Big Meat’s ugly history

Dear Friends,

On this week’s Forum, Drake sociology professor Michael Haedicke joins us for a historical perspective on the meatpacking industry, which continues to come under fire for its failure to protect workers from exposure to COVID-19. As a result, meatpacking plants are one of the worst hotspots for outbreaks.

In response, League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) Council 307 has launched a boycott of meat products from Tyson, Smithfield, JBS, and other negligent slaughterhouse giants. A coalition of workers, farmers, immigrant-rights advocates, and consumers is encouraging people to either do without meat or buy it from local farmers raising animals sustainably — and restaurants and grocery stores that carry their products.

Quoting from Professor Haedicke’s recent column, To understand the danger of COVID-19 outbreaks in meatpacking plants, look at the industry’s history“For several decades after World War II, conditions in meatpacking plants steadily improved as a result of pressure from workers themselves. …

“But by the 1970s, the union was in decline. A key factor was industry leaders’ decision to shift production from cities with a strong union tradition, like Chicago and Kansas City, to small towns scattered across the Great Plains and the southeastern United States.

“Rural work forces are more difficult to organize than their urban counterparts for many reasons. Most small towns do not have a history of union activity, and anti-union sentiment is often strong – as shown by the prevalence of right-to-work laws in many rural states.

“Moreover, packing plants are often small towns’ only major employers. Workers and municipal authorities alike depend on plants for jobs and tax revenue. This relationship creates enormous pressure to treat meat processing companies with deference.

“Additionally, meatpacking consolidated in the late 20th century. Plants grew larger, and a relative handful of firms such as Cargill and Tyson came to dominate processing of beef, poultry and other meats. Consolidation gives these firms greater ability to control working conditions and wages.

“Finally, today’s plants often recruit workers from Mexico and Central America, some of whom may lack legal authorization to work in the U.S. They also hire refugees who may be unfamiliar with U.S. labor protections and have few other employment possibilities.”

It’s an excellent conversation, and I hope you’ll give it a listen. Also, buy your meat locally (check LULAC 307’s Facebook page for updates on the boycott) and push your state and federal representatives to support a MEATPACKING INDUSTRY BILL OF RIGHTS along the lines of legislation I and five other House Democrats introduced in 2001.

Here’s a link to this week’s program and our full line-up, with time stamps:

(01:18) To understand the danger of COVID-19 outbreaks in meatpacking plants, look at the industry’s history, with Michael Haedicke, Associate Professor of Sociology at Drake University;
(17:22) Amid lockdown, Israel delivers demolition orders to Palestinian village, with Maria Filippone;
(33:13) ReWilding Iowa, with Mark Edwards;
(52:31) Garden Q & A, with Kathy Byrnes of Birds & Bees Urban Farm.

If you live in central Iowa, please support the local businesses and non-profits who help make this program possible. Click on their logos elsewhere on this site. Also, check out Story County Veterinary Clinic, Bold Iowa, and Birds & Bees Urban Farm.

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Ed Fallon