A Victory in the Meatpacking Jungle

Minor Sinclair

April 2, 2021

Through the heroic legal efforts of our friends at Public Citizen and the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union, workers won a huge victory this week in federal court. A federal district court judge in Minnesota ruled that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) acted arbitrarily and capriciously when it eliminated line speed limits, and “cited mounds of evidence showing a relationship between high speeds and musculoskeletal injuries, lacerations, and amputations.” The judge vacated the Trump-era rule, showing that there is a limit to high line speeds — and corporate rapaciousness.

For the 500,000 workers in America’s meatpacking and poultry industry, few jobs have been more dangerous and less rewarding. Low wages, injury, and death have continued to characterize this workplace jungle since Upton Sinclair’s 1905 muckraking book The Jungle. (No relation, sadly.)

The COVID-19 pandemic has added to the toll with 57,000 illnesses and at least 284 additional worker deathsamong meatpacking workers, according to reporting from the Food and Environment Reporting Network and the National Employment Law Project. Black and Brown workers, particularly, were devastated; 87 percent of all meatpacking workers infected are people of color, according to the CDC.

To add injury to insult, in 2019, the Trump Administration and USDA rolled back federal regulations that limited how many carcasses could be processed per minute. Erasing line speed limits means greater production and higher profits for companies; but for workers, it means higher risk and escalating injuries (knife wounds, musculoskeletal injuries, and more).

In my prior work, I interviewed many workers with deep cuts and mutilations that occurred on the line and to a one, they all attributed the dangers to high line speeds. Yet they were desperate for the job. Workers are not getting paid for their labor, I realized. They are getting paid in exchange for their body parts.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the federal agency charged with protecting safety and health in the workplace, has all too often turned a blind eye to violations in the plants. If there were investigations and sanctions, the penalties were paltry. When federal agencies abdicate their duties like this, the courts are justice’s last resort. The Center for Progressive Reform has been the nation’s leading voice for a private right of action that would enable workers to sue their employers to protect their health and safety.

CPR also has long advocated for stronger regulatory protections for meatpacking workers, called for reforms to OSHA, and supported legislation in Congress to limit line speeds in plants. We have also documented and denounced the environmental degradation (water, land, air) stemming from concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). On Maryland’s Eastern Shore, for example, there are 241 times more chickens than people, and chicken excrement generates harmful nitrates that contaminate drinking water.

Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle told the story of Chicago’s stockyards and meatpacking plants and its horrendous working conditions alongside the blood, entrails, and excrement of the slaughtered animals. "I aimed at the public's heart," Sinclair later said, "and by accident I hit it in the stomach."

Still today, our country faces enormous challenges in protecting and valuing the essential workers who harvest and produce our food and who stock supermarket shelves and service check-out lines. The federal judge, prompted by UFCW and Public Citizen, took this country one step closer to justice for all workers.

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