Something Is Rotten at Big Meat Inc.

Big Meat profiteers employ a wholly unethical, cost-of-doing-business approach.

Upton Sinclair’s landmark 1905 book, “The Jungle,” exposed the food contamination and worker exploitation hidden in the fetid stockyards and meatpacking plants of Chicago and other major American cities. The muckraking journalist dubbed the nasty and brutish meat factories “a monster … the Great Butcher … the spirit of capitalism made flesh.”

The nauseating details of worker and consumer abuses that Sinclair exposed were so horrific that the ensuing public revulsion and outrage were transformative. Congress quickly passed a food purity law (the 1906 Federal Meat Inspection Act), and union organizing drives sparked nationwide contract bargaining that eventually gave long-oppressed meatpacking workers the clout to improve factory conditions and pay. Indeed, by 1970, the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and the United Packinghouse Union had won enforceable safety rules and solid middle-class wages — about $25 an hour in today’s dollars. Now the median wage for hourly workers in meatpacking plants is down to about half that — $13.23 per hour — some 30% less than production workers in other manufacturing jobs.

Around 1970, just when working families, consumers, environmentalists and others were making real progress against corporate powers, the baronies of industry and high finance initiated a radical counteroffensive. One of their core efforts was a long-term propaganda campaign to legitimize unethical, anti-social corporate behavior. “Shareholder primacy,” as they dubbed their malevolent principle, asserted that the corporate hierarchy’s SOLE purpose and overarching moral duty is to maximize stockholder profits.

Under this self-serving theory, CEOs and board members must do everything legally possible to lower wages, shortcut safety, squeeze out competitors, cheapen quality, minimize environmental protections, dodge taxes, avoid scrutiny and safety, and otherwise manipulate the system to funnel revenues into shareholders’ pockets.

When a corporation sets up a workplace that routinely results in maiming, mangling, sickening, disabling and even killing workers, those outcomes are not “accidents.” They are intentional, immoral decisions by executives and investors to increase profits by treating the human beings who produce the corporate product as disposable.

To cover up this wholly unethical, cost-of-doing-business approach, meatpacking profiteers put out a stream of B.S. to extol their industry’s commitment to the well-being of its beloved family of employees.

Shareholder primacy is, of course, pure hokum, a mumbo-jumbo mandate for greed with no basis in law, economics or ethics. Yet, over the past 50 years, the shareholders-made-me-do-it dictum has ruled nearly every industry, none more than meatpacking. By 1980, the largest meatpackers were buying up smaller competitors, relocating plants from unionized urban areas to anti-union rural counties, dehumanizing and de-skilling workplaces, slashing wages, setting injury-causing work processes and imposing strict labor rules that leave workers with little power to complain about, much less to stop, abuses.

A century ago, Sinclair condemned the “unspeakable” practices that went on in “packing houses all the time.” But today’s conditions would leave him no less appalled. While unions and other reformers have set higher standards for cleanliness and safety, there’s a big difference between what’s put on paper and what actually occurs. Progress in standards, it turns out, has been efficiently canceled out by the sheer enormity of today’s facilities; the massive volume of animals slaughtered and butchered day and night; and the treacherous work speeds corporate bosses demand.

The Big Three multinational giants dominating the U.S. meat market (Brazil’s JBS, Arkansas’ Tyson Foods and the Chinese-owned Smithfield Foods) run factories typically covering hundreds of acres. There, 1,000 or more low-paid workers stand elbow to elbow in “The Chain” — high-speed “disassembly” lines that snake through the factories. Slogging through 10- to 12-hour shifts, they wield assorted saws, knives, hammers, cleavers and other sharp and heavy tools for animal dissection made slippery by gore as they kill, gut, pluck, skin, cut, split, strip, bleed, debone and package thousands of animals every single day. Periodically, industry lobbyists get government OKs to squeeze in more workers and speed up The Chain to force more “product throughput” … and profit.

Inevitably and constantly, stuff happens to the workers. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration official injury reports show an average of 17 severe injuries a month including two amputations a week. The extent of the bloody toll, however, remains hidden since corporations are allowed to largely self-report injuries. Local, state and federal regulators’ standard practice is to treat industry executives and investors as esteemed clients to be coddled, not as safety violators to be sanctioned. So, The Chain keeps running and nothing changes — except maybe the appearance of another “safety first” poster in the break room.

Jim Hightower