Sharon Cohen of the Associated Press reports that Martin Cortez works in a world of long knives and huge saws, blood and bone, arctic chill and sweltering heat. This is life on the line as a meatpacker.
It’s no place for the squeamish. Some workers can’t stomach the gore — chopping up the meat and bones of hundreds of cattle, day after day. Cortez has been at it more than 30 years. It also can be very dangerous. Some workers have been slashed, burned or scarred. He has not.
Even so, Martin Cortez, a soft-spoken man with sad eyes, doesn’t recommend the work. The thrashing animals, the heavy lifting … all that goes into putting steak and hamburger on America’s dinner tables, he says, makes for a backbreaking day on the killing floor.
“You know what I like to say to newcomers?” he says. “They don’t kill cows. They kill people.”
This, some would say, is The Jungle of 2006.
It’s not anywhere near as horrible as the world muckraker Upton Sinclair surveyed 100 years ago in his sensational book “The Jungle.” A harrowing portrait of an immigrant’s oppressive life in meatpacking, the novel angered the president, sent meat sales into a tailspin and inspired landmark consumer-protection laws.
Even the harshest critics acknowledge government regulations and inspectors have made meatpacking far cleaner and safer than it was when Sinclair described rats scurrying over piles of meat, sick workers spitting into processing vats and diseased animals stumbling to slaughter.
But 100 years later, the industry that produces the meat for America still faces some of the same tensions and troubles that Sinclair exposed.
In 1906, there were accusations the meatpacking giants exploited immigrants, battles over unions and complaints of paltry pay for hazardous work.
In 2006, the problems persist — though the names have changed. The eastern Europeans who flocked to Chicago’s bustling stockyards 100 years ago have been replaced by Mexican and Central American immigrants chasing their own dreams in the remote reaches of the rural Midwest and Southeast.
“It’s not as bad as it was in the sense of the sheer brutality of 100 years ago — before labor laws and food safety laws,” says Lance Compa, a Cornell University labor law expert who wrote a stinging Human Rights Watch report on the meat and poultry industry last year. “But for the times we’re in now, the situation is much in line with what it was 100 years ago.”
“It’s extremely dangerous when it shouldn’t be,” he says. “Workers are exploited when they shouldn’t be. The companies know it.”
Others also say even with better regulation, if the meatpacking industry is judged against other workplace progress, it falls short.
“It’s a new ‘Jungle,’ measured not against the standard of yesterday, but the standard of today,” says Lourdes Gouveia, director of the Office for Latino/Latin American Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
The American Meat Institute, the trade group founded the same year Sinclair’s book was published, dismisses those claims. It says wages (about $25,000 a year) are competitive, turnover is wildly exaggerated and safety has dramatically improved in recent years.
“It’s a new world,” says J. Patrick Boyle, the institute’s president. “If Upton Sinclair walked through our plants today, he’d say he was a successful reformer. He’d be astonished and, I think, impressed with the changes that have occurred.”
Some of those changes came soon after “The Jungle” was published. President Theodore Roosevelt dispatched investigators to Chicago and their report — detailing filthy conditions on the killing floors — was sent to Congress. Within months came two major reforms: the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act of 1906. More legislation and improved technology followed over the decades.
Still, some people continue to draw parallels to “The Jungle.” “I think they’re living in a time warp,” Boyle says.
Boyle says in the last 15 years, there has been a new emphasis on partnerships — the union, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration and companies — collaborating to improve ergonomics, equipment and share ways to make the job safer, including more power tools, fewer knives and better-designed work stations.
It appears to have paid off: Federal figures show illnesses and injuries in the meat and poultry industry fell by half from 1992 to 2001 — from 29.5 to 14.7 per 100 full-time workers, according to a 2005 Government Accountability Office report. (Still, that is among the highest of any industry.)
The GAO also cautions progress may not be that dramatic because injuries and illnesses still appear to be underreported — immigrants may fear retaliation or job loss, and supervisors may not report the problems or encourage workers not to because some plants have incentives, such as money or other prizes, for maintaining a safe workplace.
Numbers aside, the GAO also says the industry is still plenty dangerous with knife-wielding workers standing long hours on fast-moving lines, chemicals, animal waste and factory floors that can be dark, loud, slippery or unbearably hot or bitter cold.
The risks are many: cuts and stabbings, burns, repetitive stress injuries, amputations and worse. Knife accidents blinded one meat worker and disfigured the face of another, the GAO said, citing OSHA records.
Oscar Montoya lost most of his left index finger in a 1999 accident using a huge split-saw to divide cattle carcasses. He had three operations, returned to meatpacking, then finally quit.
“It was just a lot harder than I thought it would be,” he says. He’s now a heat and air-conditioner repairman.
Turnover can exceed 100 percent in a year, the GAO said — a number that Boyle, the institute president, says is greatly overstated. He says meatpacking companies spent much time and money on training to ensure workers will stay.
Jose Maria Montoya (no relation to Oscar) lasted just a year his first time around at Nebraska Beef. He deboned meat and says the repetitive cutting motions, hour after hour, made his hands ache so badly, he lost all sensation in his fingers. He had night sweats. But he never complained.
“I didn’t say anything,” he explains, his voice rising with surprise by any suggestion that he would. “What can I do about it? When you need something (money) for your family, you don’t ask questions. You just do it. I don’t have many choices. I don’t speak English very well. I don’t have much education.”
His words are reminiscent of Sinclair’s days when Lithuanians, Poles and other eastern Europeans crowded into the shadow of big-city slaughterhouses in hopes of building a better life. Their schooling counted for less than a strong back, a weak nose and willingness to sweat.
The character who symbolized the struggle in “The Jungle,” was Jurgis Rudkus, a Lithuanian immigrant whose life was a nightmare. He was injured, lost his job, went to jail, his house was repossessed, his wife and son died.
“The Jungle” paints the most gut-wrenching possible portrait of those desperate times — designed to touch the nation’s conscience. Today’s real-life meatpacking story is far from that fictional horror, but parts of the book’s message resonate in the here and now.
Thousands of immigrants still come, as they did a century ago.
Some are refugees from countries such as Somalia, Sudan and Vietnam; many more journey across the Mexican border and find their way to Nebraska, Kansas or other states where giant meat plants seem to have an inexhaustible need for labor.
Jose Maria Montoya left Mexico as a teen, hoping to make good money, then return home. It didn’t turn out that way.
After he quit meatpacking, he stayed in the Omaha area, finding work in a garment factory. He says he was so good at cutting cloth, he more than doubled his $8-an-hour salary.
But the job fizzled out when, ironically, the company moved to Mexico to take advantage of low wages. Montoya picked up new skills, learned to drive a forklift, then returned to the same meatpacking company — this time in the shipping department.
At 37, Montoya has a grand ambition: He wants to start his own business making heavy-duty work uniforms. His slender, boyish face lights up just talking about it.
“I love this kind of work,” he says. “It’s what I really want to do in my life.”
He even has a name for his company: Del Valle Apparel.
But Montoya also has a mortgage, a stack of bills, a $12.50-an-hour wage and eight kids to feed. Though his wife works, their combined dollars only go so far.
“My dream now is for my kids,” he says, sitting in the family living room, his squirming 2-year-old, Emanuel, in his arms. Montoya says he urges his children to study hard so they can become teachers and doctors, lawyers and judges. And when they whine about school, he firmly silences them:
“You have no choice,” he says. “You want to be like me and work like a donkey?”
Juan Valadez understands. When he arrived from Mexico 30 years ago looking for work, most doors were not open to him. Meatpacking was. He needed the check. The company needed him. It was a match.
Now, he says the rigors of the job have caught up with his 50-year-old body.
“The line never stops and you keep working and working and you get tired,” he says. “You sometimes hope the line breaks so you can rest a little bit.”
“It’s the easiest job to get, but the hardest job to do,” he adds. “It kills you little by little.”
Over three decades, Valadez, a father of five, has doubled his pay to more than $11 an hour and witnessed a changing population in the factory. “Back then, it was Mexican, black and white. Now it’s only the people you see here,” he says, motioning to other Hispanic workers sitting around a table at the union hall. “Maybe the others have better opportunities.”
From 1980 to 2000, the number of Hispanic workers in the meat industry — including poultry — increased more than fourfold to 35 percent, according to federal statistics, says William Kandel, a sociologist at the Economic Research Service of the Agriculture Department.
The industry is believed to have large numbers of undocumented workers — one federal official said it may be as high as one in four in meatpacking plants in Nebraska and Iowa, the GAO said, referring to its own 1998 report.
Federal agents have raided plants and taken other steps to crack down on undocumented workers over the years, but it’s not hard to buy fake identification cards.
Both the meatpacking companies and the United Food and Commercial Workers union — which says it represents more than 50 percent of meat and poultry workers nationwide — have adapted to the reality of large numbers of foreign-born workers, offering, among other things, classes in English.
“Any time the workers can communicate … they know they’re not being exploited, the supervisor can’t say it was miscommunication,” says Donna McDonald, president of the union’s Local 271 in Omaha.
The union, fighting to bolster its ranks, also is making its pitch on a different landscape. In places such as Omaha, it has joined with community activists and church leaders — including priests and nuns who have leafletted at plants — to organize workers.
“It gives us credibility,” McDonald says. “There’s a level of comfort.”
Decades ago, the meatpacking business was centered in labor-friendly urban areas. But the giant stockyards of Chicago, Fort Worth and Kansas City are long gone. The industry built huge plants closer to the livestock — and in right-to-work states where unions are far less popular.
“If Sinclair were to write his book today, he would not go to Chicago. He’d go to Garden City (Kan.) or Lexington (Neb.),” says Roger Horowitz, a historian and author of three books on the industry, including “Putting Meat on the American Table.”
In the new meatpacking capitals, he says, paychecks have been shrinking. In 2004, the average annual wage for a worker in a slaughtering plant was about $25,000 — compared with $34,000 for manufacturing, according to federal figures.
It wasn’t always that way.
The workers had their heyday in the 1950s and 1960s, when the union flexed its muscle and helped push up wages, turning meatpacking into a stable, middle-class job.
“For blue-collar people without much education, packinghouse workers were able to have second homes, send their kids to college so they don’t have to do (the same job),” Horowitz says. “It became the American success story.”
It didn’t last.
In the late 1970s into the 1980s, big changes came. A new tough breed of nonunion competitor, led by Iowa Beef Processors — now part of Tyson Foods — emerged. Old-line companies went bankrupt. The master contract, one that covered several plants with a standard wage, vanished.
Meatpacking wages that were 15 percent above the average manufacturing salary in 1960 dropped to 20 percent below by 1990, says Don Stull, a University of Kansas anthropology professor and industry expert.
Longtime workers such as Martin Cortez are stoic about all these ups and downs.
At 55, he’s not about to shift jobs. This is what he knows. But he tells newcomers at the plant to get an education and do something else. He tells his two daughters (ages 16 and 20) to go to college.
“Everybody says there’s an American dream. Some people get it. Some people don’t,” he says.
“I’m not complaining,” he adds. “We survive here. I don’t know how. But we do.”