As I See It

Gov’t to give pork bosses sole power over line speed

By Jacob Perasso
September 9, 2019
Dakota Premium meatpacking workers march and rally in St. Paul, Minnesota, in June 2000 during fight that won a union and workers’ right to monitor line speed in the plant.
Militant/Jacob PerassoDakota Premium meatpacking workers march and rally in St. Paul, Minnesota, in June 2000 during fight that won a union and workers’ right to monitor line speed in the plant.

The Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service is threatening to eliminate its current limit of slaughtering 1,106 hogs per hour in the nation’s pork packing plants and turn inspection there over to the company bosses. This is an attack on the health and safety of workers and the millions who consume pork products.

Even under the current “limits,” injuries in meatpacking are high — pork and beef workers are three times more likely to suffer serious injury and seven times more likely to get debilitating repetitive motion injuries than other workers.

For the better part of a decade I worked as a meat cutter in cut-and-kill hog and cattle slaughter and in processing operations in the Upper Midwest. I have seen firsthand what the bosses’ thirst for higher line speed can do. The bosses say eliminating caps on line speeds will give them more “flexibility.”

In fact, it will embolden the bosses to push each worker to cut more pieces per hour, adding to repetitive motion injuries such as carpel tunnel syndrome — to say nothing of exhaustion. Bosses will look to squeeze already stretched utility workers who provide bathroom breaks or give you a few seconds break to fix your knife. They will look to continue imposing last-minute forced overtime and unpredictable schedules.

Packing plants are already atop the list of worksites with the highest injury rates by official statistics, alongside the postal system, Walmart and UPS. The government admits there are two amputations every week in the packing plants, from fingers to entire arms. Thousands of these injuries go unreported because workers fear retaliation by the bosses.

Ever since the 1980s, the packing bosses have worked to drive down pay and increase line speed to boost profits. As part of these efforts, they have hired increasing numbers of immigrant workers, including many without papers, hoping to divide the workforce and intimidate workers from fighting back.

The government helps efforts by the bosses to divide workers. On Aug. 7, over 600 Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents raided a number of poultry processing plants in Mississippi, arresting 680 immigrant workers. Many of their co-workers spoke out against the raids.

But the bosses have faced resistance. When I worked at Dakota Premium Beef in the Twin Cities, we fought and won a union, and the right to have one of our members monitor the line speed.

Under the new rules the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service wants to impose, the number of federal inspectors at the 40 largest plants — which account for 90% of the nation’s pork — would be reduced by up to 40%. The government says the work they are doing would supposedly be picked up by company employees. That’s exactly what the government allowed on lines producing the Boeing 737 MAX airplane.

Inspectors are supposed to spot and verify removal of infection and contamination before dangerous elements can enter the food supply. However, they’re hampered by government restrictions, and the speed of the line makes it impossible for them to catch everything. Many workers do their best to spot and remove abscesses and feces. This contributes greatly to food safety.

Some liberals bend over backwards to paint this move as a product of the Trump administration. But this has been in the works under both Democratic and Republican administrations for decades. It is driven by the fact that the capitalist rulers run the government, and they take advantage of the lack of fighting union leadership to increase exploitation.

The only protection we have from increasing line speed and disregard for food safety is union power. Workers need to organize to fight back against speedup and other attacks by the bosses. Out of these skirmishes, we can organize and transform both ourselves and our unions. The Socialist Workers Party champions fighting for workers control of production and safety.

Gov’t. claims science allows speedup

The Dept. of Agriculture argues that the change in regulation is based on research and science, but it is the same “science” that led to the recall of 12 million pounds of contaminated beef last December; the same “science” now being used by the Federal Railroad Administration to justify allowing one person “crews” on freight trains, endangering health and safety of rail workers and those who live by the tracks; and the same “science” Mine Safety and Health Administration officials used that has led to a new explosion of black lung disease in the coalfields.

Their “science” is only the cold-blooded calculation of politically tolerable risk to human life and limb. It has nothing to do with eliminating unnecessary injuries, illnesses or death. It is the moral values of the capitalist class, and working people pay the price.

Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara made a crucial point that science and technology don’t exist in a vacuum. Technology is a weapon that serves different classes for different ends, he told workers in Cuba in 1963.

Changes to government inspection regulations will embolden bosses to accelerate production and squeeze more from our blood and sweat. More government regulation is not what we need. We should have no confidence in the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, MSHA, Federal Railroad Administration, Federal Aviation Administration or any other regulatory agency of the capitalist rulers.

As Guevara pointed out, what we do need is to build an independent working-class movement based on opposite class values — those of human solidarity, values working people rely on to protect our families, communities and co-workers. We should oppose the recent immigration raids and fight for an amnesty for all undocumented workers to unite working people.

We need to organize solidarity with the miners in Harlan County, Kentucky, who are blocking a coal train there until they receive wages stolen from them by the bankrupt Blackjewel bosses.

We need to build and strengthen the United Mine Workers union in the mines and the United Food and Commercial Workers union in the packing plants. The UMW set an important example in this country, winning hard fought battles in the 1960s and ’70s that helped establish union safety committees that had the power to shut down production anytime they found mine conditions unsafe. This is what the packing plant workers — and all workers — need.

Jacob Perasso is a former member of the United Food and Commercial Workers union and a freight rail conductor and member of SMART-TD Local 394 in Selkirk, New York.