, which are attributable to negligence on the part of plants, but which cannot be absolutely and directly “proved” as such by OSHA and the conglomerates, lead to very small payouts to those injured, perhaps only $2,000 over one’s lifetime.
Essentially, in Schlosser’s telling, meatpacking plants do everything they can to avoid playing workers’ compensation claims. They do this because they don’t want to increase costs, in the short term. And, in the long term, they don’t want to set a precedent, whereby they are forced to pay out every time someone is hurt in the factory. But, as Schlosser implies, if companies were held financially responsible for people hurt while on the job, then companies would have every incentive to make themselves safer—and this would help the workers in the plant. Hence, again, the role of government as a regulator for businesses is a key one.
Schlosser closes the chapter by describing the various injuries suffered over several decades by a man named Kenny, a meatpacking employee. He was thrown against a conveyor belt, causing his back to be severely injured—he was made to breathe in sustained chlorine fumes, which caused his body to blister and his lungs to ache—and he was hit by a train on the packing premises, slow-moving, but still serious enough to “knock both his work boots off.”
Kenny, like Hank, has suffered great misfortune. Kenny’s is more directly attributable to the malfeasance of a large corporation, but Hank, too, felt hemmed in on his land, by encroaching housing developments also constructed by large, profit-obsessed conglomerates. Schlosser makes sure, throughout the book, to track the human toll of the industries he describes.
Despite these injuries, a great many of which are directly attributable to horrific safety conditions within the former Monfort plant in Greeley, the meatpacking company fought his full payout of workers’ comp claims, and Kenny received only 35,000 dollars for a lifetime of injury—and for a future filled with physical pain. Schlosser notes that, despite his crippling ailments, Kenny is only “forty-five years old.”
Kenny’s payout was, in a sense, an insult, since it could come nowhere close to paying his full medical bills, nor to making up for the years of wages lost, because Kenny can no longer work a job requiring physical labor. Schlosser ends the chapter on this chilling note as a way of underscoring just how insensitive to worker needs meatpacking plants can be.