May 24, 2005 – One immigrant, non-union laborer at Nebraska Beef Ltd. in Omaha lost a finger on the job only to be placed back in the same position by management shortly after he recovered. Then he lost another finger. All within his first three months on the job.
"You hear about firemen and police having dangerous jobs, but [meatpacking] is probably the most dangerous of all," said Donna McDonald, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Union Local 271, which has been trying to help workers organize at the plant for four years. "Youâ€™re working with knives and saws all day long. People are losing hands and fingers."
On May 26, the workers at Nebraska Beef, one of the largest meatpacking plants in the country, will vote on whether they want to unionize, and organizers say the election comes during a campaign of worker intimidation conducted by management of the company.
McDonald told The NewStandard that managers had intimidated workers by telling them that if they unionized the plant, it would have to be closed down.
Company officials did not return calls for this story. Workers were also unwilling to speak on the record about events at Nebraska Beef.
This yearâ€™s election follows a highly contested August 2001 vote in which management allegedly stacked the voter rolls with supervisors and intimidated and harassed workers. The UFCW filed 41 unfair labor practices charges with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) regarding that election. That fall, a government hearing officer ordered another election, but it has taken nearly three years for the union to overcome the companyâ€™s repeated appeals.
Meatpacking, one of the countryâ€™s most dangerous jobs, is carried out almost completely by immigrants.
Meatpacking, one of the countryâ€™s most dangerous jobs, is carried out almost completely by immigrants, including refugees resettled in the US from Africa and Asia and many undocumented workers from Mexico and other parts of Latin America.
According to the January 2005 Human Rights Watch report "Blood, Sweat and Fear: Workersâ€™ Rights in U.S. Meat and Poultry Plants," the injury and illness rate for meatpacking was a "staggering" one out of every five full time workers in 2001 â€“ four times the reported rate for private industry as a whole.
The Human Rights Watch report includes a chapter on illegal suppression of worker organizing at Nebraska Beef. It details intimidation and coercion of workers.
For example, one worker told HRW researchers: "Our supervisor called us in one-by-one. He told everybody that if the union came in, the contract would not let us go home to Mexico for important family events. For us, family is everything. If my grandmother dies or my sister gets married, I have to go home.
"The company would let us go and this was supremely important to us. When they told us the union contract would not let us go home, that frightened a lot of people who supported the union."
steady stream of bloody, dismembered body parts can be seen coming out on a conveyor belt and dropping into refuse bins outside the plant.
There are currently 894 workers on the voter rolls for the union election. McDonald says that again the company has put supervisors on the list, an issue the union is taking up with the NLRB.
While meatpacking will never be an easy or desirable job, McDonald believes that with union representation circumstances could be much better for workers. She said the union would battle for gains including better pay, better safety conditions and an end to retaliatory and arbitrary treatment from supervisors.
"Weâ€™re talking about hours of work, benefits and general respect and dignity," she said, describing how workers currently receive only one week of vacation benefits annually for their first three years at the plant. It takes nine years for workers to gain a three-week annual vacation.
"There is no punch time clock," said McDonald. "The supervisor says when you start and end," leaving pay for hours worked up to manipulation by supervisors. "They start at $7 an hour, which is extremely low for the meatpacking industry."
She said the union would also ensure that workersâ€™ rights -- including Workersâ€™ Compensation in the case of injuries -- are respected.
"Since itâ€™s an immigrant workforce, a lot of them arenâ€™t aware of their rights," McDonald said. "Like Family Leave, the [Americans with Disabilities Act], Workersâ€™ Comp."
Nebraska Beef processes about 2,000 cattle carcasses a day. A steady stream of bloody, dismembered body parts can be seen coming out on a conveyor belt and dropping into refuse bins outside the plant.
In the Midwest, meatpacking is one of the main industries employing immigrants. Though there used to be twelve such plants in Omaha, there remain only three. Automation has cut the number of plants needed and changed the nature of the work, making it faster, more repetitive and more dangerous.
The Latino population of Omaha grew 155 percent between the 1990 and 2000 censuses as a result of immigrants coming to work in the slaughterhouses. Along with mostly undocumented Latinos, the plant employs refugees from Sudan, Somalia, Togo, Kenya, Laos and Vietnam. The refugees are generally settled by community and faith-based organizations contracted by the US government.
Ed Leahy, director of the Immigrant Rights Network of Iowa and Nebraska, said Nebraska Beef is specifically known for its lax safety practices and bad working conditions.
"Thereâ€™s always manure on the streets outside," Leahy said. "I see that as one of the outward signs of the inside conditions. Thereâ€™s a lot of harassment and intimidation. People who are sympathetic to the union are being fired. I say while workers might have to work around a lot of shit, they shouldnâ€™t have to take it from management."
Kristie Phillips, program coordinator of the animal rights group In Defense of Animals, noted that increased line speed has made the conditions under which animals are killed significantly more brutal as well.
"Workers are required to work so quickly that they canâ€™t give any consideration to animals," she said, referring to a 2000 expose by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals at an IBP slaughterhouse in Washington state in which video shows cows being skinned and dismembered while still alive, an illegal situation that increases the danger to workers aside from inflicting immeasurable pain on the animals.
"Unfortunately, thatâ€™s fairly common," Phillips said. "The Humane Slaughter Act, the only federal law protecting animals raised for food, is rarely enforced because itâ€™s so dangerous to be on the slaughter floor that government inspectors donâ€™t want to go there. The industry is really policing itself."