Captives of the Meatpacking Archipelago
- THE TILTING YARDBy THOMAS FRANK
Captives of the Meatpacking Archipelago
August 6, 2008; Page A13
History records that Paul Weyrich, one of the founders of the Moral Majority, the Heritage Foundation and other conservative groups, used to present himself as a soul-brother to the American worker. In his heyday he railed against the "elitist upper class" and established his bona fides by saying, "I come from a poor district of working-class people."Writing in the Washington Tim es last week, Mr. Weyrich was back in his old rhetorical neighborhood. The subject was Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, and Mr. Weyrich was writing to celebrate "the best record of accomplishment of anyone in the Bush administration." Read closely, and you get the impression that Ms. Chao's the best secretary of Labor ever. After all, as Mr. Weyrich notes, she has applied stricter regulations to labor unions and has held the line against card-check unionization, which would allow workers to organize a union by signing cards instead of casting ballots.
Let us take note, then: The Bush administration's Department of Labor meets the strictest conservative standards. There will be no backing out later, none of the usual talk about how the department really wasn't conservative, that conservatism never really got a chance. No, this is it. A definitive test case. This is what conservatism has to offer the worker.
So let us flesh out the picture a little. In the New York Times on the day before Mr. Weyrich's commentary appeared, we find a story about AgriProcessors, an Iowa meatpacking plant which was, back in May, the site of the biggest immigration bust of all time. According to the Times, the immigration agents also "found more than 20 under-age workers, some as young as 13." One young worker told investigators "he worked 17-hour shifts, six day a week.""The investigation brings to light egregious violations of virtually every aspect of Iowa's child labor laws," the Iowa labor commissioner said yesterday.
The Des Moines Register noted in March that "the Iowa Division of Labor Services said it was citing the plant for 39 violations of safety rules." By comparison, according to union officials, "in 2007, Iowa OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] issued 19 violations for all meatpacking plants" in the state.
The fines levied against AgriProcessors, however, were eventually reduced to $42,750 from $182,000. The same pattern holds true in the case of the only federal Labor Department fines against the company that I have been able to discover, which were levied in 2006, and which set the company back a grand total of $2,250.
In 2006, the Jewish Daily Forward reported on AgriProcessors workers' complaints about low wages -- between $6.25 and $7 an hour -- and about rec eiving almost no safety training before starting jobs that are, statistically, among the most dangerous of jobs in the work force.
But why didn't the packers just demand more money, or scold their bosses for being inconsiderate?Because their bosses had them over a barrel. Many of them were illegal immigrants, had probably borrowed money to come to Iowa, and consequently were "very malleable," in the words of University of Northern Iowa anthropologist Mark Grey, an expert on the local meatpacking industry. "They're at the mercy of whomever's going to hire them. They're at the mercy of their employer, at the mercy of the immigration authorities. You're going to do what the boss says or they'll turn you in to la migra [border patrol]."
OK, so where was Ms. Chao? Sure, the Labor Department is investigating AgriProcessors now, but what has this exemplary agency been doing for the past seven years? When department officials weren't dreaming up schemes for "voluntary compliance" with federal rules by businesses, they were getting tough with labor unions -- the one institution that can be relied on to protect blue-collar workers.
"The reason AgriProcessors employed 13-year-old children was because they could," Mark Lauritsen of the United Food and Commercial Workers, which has tried to organize the company's workers, told me. "Because they knew the federal Department of Labor would never come down on them."An inquiry into the Labor Department's office of public affairs yesterday morning yielded only a bland statement about the department's ongoing investigation into AgriProcessors.All across the Midwest there are meatpacking towns just like that one in Iowa, tiny hamlets dominated by a big employer whose misdeeds a lot of people suspect, as Mr. Grey says, but whom no one dares to cross.
These towns sometimes boast of their prosperity, by which they mean they have escaped utter depopulation. But it is a peculiar form of prosperity that sentences a large part of the community to life in a decrepit trailer park where you hope, as Mr. Grey puts it, "that you can scramble from barely subsisting to being the working poor."
Conservatism=2 0didn't create these hellish conditions, but it has strained to preserve them. So here's to Ms. Chao and her faithful cheering section. By their works shall ye know them.
Write to Thomas@...
See all of today's editorials and op-eds, plus video commentary, on Opinion Journal.And add your comments to the Opinion Journal forum.