These little piggies went to the factory gestation facility.
As a long-time student of the meat industry, I read Ted Genoways' extraordinary article on conditions at the "head table" of a factory-scale pig-processing plant with delight. As a human being, my reaction was revulsion.
In a single long piece, Genoways lays out the crude history of US meat over the past 80 years. We get the unionization of the kill floor in the wake of Sinclair's The Jungle, the post-war emergence of meat packing as a proper middle-class job, the fierce anti-union backlash of the '70s, followed by corporatization, scaling up, plunging wages, and then, well, all manner of hell breaking loose, graphically documented by Genoways. All I can add to the story is to emphasize how forces in the broader economy turned the meat industry into one that profits not by putting out an excellent product, but rather by relentlessly slashing costs.
In his story, Genoways reports that Quality Pork Processors sped up its kill line by 50 percent between 1989 and 2006, while the plant's workforce "barely increased." The strange malady acquired by those workers in Austin, Minn., makes for an eye-popping story; but the rough conditions they worked under aren't the exception—they're industry standard. By 2005, things had gotten so dire for meat-packing workers that Human Rights Watch—typically on the lookout for atrocities in war zones—saw fit to issue a scathing report on their plight. The report's title says it all: "Blood, Sweat, and Fear."
WHAT drives such routine worker abuse? What would make a company steadily increase pressure on its workers to the point of endangering them, even as wages flatline?
The surface answer is, of course, because they can. After the unions evaporated, the meatpacking workforce became extremely vulnerable. By the '90s, meatpacking had become such an awful job that native-born Americans abandoned the industry as quickly as they could. Undocumented workers from Mexico and points south, fleeing agrarian decline in those regions, filled the void. Unprotected by unions, one brush with authority away from deportation, undocumented workers are easy targets for the predatory practices of powerful employers, as Genoways demonstrates.