Deskilling on the Disassembly Line: Technological Change and Its Consequences in Beef-Packing Since the 1960s

By Chris Wright

One way to interpret the economic history of the West, or even of much of the world, since the Second World War is in terms of the demise of the “proletariat” and rise of the “precariat.” The latter concept has been invoked in recent years to refer to the hundreds of millions of people worldwide who, as the economist Guy Standing says, “must survive through insecure jobs and unemployment, with insecure homes, without an occupational identity, with volatile wages, without company benefits and with fragile access to state benefits.” The precariat has been a product largely of the West’s neoliberal policies: flexible labor markets, retrenchment of the welfare state, repression of labor unions, offshoring of production, the shifting of the economy’s momentum into the service and financial sectors, in short the accumulation of ever-greater wealth and power in the hands of a tiny elite. In the age of the “Great Recession” and Occupy Wall Street — a movement occurring against the background of ballooning corporate profits — this diagnosis has become a truism. However, the state of affairs it describes presupposes and gives rise to something that is rarely explicitly mentioned: increasing automation and the systematic deskilling of work. By now we take these phenomena for granted, hardly even noticing them, but they condition modern life to such an extent that they deserve more attention from historians than they have received. In this paper I will outline the recent history of labor’s deskilling and its implications for workers in a single industry, or rather a sub-sector of one: beef-packing, especially work on the kill floor. Even in such labor-intensive work as this, mechanization and deskilling by one means or another have proceeded without interruption since the early 1950s. An indirect consequence has been the creation in the last thirty years of a meatpacking precariat, whose conditions of work and life are frequently miserable.[1]

It used to be thought that automation increased the skill requirements of workers, due to the necessity of handling sophisticated machinery. Harry Braverman demolished this argument in his classic Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century (1974). Probably one needed only common sense, not tremendous Marxian sociological intelligence, to recognize the falseness of the argument; after all, an article in LIFE Magazine in 1963 reported an executive describing one of his machinists’ jobs as follows: “All he has to do….is press the button to start the machine and then monitor it. All he has to know is what his machine looks like so he can find it when he comes to work.” The machinist in question remarked that “the job gets boring. You spend most of your time loading it, rewinding the tape, and sometimes you spend 45 minutes just watching it.” Nonetheless, Braverman performed a valuable service by placing automation in its historical context. As he interpreted it, it was essentially a continuation of Frederick Winslow Taylor’s scientific management by other means, and so was but another stage in the capitalist’s perennial project of wresting control of the labor process from the laborer. Moreover, Braverman saw automation as only one manifestation of the broader contemporary phenomenon of deskilling. He defined “deskilling” by reformulating several principles enunciated by Taylor.[2]

The first principle, he says, is “the dissociation of the labor process from the skills of the workers. The labor process is to be rendered independent of craft, tradition, and the workers’ knowledge. Henceforth it is to depend not at all upon the abilities of the workers, but entirely upon the practices of management.” The second principle is that of “the separation of conception from execution.” The worker is the “hand,” management the brain. Braverman distinguishes this idea from the more common one of the separation of mental and manual labor, because “mental” labor, too, such as clerical and even managerial, becomes subject to the same differentiation between conception, or knowledge and planning, and execution. The third principle, which is perhaps redundant, is “the use of [management’s] monopoly over knowledge to control each step of the labor process and its mode of execution.” Ultimately the point of these principles, and of management itself, “was to render conscious and systematic, the formerly unconscious tendency of capitalist production. It was to ensure that as craft declined, the worker would sink to the level of general and undifferentiated labor power, adaptable to a large range of simple tasks, while as science grew, it would be concentrated in the hands of management.”[3]

From this Marxian perspective, the modern “precariat” is not a surprising or even a new thing but a logical outcome of certain basic tendencies of capitalist production. Indeed, the classical proletariat was little else but an industrial precariat, characterized by insecure employment, terrible working conditions, low pay, etc. Over time it was integrated into the dominant social order by the agency of labor unions and the state (through welfare programs, economic regulation, Keynesian boosting of demand, and adjudication of disputes between capital and labor), but after the 1950s the so-called “capital-labor accord” began to unravel under the impact of intensified international and domestic competition between units of capital. That is, in order to compete it became increasingly necessary for businesses to cut costs, which entailed a stepping-up of their campaign to reduce workers’ pay and autonomy. A return to precarious conditions of life for the latter ensued, but since “deindustrialization” was happening in the West, the new precariat was not principally an industrial one but existed also in the service sector — and has lately been extending into other sectors, such as real estate. A new “reserve army of labor” is growing, a global army of cast-off or intermittently employed workers whose labor power is, more or less, at a “general and undifferentiated” level. They are available to do whatever unskilled or semiskilled work appears, but much of the time they are forced to sit around and wait.[4]

Even in the U.S., however, many of them work in industry. Among these are the meatpacking workers. I chose to write this paper about them not only because — perhaps paradoxically — beef-packing is still rather labor-intensive, but also because analysis of an industry as fundamental to society as meat can reveal much about the society in question. Unfortunately, what meatpacking tells us about ourselves is not pretty. The secrecy in which the industry is kept by its owners exists for a good reason: if consumers knew what goes on inside slaughterhouses, they might not want to eat meat.

While this paper draws on Braverman, I do not want to emphasize the negative aspects of technological change quite as much as he does. As a good Marxist, he would be the first to admit that technology itself is not the problem, or certainly not the main problem; it is the capitalist social relations, which use technology in a certain way, that are the “problem.” Many of the technologies mentioned in this paper, far from being bad for workers and consumers, are more sensibly seen as beneficial. In a particular social context, however, work-related technological advance can be either empowering or disempowering vis-à-vis workers; and in a capitalist context, the tendency is for it to be disempowering, often by eliminating the need for certain skills and so eliminating a crucial source of employees’ bargaining power. Accordingly, technological progress in recent decades has reinforced the policies of “neoliberalism” to produce a society that is hostile to labor and the labor movement.

The purpose of this paper is to survey the history of recent advances in mechanization on the beef kill floor and describe some of their repercussions for workers. I also try to give some context, so I do not ignore developments outside slaughtering — for instance, in processing the eviscerated and cooled carcass — or outside beef-packing. The scholarship suffers from a dearth of systematic discussions of technological advance in meatpacking. It is, admittedly, a dry subject, but it is surely an important one, considering the impact technology has had on workers and consumers.

Background

Aside from the railroad, the most important invention in the history of meatpacking was refrigeration. By the 1880s it was in widespread use; by the 1890s, mechanical refrigeration had, on the whole, superseded the use of natural ice. The epoch-making significance of refrigeration — in railroad cars, for example, which were used to transport meat — was not only that it made possible the rise of Chicago and the Midwest as centers of slaughtering and meat-distribution for the country and much of the world. It also led to a decline in demand for skilled butchers, since meat could now be cut up (at least partially) at central packing plants by mostly unskilled or semiskilled workers and distributed in refrigerated cars to distant markets. And because it made possible a year-round, as opposed to seasonal (wintertime), meatpacking industry, it heightened incentives for companies to invest in labor-saving and division-of-labor-increasing devices at slaughterhouses, thereby intensifying trends toward the deskilling of work.[5]

Meatpacking was harder to mechanize than other large industries due to the heterogeneity of size, weight, and quality among cattle, hogs, and sheep. As a result, it was and is relatively labor-intensive — which has entailed low profit-margins, which in turn has entailed that companies drive their employees hard and fast in order to produce more output. This is why meatpacking was the first industry to use assembly-line production, which originated in Cincinnati’s pork packinghouses in the 1830s. The “assembly line” was quite primitive then: hogs were driven up to the top floor of the building, several stories high, where they were killed, after which their carcasses slid down an overhead wooden rail on hooks attached to rollers. Workers progressively disassembled them along the way. By the end of the nineteenth century, as historian James Barrett remarks, changes had come “in the extent of the division of labor, in the mechanical conveyance of the carcass, and in minor improvements like the substitution of steel for wood in the construction of the overhead rails.”[6]

Things were more complicated with cattle than hogs. While rails were widely used in the late nineteenth century (as they have been ever since), it took a long time to discover an efficient and relatively humane way of killing and bleeding the large animals. A butcher who had worked in the Chicago Stock Yards in the 1870s and ’80s later testified that in those early decades “There were various ways of dispatching the poor brutes. One was to spear them in the back of the neck, severing the spinal column and causing almost instant death. Another was to shoot them [with a rifle] from the top of the cattle pens. Still another way was to rope them and haul them down to a bull ring fastened in the floor, and then hit them with a sledgehammer in the forehead.” None of these methods was ideal. “Roping and knocking them with a hammer,” for example, “was too slow. It took up too much time….and when the cattle were ‘onery’ [sic] and wild often they would get out from the pen and cavort about the slaughterhouse, knocking down beef from the boxes and chasing the men hither and yon….” Eventually the system that is still in its essence used today spread widely, whereby, instead of killing and bleeding the animals on the floor, they were knocked unconscious with a hammer, hoisted up to the overhead rail, and bled by having their throats cut. By the turn of the century a “shackler” could hoist dozens of stunned cattle every minute by “simply clipping the shackle around the hind foot, while steam power does the rest” (according to an observer of the day).[7]

In all industrial-scale slaughtering the overhead rail is crucial, since it allows the animal to be carried easily from worker to worker (or from team to team, as the case may be). However, until the early twentieth century the rail was not automated; instead, workers had to push the carcass by hand at various stages of the process. Only in 1908 did this change, with the introduction of an automatic conveyor system that used a moving overhead chain. In ending the need for manual power, the moving chain ended most of workers’ control over the pace of their work (although cattle carcasses still had to be removed from the rail in order to be skinned). The foreman used a lever to control the speed of the conveyor, hence the speed of work.[8]

These and other inventions, such as moving dressing tables (1908) and a machine to scrape off hogs’ hair (1876), already illustrate the morally and socially ambiguous character of technological progress and the deskilling of labor. On one hand, as David Brody notes, the ever-more-minute division of labor in meatpacking greatly improved the quality of delicate tasks, such as skinning and splitting (i.e., cutting the carcass down the middle). Output per man increased enormously: “in 1884, five splitters had handled eight hundred cattle in the course of a ten-hour workday; by 1894 four of them were handling twelve hundred.” Mechanization and the division of labor also made work easier inasmuch as they lowered skill requirements. On the other hand, by making possible inhuman work-paces, they made work more difficult and did little to improve its safety. They also, of course, deprived the worker of control over his labor and of the element of creativity and decision-making that had earlier given his tasks what charm they had.[9]

Between the 1910s and early 1950s, few important changes happened in the organization and technology of work. Especially in beef-packing, everything was done almost entirely by hand. Cattle climbed up a runway to the top floor of the packinghouse, where a “knocker” knocked them unconscious with a hammer. The shackler attached the overhead chain to the animal’s foot, so that the steer hung upside-down from the conveyor that carried it to lower levels in the plant. A “sticker” cut the animal’s throat, after which another worker beheaded it. The next step was to skin the carcass, which was done by lowering it onto the skinning bed and carefully cutting between the hide and the flesh. At the same time, butchers detached the legs at the knee joints. Midway through the hide-removal process the carcass was returned to the overhead chain, where the last stages of skinning took place. A series of butchers (“gut-snatchers,” “gutters,” etc.), helped by laborers, then proceeded to remove the viscera and drop them down a chute to the offal department below, after which splitters used long cleavers (later power saws) to split the backbone down the middle. Following a few more minor operations, laborers scrubbed the carcass with warm water, wiped it dry, and sent it to a government inspector. (By the 1910s there were often several inspectors at different stages of the line.) After being chilled for twenty-four to thirty-six hours in the cooler, the carcass was moved to the cutting and trimming departments, where its halves were cut in half before being shipped to butcher shops. Work continued in the offal rooms below the kill floor and in byproduct departments that processed everything from blood to brains to bones.[10]

Until the early 1950s, the most important technical innovation in cattle-slaughtering was the adoption in the 1920s of powered knives and saws in lieu of cleavers, which, as historian Ian MacLachlan notes, “improved the cut quality of the carcass….[and] greatly reduced both the skill and strength required of a butcher equipped with a cleaver.” In addition to this, the method of stunning animals changed. By the 1940s, stunners no longer simply smashed a hammer onto the animal’s head, trying not to kill it. (Death would stop the heart and so prevent the rapid draining of blood.) Instead they adopted the relatively reliable and humane method of firing captive-bolt pistols, which use compressed air to shoot a bolt either into or onto the skull (forehead). With modifications, these guns are still in use today.[11]

Finally, after decades of incremental advance, a truly revolutionary innovation appeared: continuous on-the-rail dressing. First applied in 1951 by a Canadian firm called Canada Packers, this system of slaughtering cattle eliminated the need to take carcasses off the overhead rail for skinning. To quote MacLachlan, it ended the “exhausting stooping over prone carcasses by floorsmen, time lost in walking around carcasses on blood-slick floors, the danger of falling overhead trolleys, and the time loss and expense of raising, lowering, and re-raising carcasses.” With the help of raised benches, power saws, mechanical hide-pullers, hydraulic platforms that could be raised or lowered depending on the size of the carcass, and other new technologies, workers could disassemble an animal while the whole time it remained suspended from the rail. The result was faster line speeds, in some cases a doubling of production.[12]

Since the Can-Pak (for Canada Packers) system is still used today, let’s consider a few of its innovations. The disassembly process was still labor-intensive, but now workers could remain stationary, positioned at heights appropriate to their tasks as the carcass moved past them. After stunning and sticking, as the carcass hung from the moving rail by its left hind leg, workers used knives, power saws, and power shears to skin the right hind leg and lop off the three unencumbered feet. The next step was to transfer the carcass from the “bleeding rail,” where the animal was killed, to the “dressing rail,” where most of the skinning, cutting, sawing, eviscerating, splitting, trimming, and cleaning took place. The rail-to-rail transferring was accomplished by inserting a hook through the right hind shank in order to power-hoist the carcass to a trolley attached to the dressing rail. As the weight shifted to the right hind leg, the left could be unshackled and the carcass detached from the bleeding rail. The left hind leg was then hooked up to the dressing rail (like the right), skinned, and had its hoof cut off. Meanwhile a circle was cut around the anus, “freeing the sphincter from the surrounding hide,” as MacLachlan says. “A snug elastic o-ring, the size of a Cheerio, was used to cinch the rectum and avoid contamination of the carcass by intestinal contents.”[13]

Now that the carcass was hanging from the dressing rail by both hind legs, skinning could proceed in earnest. Workers conducted its initial stages, skinning the chest, abdomen, belly, and parts of the legs while standing on a moving hydraulic platform. After that, a mechanical hide-puller — a crucial part of the Can-Pak system — pulled the hide all the way down from the rump to the nose, thus removing it from the body. The rest of the dressing remained labor-intensive, though workers now had sophisticated tools at their disposal. For example — again quoting MacLachlan — “the sawing of the brisket bone (formerly done on the floor with a hand saw or cleaver) was accomplished by a worker on a low platform using a reciprocating saw with guard to avoid piercing the paunch.” Evisceration then required only a few knife strokes; the viscera “slumped out of the body cavity in one large intact mass,” after which government inspectors examined them for signs of disease. Another worker used a band saw to split the carcass in half down the center of the spinal column. A final trimming to remove contaminated material and imperfections in appearance was followed by a hosing-down to remove blood and bone dust. Finally, the two sides of the carcass were pushed into the cooler for a twelve- to fifteen-hour period of chilling from about 100 degrees Fahrenheit to 34 degrees.[14]

The Can-Pak system so cheapened labor and improved productivity that it quickly spread to the United States. By 1954, for example, Hormel was using it in new plants. From the perspective of management, its advantages included its elimination of some of the highest-paid positions in the industry, such as skilled floorsmen and “cleaver-wielding splitters.” In 1964 a trade association estimated that the Can-Pak system reduced labor costs by almost $2 per head. The old technology requiring interruptions of the continuous overhead chain was out of fashion in large beef plants by 1960.[15]

Even apart from the invention of continuous on-the-rail dressing, the postwar period was tumultuous for U.S. meatpacking, as many studies have documented. The modern highway system and the corresponding rise of the interstate trucking industry made practical the emergence in rural areas of large commercial feedlots holding tens of thousands of cattle in pens, where they were fed on special diets to fatten them up before slaughter. New packing firms in the 1950s and ’60s took advantage of these developments to establish a presence in the industry, and eventually to destroy the monopoly power of the older Big Four meatpackers (Armour, Wilson, Cudahy, and Swift) and establish a new “Beef Trust.” Their strategy was to build single-story plants near feedlots, a location that made possible direct buying from livestock producers (i.e., the elimination of middlemen), more efficient shipping of cattle to the plant for slaughter, and a cheaper workforce, since these rural regions in the Corn Belt, Great Plains, and South tended to have a weak union presence and therefore lower wage standards. Lower wages meant that meat could be sold for less, which meant that the big packers based in such cities as Chicago and Omaha, whose workforces had been unionized since the late 1930s, lost profits and market share to the cheaper, smaller upstarts. But the latters’ success wouldn’t have been possible had it not been for the invention of mechanically refrigerated trailers, which allowed the new packers to bypass the Big Four’s railroad-based distribution system. All these factors combined to cause the decline of the Big Four, which entailed the decline of Chicago and other cities as meatpacking centers. Since they were the hubs of unionism, union power in the industry was in terminal decline by the 1980s.[16]

In this transformation of the industry, a company called Iowa Beef Packers, later IBP, played an important role. Founded in 1960, IBP’s main contribution was its invention of “boxed beef” in the late 1960s. Prior to that, the firm had been instrumental in establishing viciously anti-union and low-wage policies among the new generation of “rural” meatpackers. It had also introduced technical innovations, such as refrigerating the entire slaughter and packaging process after the kill in order to reduce shrinkage from dehydration, as well as speeding up the whole process to such an extent that one worker complained he did not “have time to sweep sweat from [his] face.” Boxed beef, however, was revolutionary. Hitherto, quarters of carcasses had been sent hanging in truck or rail cars to wholesalers and retailers; skilled butchers would then debone them and cut them up into smaller portions for consumers. What IBP did was to include deboning and cutting operations in its own plants, allowing it to pack meat in cardboard boxes and thus use trailer-space more efficiently, cutting costs. (Instead of irregularly shaped carcasses awkwardly hanging, there were now boxes stacked tightly from wall to wall and floor to ceiling.) Boxed beef also benefited retailers, in that it eliminated their need for skilled meat cutters and thereby reduced labor costs. The cutting that went on in IBP’s plants was only “semiskilled”: workers stood next to a conveyor belt, each making one or two swift cuts as animal parts passed by. Another advantage of boxed beef was that the vacuum-sealed bags in which meat was packed before being put into boxes extended the product’s shelf life by nearly a month. For all these reasons, IBP’s innovation conquered the industry in the next two decades, leaving failed businesses and a new “Big Three” in its wake. (The Big Three that emerged included IBP, ConAgra, and Excel, a subsidiary of Cargill.)[17]

The whole history that has just been summed up illustrates the central theme of this paper, that even in an industry as hard to mechanize as beef-packing, the deskilling of work in one form or another has been going on since the mid-nineteenth century. Under the simple imperative of cutting cost-per-unit so as to increase profit and lower prices, business has utterly transformed the nature of meatpacking. The work that people do and the ways consumers get their meat — and the kind of meat they get — have been determined largely by the evolution of productive forces, as Karl Marx would say, under the impetus of the dynamic of prevailing production relations. Workers have had to adapt as best they could to changes that have been foisted on them, to new technologies, new work-paces, and new intensifications of the division of labor. In the era of unionism, from the late 1930s to the 1980s, they had an unusual amount of power, but even then their interests were definitely subordinated to those of their employers.

Ironically, technological change and “deskilling” do not have to be to the detriment of workers. As we’ll see below, the former can entail greater safety, greater comfort, and sometimes a more human environment; the latter can entail the elimination of onerous aspects of work. In the framework of capitalism, however, advances in technology and the division of labor sometimes have negative implications for workers.

Overview of beef-packing since the 1960s

Remarkable changes have taken place in meatpacking in the last sixty years. First of all, the industry has evolved from the relatively concentrated one of the Big Four to the decentralized one of the 1960s and 1970s, followed by the return to concentration in the 1980s and afterwards. In 1950 the four largest packers slaughtered 36.4 percent of commercially slaughtered cattle in the U.S. (down from 43.1 percent in 1940); in 1970 the figure was 21.3 percent. After the mid-1970s it rose again: 28 percent in 1980, 54 percent in 1987, 70 percent in 1997, and higher since then. Concentration in hog slaughter has been less extreme, the four largest firms accounting for 54 percent of it in 1997. Plant sizes, too, have increased in recent decades. In 1977, beef plants that slaughtered more than 500,000 cattle a year were responsible for 12 percent of industry production; in 1997 they were responsible for 65 percent. Correspondingly, the number of meatpacking plants has decreased: in 1977, for example, there were 2590, while in 1992 there were 1405. (For plants specializing in meat processing the respective figures were 1345 and 1260.) These bare figures suffice to show that concentration and consolidation have been on the rise since the late 1970s.[18]

What explains this fact? In a word, technology. More precisely (to quote a government study), “economies of scale in hog and cattle slaughter emerged in the 1980s and 1990s. The largest slaughter plants in 1992 held significant cost advantages over smaller plants.” Especially in cattle slaughter, consolidation among large plants led to greater concentration (near-oligopoly) in the industry. An important reason that scale economies did not emerge in meatpacking until the 1980s is that large plants in the 1970s and earlier paid higher wages than smaller plants, sometimes 10 or 12 percent higher. Only in the 1980s did large unionized firms succeed in reducing wages to the levels paid by non-unionized firms. In that decade, too, union membership in the meat-products industry (including poultry slaughter and processing) declined from about half to a fifth of all workers, and white employees — seeking better jobs — began to be replaced by Hispanics. The general theme of the period beginning in the 1980s, therefore, has been that of manufacturing as a whole: a consolidation of power among employers vis-à-vis employees and unions, and a consolidation of power among big businesses vis-à-vis smaller competitors. Through mergers this power has increased even further: Conagra, for example, purchased Swift in 1990, and Tyson purchased IBP in 2001.[19]

In this context of business concentration and union disintegration, it is no surprise that line speeds and output in meatpacking (and poultry) plants have dramatically increased in the last thirty years. “The old meatpacking plants in Chicago,” Eric Schlosser observed in 2001, “slaughtered about 50 cattle an hour. Twenty years ago new plants in the High Plains slaughtered about 150 cattle an hour. Today some plants slaughter up to 400 cattle an hour — about half a dozen animals every minute….” At the same time, beef consumption in the U.S. has declined. As chicken consumption increased from 20.8 pounds per capita in 1950 to 83.9 pounds in 2008, beef consumption declined to 64.1 pounds in 2008 from a peak of 88.2 in 1975. Foreign demand has helped ensure that U.S. beef production continues to be a healthy industry.[20]

Technological change on the beef kill floor since the 1960s

In the years and decades after World War II, the age of automation began in many industries. In the meat-products industry, poultry slaughter and processing became more automated than that of hogs, which was more automated than that of cattle. A 1966 study listed some of the recent technical innovations: “rail dressing of cattle; moving-top inspection tables; antioxidants for lard; a continuous list of improvements in packaging materials and equipment; many new products such as skinless, boneless hams; electronic smoking; needle pumping of bellies [to inject brine, water that contains salt, curing substances, and additives]; electronic data processing; mechanical boning knives; low-temperature, centrifugal separation of fats; continuous frankfurter machines; and new beef-tenderizing methods.” One can follow the introductions of these and other inventions by perusing the pages of the monthly (originally weekly) industry journal The National Provisioner, especially the frequent advertisements for every kind of meatpacking-related machine conceivable.[21]

Let’s look at a few of these advertisements, specifically those pertaining to the beef kill floor. The common threads running through them are speed and reduction of labor, though improvements in cleanliness and safety are often emphasized as well. In 1962, for example, we encounter the “Seitz Eviscerating Drop,” which “drops beef from high rail to low position and simultaneously spreads hind quarters. Enables fast, convenient eviscerating….” There is also the “Pneudraulic Head Splitter,” described as follows: “This compact and rigidly built machine efficiently splits heads, leaving brains intact. Low installation, operating and maintenance costs make it a real profit maker on any Kill floor…. Each stroke is controlled by twin operating handles which require the placing of both hands well out of danger.”[22] In 1964 we see an advertisement for a stun gun (made by Koch Supplies) that doesn’t injure the animal’s skull or brain:

This Cash knocker is bulletless!

There is no shooting gallery in this plant! It is not possible for a stray bullet to drop a human target here, because no bullets are used.

Special .25 caliber blank cartridges, made without wadding of any kind, activate a devastating, short piston-stroke that drops largest bulls. (Discharge seldom startles because a ventless chamber muffles most of the sound.) A long handle makes it easy to reach animals that duck into far corners.

Bulletless Koch stunning makes it more practical to save brains (there are no bullets or fragments to pick) and brains may add thousands of extra income dollars every year.

Safe–easy–no installation–saves brains! Practical for any size plant….[23]

One of the disassembly-related machines advertised in 1965 is the “‘Boss’ Hide Remover,” which “handles up to sixty (60) cattle per hour when carcass properly prepared. It is complete, easy to install, and the ‘heart’ of more profitable Rail Cattle Dressing. Approved by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture. Has a free turning roller that is hydraulically operated. Simple to operate. Increases production. Reduces cost. Almost no maintenance required. More sanitary….” Incidentally, one can see how much more automated is meat processing than the initial phase of cattle disassembly by considering an ad for “Butcher Boy Automatic Feed Grinders & Hydraulic Lift Mixers”: “ONE MAN HANDLES THIS ENTIRE GRINDING OPERATION”; below that we’re told to “Speed up production! To 6 tons per hour or more per machine.” Even more impressive is the “Frank-O-Matic,” which “PRODUCES 9600 FRANKS PER HOUR — COMPLETELY AUTOMATICALLY.” The order of the day for the last sixty years or so has been automation, wherever, whenever, and however possible.[24]

An article in 1968 reports that a beef plant in Texas has achieved a production rate of 150 head per hour and is striving for 250 per hour, with the help of such innovations as clocks that record downtime on the lines in the dressing department — somewhat in the manner of F. W. Taylor, with his time-and-motion studies. In the late 1960s we also see illustrative advertisements for meat-processing machines, such as one that can produce 250,000 pounds of ground meat per week with only one man overseeing it. An ad titled “The automated hamburger” tells us, with some exaggeration, that “You put the meat in one end. Throw the switch. Then sit back and watch as the hamburger patties, sausage patties, chopped steak and other portioned products roll out the other end.” The “Bettcher Power Cleaver,” which has a capacity of 12,000 cuts per hour, “automatically cuts frozen steaks, chops….and other formed meat” — “no skill required. Operator training can be accomplished in a matter of minutes.” On the beef kill floor, an on-the-rail breastbone opener — a small power saw — “reduces miscuts and eliminates [the] need for skilled labor. Handles up to 200 beef per hour….”[25]

The monthly magazine Meat Industry (later Meat & Poultry) is informative as well. An article in August, 1977, for example, gives advice to management on when and how to introduce greater mechanization into plants. In a session at a Food Marketing Institute convention, grocery-chain managers who had mechanized warehousing suggested that in order for employees to cooperate with labor-saving technological changes it was necessary only to treat them with respect and let them know what exactly was changing. (A reasonable suggestion.) Let the workers and their union know that they would not lose their jobs — or perhaps only a few would — but instead would be retrained. Most labor-savings would come later, when production volume increased but more workers did not have to be hired. Mechanization could have downsides too, however, such as a loss in product quality or in labor flexibility: “an automated or mechanized system tends to need the same amount of operators no matter what the volume is.”[26]

One example of successful automation occurred in the electrical stimulation of carcasses, showcased in Meat Industry as long ago as 1979. Stimulating carcasses electrically as they hang from the overhead rail has many benefits, including improving the tenderness, palatability, and color of the meat. Before the automatic system was invented, workers on the kill floor had to insert a metal probe into each carcass and turn on the electrical control, and then sterilize the probe before inserting it into the next carcass. It was an inefficient and relatively unsafe system. Automation in 1979, at Sam Kane Beef Processors (in Texas), allowed producers to go from tenderizing about 25 carcasses per hour to 107. The way the system worked was that the rail passed through a large “cabinet” containing electrical equipment; as carcasses moved on the rail through the cabinet, they slid along bars through which electric current flowed. “These bars impart[ed] a pre-set number of electrical jolts, and their action [was] set off automatically by a switch which [was] tripped by the movement of carcasses on the rail.” Since then, the system has been improved.[27]

Perusing the meat industry’s articles and the bewildering array of advertisements for “all-new” technologies, one can be coaxed into the illusion that things have mostly gotten better, and easier, for workers in the last sixty years. Consider ads in the 1970s for a new “band-splitter,” a saw to cut carcasses in half: “Faster…. Quieter…. Smoother with less down time…. Splits entire [beef] carcass in 12 to 14 seconds; reduces bone dust approximately 66%; vibration-free…. Less operator fatigue….” Or a new air-pressure captive-bolt stunner that was smaller, lighter (weighing nine pounds), and easier to handle than older stunners. Or the “Whizard glove,” a safety glove ostensibly more comfortable, safe, and cheap than older “metal mesh” gloves.[28] (“Insulative properties provide warmth for working in cold areas. Helps keep fingers more limber. Reduces common occupational health ailments caused by cold metal and chafe. 85% lighter than metal mesh glove….”) Or, after the onset of the “ergonomics” age from the 1980s to the present, the “carpal tunnel splint,” an uncomfortable-looking thing that “restrains excessive wrist movement while permitting optimal hand function.” Or the “ergonomic boot,” which includes a “self-cleaning sole,” a “pre-formed insole that is removable for hygienic cleaning,” and an “ultragrip sole design that provides maximum slip resistance.” Or the “safe rail system,” an overhead rail that prevents hooks and rollers from falling onto workers below. And so on and so forth. A seemingly endless list of inventions nearly all of which are designed to make things cheaper and faster for employers and easier and safer for employees. It is ironic, then, that, for workers, the industry has effectively returned to “the jungle” of the early twentieth century, in terms of safety, stress, and general disempowerment.[29]

What should be clear, in any case, is that most of this constantly-introduced new technology has not in itself made conditions worse for workers, even if its general tendency has been towards the deskilling of labor. The “hardhats, safety glasses, earplugs, steel-toed and rubber-soled boots, and….amazing array of additional gear intended to protect them from injury” that employees were required to wear by the 1980s were certainly to their benefit. Likewise, Temple Grandin’s invention in the mid-1980s of a new conveyor to carry animals from the entrance chute into the stunning area made the stunner’s job easier and reduced stress for animals. In 1972 the “V-restrainer” system had been invented for restraining cattle during stunning and shackling. It was a decided improvement, according to safety and humane considerations, over the old-style knocking box, but it had flaws: stunners had to reach excessively and uncomfortably in order to place the gun on the animal’s forehead, and sometimes cattle simply refused to enter. So Grandin invented a double-rail restrainer system that is still used today, whereby the animal walks down a ramp that maneuvers it into a comfortable straddling position atop a double rail conveyor, which carries it to the stunning pen. The stunner does not have to lean far over, so his job is easier, and the shackler, standing below the elevated conveyor, can easily attach the shackle to the animal’s hind leg.[30]

Proceeding to the 1990s, the heart of both the ergonomics and the automation era, new technologies entered the market at seemingly an even greater rate than before. As always, most of them pertained to the more-easily-mechanized processing and packaging, not the slaughtering, end of the production line. For example, fully automated vacuum-packaging machines were advertised, as were machines that processed sausage links at a rate of up to 122 a minute. In 1997 we see an ad for an “ergonomic worktable” for packing and unpacking cartons, and another for knife handles that are “ergonomically designed to fit the natural contour of the hand, providing a relaxed, comfortable grip” — and improving safety, for they are “heavily textured and slip-resistant.” Regarding slaughtering technology, there are constant improvements to all the basic tools from decades ago, including hide pullers, head splitters, brisket saws, pneumatic stunners, hoof shears, bung droppers, dehorners, bleeding rail switches, moving platforms, steam vacuums that remove pathogens and spinal cords, and so forth.[31]

In the heady days of the 1990s’ “New Economy,” with computers and high-tech equipment seemingly unstoppable in their conquest of the world, some meat-industry observers got a little carried away in their prognostications. “By the year 2035,” one declared in 1995, “human line labor [in the meat and poultry industries] will have followed bank tellers into antiquity….” Another observer stated, “I think the human role in the manufacturing facilities of the future will be to supervise the machines.” He continued, “In 40 years I think the industry will make the transition from fixed to intelligent forms of automation. With intelligent automation we’re talking about systems that will sense what is coming in and use that information to make a decision and perform a particular function. Near-term examples already emerging on the market are the automatic portioning devices that use a vision system to scan the product and then use that information, as well as other pieces of information relative to product mixture, to cut it into nuggets or shape it into a perfect breast.” Given Mother Nature’s stubborn refusal to create her cattle and hogs in uniform shapes and sizes, it is hard to imagine that kill floors will ever be completely automated. And workers in 2011 would probably dispute that their obsolescence is on the horizon. Nevertheless, the presence of such attitudes among management since the 1990s shows how far mechanization has progressed in the last sixty years.[32]

It is true, indeed, that robots have recently been introduced into the apparently uncongenial world of meatpacking. In 2008, a robot was invented that is capable of “picking, packing and palletizing” in food washdown environments. Six years earlier it was reported that a robotic unit had been invented at an IBP facility that could “lift-pivot-and-place 1-pound rolls of case-ready ground beef, nine at a time, into cradling sheets of plastic it lays into the box in alternating layers with the beef. The result is 36-unit boxes of beef ready to ship.” Among other inventions credited to this IBP facility is the Intellijanitor, which lifts and cleans heavy conveyor belts every day, thereby saving morning cleaning crews from the “awkward, backbreaking task they used to do, manually lifting and holding the 3-foot-wide belts while they were washed with hoses.” Another machine, perhaps the most impressive, can adapt to individual cuts of meat: it “identifies the small dimple at the end of the bone in a T-bone steak, then triggers a cutting blade to trim the meat at just the right spot” in order to make uniform steaks. So far, however, the robotic units used in the industry seem to be, if not exceptions, at least rather lonely pioneers. In any event, slaughtering cattle is a less pleasant thing than packing and palletizing, or pivoting and placing, and robots would doubtless not find it to their liking.[33]

Since at least the 1990s, as consumers have become more alert to the dangers of tainted meat, a good deal of engineering ingenuity has been devoted to the problem of how to clean up the filth endemic in slaughterhouses and so reduce the incidence of food-borne illness among the population. In 1995, for instance, Cargill and a Swedish firm called Frigoscandia announced that they had developed a method to nearly eliminate bacteria in beef, pork, and poultry. The process used a blanket of steam to pasteurize the surface of carcasses. Because of its health benefits and the fact that it used less energy and water than the hot-water bath technology that was then used to clean carcasses before they were cooled, Excel, IBP, and other beef processors quickly integrated it into their slaughtering lines. The method has by no means eliminated bacteria or the need for periodic recalls of meat, but it is an improvement.[34]

Skimming issues of the National Provisioner and Meat & Poultry since the 1990s, one has the impression that, while automation in pork and poultry continues to advance steadily, technological change has slowed a bit in beef-packing, especially on the kill floor. There are fewer articles and advertisements that address it, much fewer than in the 1960s and ’70s. This is probably because beef consumption has been experiencing a decades-long decline, as mentioned above. Instead what we encounter are more advertisements pertaining to poultry and pork, and sometimes beef processing. A recent ad shows how sophisticated machines have become:

New system stuffs 400 links per minute

Handtmann has launched its new 400 links/minute Natural Casing Automation system with robotic orientation and loading. The system features high-speed, high-resolution photo scanning whose data drives the seamless integration of automated robotic orientation and loading functions with Handtmann’s precise VF stuffer and high speed PVLS 125 revolving head/paired nozzle linker. The stuffing/linking system operates with patented digital servo-electronic controls…. [etc.].[35]

Four hundred links per minute is pretty miraculous. Such machines demonstrate that human labor in meatpacking continues to be superseded — day by day, month by month, with each new invention launched on the market.

What has all this technological progress from the 1960s to the present amounted to? From one perspective, the answer might be “Not much.” A 1982 government report was prescient:

Technological change will probably be limited in the meat products industry in the 1980’s, with the possible exception of more sophisticated equipment for processing retail cuts of beef. Improvements to existing machinery are being made, but design concepts or functions are not expected to change. In meatpacking and poultry processing plants, new technologies were introduced in the 1960’s that mechanized processing to some extent and reduced unit labor requirements. However, most cutting tasks must still be performed manually, and the industry remains relatively labor intensive.[36]

Mutatis mutandis, every sentence in that paragraph — at least as applied to meatpacking (not poultry), especially beef-packing — is still more or less true today. With regard to the beef kill floor, there have been no major changes in the basic concept of continuous on-the-rail bleeding and dressing of carcasses, only incremental improvements in its implementation. The Can-Pak system has been a serviceable one for management, since, as stated above, it takes most of the control over the pace of work away from employees. To a great extent, the obstacle to faster speeds is no longer employees’ wills but simply nature, i.e. the limits of human endurance and the heterogeneous character of bovine bodies.

In another sense, however, technological change has had fairly impressive results. Combined with employers’ speeds-ups and layoffs, which it has helped make possible, it has increased productivity substantially in certain periods over the last half-century. Between 1967 and 1972, output per hour in the red meats industry advanced at an annual rate of 2.2 percent; between 1975 and 1980, it rose at an annual rate of 4.2 percent, as output itself rose 3.4 percent and hours declined 0.7 percent. The corresponding annual figures for productivity gains were 2.9 percent (1967-72) and 3.7 percent (1975-80). These were higher than the gains in manufacturing as a whole. Similarly, from 1977 to 1986 productivity increased a bit more in meatpacking than in all manufacturing, at average annual rates of 3.4 and 3.0 percent, respectively. (For these ten years, however, meatpacking output rose only 0.7 percent a year, most of the productivity gains being accounted for by a 2.7 percent annual decline in employee hours.) According to one study, if we measure labor productivity by the index of output per employee hour and use 1987 as the base (100), in 1970 productivity was 57.7, while in 1998 it was 103.8. Thus, over this period labor productivity increased nearly 80 percent. (This study shows, though, that the growth of productivity has slowed of late, perhaps in part as a result of increasing concentration in the industry.)[37]

The consequences of technological change have been equally “impressive” with regard to employment levels and the conditions in which workers must labor. We turn now to the human side of automation.

Implications for workers

The comfortingly impersonal survey of technological advance provided above gives little hint — aside from the sanguinary names of instruments for slaughter — of the messy realities of workers’ lives. One might think that all this progress would have largely positive ramifications for workers, but on the whole, the contrary has been the case. The consequences have been mostly negative — not because of the supposedly intrinsic “anti-human” nature of technology, but because of the embeddedness of technology in capitalist social relations.

First of all, automation has made it possible for more and more workers to become economically redundant, resulting in declining levels of employment — particularly in manufacturing. In other words, greater productivity has allowed employers, individually and in the aggregate, to hire fewer workers (especially relative to the growth in the country’s population). Statistics tell the story. In absolute numbers, employment in U.S. manufacturing increased (with occasional drops) from 15,438,000 employees in 1960 to 19,426,000 in 1979, then declined (with occasional, temporary increases) to 17,695,000 in 1990, 16,441,000 in 2001, 13,879,000 in 2007, and 11,524,000 in 2010. In meatpacking, employment decreased from 274,000 in 1947 to 189,000 in 1972, about 120,000 in 2000, and 98,400 in 2008. These numbers are more striking when one recalls that U.S. population has more than doubled from 1950 to the present, going from 152,271,417 in 1950 to 312,000,000 in 2011.[38]

Compare these numbers for manufacturing to those for the service sector, which has lower labor productivity (due in large part to the greater difficulty of mechanizing): from 26,650,000 in 1960 to 89,582,000 in 2010. In fact, the greater productivity of manufacturing has made possible since 1950 an average annual increase in output of 3.4 percent, even as the sector has declined as a share of total non-farm employment from 31 percent in 1950 to 20.7 percent in 1980, 13.1 percent in 2000, and 9.1 percent in 2009. This latter trend has been called “deindustrialization.” It is not directly caused by technological advance, but such advance has helped make it possible by permitting the gradual supersession of human labor. (The causes of deindustrialization are complex, involving heightened international competition and declines in the growth-rates of manufacturing profitability, investment, and demand. As suggested above, greater international competition and diminished growth of profitability have necessitated feverish cost-cutting, which has meant more automation, employee layoffs, wage-cuts, and offshoring of production — which in turn, by reducing purchasing power, or effective demand, in the domestic economy, have in the long run reinforced trends toward lower sales and profits, which have themselves reinforced the need to cut costs, thus creating a vicious circle of American “de-development.”)[39]

Workers and unions in the 1950s and ’60s clearly understood the destructive potential of automation, and they warned against it. Their attitude, however, was not one of unqualified and reactionary rejection. Instead, unions such as the United Packinghouse Workers of America presented intelligent analyses and constructive proposals for remedies to problems posed by technological advance. The pages of The Packinghouse Worker, the newspaper of the UPWA, are replete with articles weighing the perils and potentials of automation. For example, upon the establishment in 1961 of a subdivision of the U.S. Department of Labor devoted to the problems of automation, the newspaper’s editor observed that more government action is required than “the retraining or the redirection of workers who have been displaced by automation.” He continues:

Technological advance should be a boon to humankind and not a curse. It is not enough to assume that technological advance should proceed undirected, unregulated and ruthlessly, while government limits its function to applying economic first aid to the injured workers. Government has the far broader responsibility of attempting to guide, plan and regulate the entire process in a manner which will be conducive to economic growth but which will, at the same time, avoid economic catastrophe before it occurs.[40]

The nature of such “economic catastrophe” is explained elsewhere in the same issue: automation could become “a suicidal device; for it makes possible increased efficiency and increased production, but it destroys the very market which that same increased efficiency and increased production make more necessary than ever before.” That is, by destroying jobs it reduces purchasing power. This is a far-sighted and probably correct analysis, at least according to Keynesians and Marxists, for whom a major problem with capitalism is its chronic insufficiency of demand.

Ralph Helstein, president of the UPWA from 1946 to 1968, had made a similar call for government intervention a month earlier at the UPWA Food and Allied Conference. The problems of automation, he said, could not be solved within the framework of collective bargaining; instead, “tax policy is at the center of possible government techniques for making the transition from the mechanized economy we have known to the period of automated economy into which the nation is entering.” Through changes in tax policy, government could shift the onus of paying for new buildings and machinery from the individual tax payer to corporations. Helstein also proposed that Congress set up minimum wage levels for each industry so that differences in wage rates could not serve “as a basis for competitive advantage between employers.” The July, 1960 issue of The Packinghouse Worker summed it up: “Organized labor’s position on automation, briefly, is this: Automation can’t be stopped. But that does not make it desirable. For, on balance, automation does create large-scale unemployment. Any beneficial results from automation for all the people — and not just corporate stockholders — will have to be planned for. And, in all likelihood, fought for.”[41]

Organized labor evidently understood the enormity of its problem. Indeed, by the early 1960s much of the country was apprehensive about the automated future. In 1963, a major article in LIFE Magazine (quoted above) captured the mood with its alarming headline: “The Point of No Return for Everybody” — subtitled “Automation: Its Impact Suddenly Shakes Up the Whole U.S.” This exciting but frightening phenomenon, we learn, “displaces men. It has thrown hundreds of thousands of people out of work and will throw out many more. It is at the base of all the big recent labor trouble: the dock strike, the New York newspaper strike, the bitter railroad dispute….”[42] The UPWA, a particularly militant union, issued many reports on the dire possible consequences of increased mechanization. In 1957, for example, after surveying its members at some mechanized plants, it tabulated the data on their employment:[43]

Type of machine introduced                   No. of workers employed

                                             Before           After

Conveyors, tractors, lifts, etc.               339               83

Injecto-cure                                    80               23

Bacon slicing operations                        69               31

Other wrapping-packing operations              124               44

Hair scraping [of hogs]                         95               87

All other types of machinery                   149               78

The report concludes that through mechanization, plant closures, and speed-up, meatpacking lost 36,000 jobs between 1952 and 1957 — even as levels of output increased.

What was to be done? Collective bargaining provided palliatives, such as lower retirement ages, larger pensions, longer vacations, and transfers to new plants when old ones shut down. But these were not long-term solutions. Sometimes they were not even short-term solutions, as the UPWA and the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen’s experience with Armour shows. In 1959, representatives from the company and the two unions formed, with great public fanfare, an Automation Committee to help retrain and transfer (to new plants) employees laid off by plant closings. A study it conducted of laid-off employees’ experiences in four cities — Columbus, Fargo, East St. Louis, and Oklahoma City — found, for instance, that a year later in East St. Louis 56 percent were still unemployed, and that 61 percent of black workers, as opposed to 36 percent of whites, could not find jobs. Similarly, 52 percent of women, compared with 39 percent of men, remained unemployed. As for the transfer program, even when it was “successful” the employees typically lost their seniority and accumulated severance pay and pensions. But in fact, Armour systematically undermined the program, in order, as the UPWA charged, “to rid itself of the ‘nuisance’ of [current employees’] accumulated rights with respect to such matters as vacations and other benefits, and to rid itself of union contract provisions of its employees.” As a result, the UPWA withdrew from the committee in 1963, proclaiming that “Our continued silence on the failure of the Committee would only result in maintaining a facade of decency and humaneness that would conceal a ruthless program of mass termination of employees of long service and cynical manipulation of the natural fears of its employees to accomplish drastic cuts in wages and working conditions.” The union went on strike, demanding that Armour accept transferred employees at six new plants; after six weeks the company acquiesced.[44]

Nevertheless, in the long run, as we know, unions lost the war. By the 1980s they were frequently compelled to engage in concession bargaining, acceding to employers’ demands that, in particular, wages be lowered or else the company would close the plant or just go bankrupt. The result was that, while meatpackers’ wages had for a long time been higher than the average manufacturing wage — 15 percent higher in 1960, 19 percent higher in 1970, and 17 percent higher in 1980 — the trend reversed: wages were 15 percent lower than the manufacturing average in 1985, 18 percent lower in 1990, and 24 percent lower in 2002. Between 1980 and 2007, real wages in the industry dropped by an incredible 45 percent. In May, 2010 the median hourly wage was $11.24, with at least ten percent of workers (probably more) making about $8.32 or less — less even in nominal terms than the base wage of $8.66 that Armour and Swift had paid in their Texas plants in the 1970s.[45]

Aside from its indirect impact on wages, reduced employment, and reduced union density, the use of more efficient machinery has influenced shopfloor dynamics, for instance gender relations. From the time when they entered the meatpacking industry, in the 1890s and early 1900s, women worked in processing departments, not in the production of fresh meat. They worked in sausage, bacon, offal, casings (for sausage), pork trim, and other such low-status, low-pay departments usually located one floor below the slaughter area. Men dropped leftover meat down chutes to the women below, who did the unpleasant work of “processing” it. Due to the physical separation between the sexes and women’s unambiguously lower status, men did not show as much resistance as might have been expected to the presence of women at the workplace. Things started to change in the 1950s. First of all, the UPWA succeeded in eliminating the disparity between male and female starting pay, although jobs were still segregated and women had fewer opportunities for promotion. As technological change accelerated, though, eliminating many traditionally female jobs in processing departments, women began to protest against their exclusion from the less-easily-automated male jobs. At the same time, the new rural packers’ construction of single-story plants in the 1950s and ’60s brought women and men physically closer together, sharpening conflict (and encouraging sexual harassment). Roger Horowitz observes that the replacement of vertical chutes by horizontal conveyor belts as mechanisms of transferring meat to women’s departments eliminated an old symbol of women’s being “beneath” men. After the Civil Rights Act of 1964 gave women a means of legal redress, the old sexual division of labor finally collapsed.[46]

By the 1980s, women no longer had to work in their own subordinate departments. Even in the late 1960s, IBP was already recruiting them to work on its cut and boning floors, though that was only because it paid them less than men. Despite the advances women have made, however, they have yet to attain the same status as many male employees in the industry. It is true that they moved into jobs that required the operation of machines — but, as Horowitz says, these were in processing departments that had always been open to them. It is true they could move into butchering jobs — but now, after the automation and boxed-beef revolutions, these were more unskilled than they had ever been. It seems that even today women rarely work on kill floors, except in menial positions. Ironically, their low-paying jobs in processing departments, despite being called “unskilled,” are quite difficult, due to the necessity for precision cuts at high speeds. Some typically-male kill floor jobs, on the other hand, such as “bung dropper” in hog plants (a job that consists of placing a small machine into the body to cut out the anus), are comparatively easy and yet tend to pay well. Such are the injustices of gender roles.[47]

Automation has had major implications not only for gender relations but also for the ethnic composition of the industry’s workforce. In the 1970s the workforce was still overwhelmingly European-American; as IBP and other companies automated, deskilled, and forced down wages, white people left in droves and Hispanics and Asians took over. By 2005, the United Food and Commercial Workers union claimed that immigrants constituted 50 percent of the industry’s workforce; the Pew Research Center estimated in that year that about 27 percent of butchers and food processing workers were undocumented immigrants. Since the 1990s, the entrance of North Africans — Sudanese, Somalis, Muslims from various countries — has added to the ethnic mix and heightened the potential for conflict. For example, at a Swift plant in Grand Island, Nebraska that has 2500 hourly workers (66 percent of whom are Hispanic), ten languages or dialects are spoken daily. Among the inter-ethnic problems reported there is discrimination from the more established Hispanic immigrants against the newer Somali and Sudanese workers. Language problems add to the tension, although apparently most of the workers are bilingual. The main source of conflict is cultural division. For instance, in 2009, “about 500 Swift workers, all Muslim and most Somali, walked off the job and marched a mile to Grand Island City Hall to protest for religious freedom. They wanted prayer time during the holy month of Ramadan.” When the plant moved to accommodate the requests, counter-protests were staged by whites, blacks, Hispanics, and Vietnamese. The company then created a human relations committee that meets weekly and is open to attendance by all employees.[48]

Judging by the reports of investigative journalists and anthropologists, plants are sometimes steeped in racial prejudice. Mutual animosity, aggravated by stress, can saturate the workplace. In 2000 a New York Times reporter investigated conditions in a Smithfield hog plant in Tar Heel, North Carolina. What he found was that the few whites tended to be mechanics or supervisors, American Indians were supervisors or had “clean menial jobs like warehouse work,” and blacks and Mexicans had the dirty jobs — black women being assigned, for example, to the chitterlings room, “where they would scrape feces and worms from intestines,” and black men working on the butchering floor. Mexicans were given the painful, dreary jobs of cutting pieces of meat every few seconds on the conveyor belt. What united the groups were ties of contempt and resentment. The other races had contempt for the Mexicans, and the blacks resented them for allegedly driving down wages; Mexicans considered blacks lazy and disliked them; both groups hated their white supervisors. Reports from other parts of the country tell similar stories.[49]

The predominance of immigrants in meatpacking plants, many of whom do not speak English (although that seems to be less common now than it was in the 1990s), has had mostly negative consequences on unionization rates. In part, this is because of the high proportion of undocumented immigrants: Latinos who are worried about deportation are not eager to complain about poor working conditions. In part it is because of language difficulties. In part it is because of the hostility and misunderstanding that prevail in an environment of many different races, ethnicities, cultures, and languages. And in part it is because of “the frequent movement of immigrant workers.” In fact, annual turnover rates in some plants are 100 percent, and in the 1980s and 1990s they occasionally went as high as 400 percent. Since the deskilling of work has made possible very quick training sessions for new employees, such high turnover rates do not overly inconvenience companies. They do, however, make it difficult to unionize — so companies have little incentive to reduce them.[50]

Why such high turnover? One factor above all is responsible, for it leads to most other complaints workers have about their jobs: the speed of production. Here, finally, we get to the heart of what automation has meant for the average worker in his or her job duties. Many studies have documented the appalling speeds of production and their consequences on workers’ physical and emotional well-being, but they are worth considering again here. The terrible significance of speed, of companies’ obsessive quest for faster and faster line speeds, cannot be overemphasized. It, too, has been a result, in part, of technological progress in the profit-driven framework of capitalist production relations. The main task for any would-be reformer of conditions in the meat industry is to find some way to force companies to slow down their pace of production.

The figures on meatpacking output quoted above (from Eric Schlosser) give some sense of the degree to which management has increased line speeds since the 1960s. More evocative, however, is the surge in repetitive motion disorders, such as carpal tunnel syndrome. Meatpacking has always been a dangerous industry, but the nature of its injuries and their frequency have changed over time. In 1943 a government report found that, while meatpacking accidents causing absence from work were twice the national average for manufacturing, “wrist and hand afflictions” (in which category most repetitive motion disorders would fall) constituted only 11 percent of injuries. Nearly all the others were cuts, bruises, fractures, and strains. In the 1940s and afterwards the UPWA succeeded in dramatically improving meatpacking’s safety record, but by 1970, after years of intensive mechanization and the anti-union policies of firms like IBP, things had deteriorated again: the injury rate had climbed to three times the average for all manufacturing. This trend continued over the next twenty years. In 1985 the industry had an injury-and-illness rate of 30.4 per 100 full-time workers, whereas the rate for all manufacturing was 10.8. By 1991 the rate for meatpacking had increased 40 percent over 1981. “Much of the increase,” Roger Horowitz remarks, “can be traced to a cascade of repetitive motion disorders classified under industrial ‘illness.’ The incidence of occupational illness — primarily carpal tunnel syndrome — grew an astonishing 442 percent between 1981 and 1991. Illnesses contributed less than 10 percent to the injury rate in 1981; ten years later they were more than one-third of the total injury rate.” With some workers having to make as many as five precision cuts every 15 seconds, this appalling “illness” rate is no surprise.[51]

The horrors of meatpacking work are well-known, having been documented in such industry exposés as Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation (2001), Gail Eisnitz’s Slaughterhouse (1997), a Human Rights Watch report entitled Blood, Sweat, And Fear: Workers’ Rights in U.S. Meat and Poultry Plants (2004), and numerous newspaper and magazine articles from the 1980s to the present. An article in 1989, for example, notes that “meat and poultry workers, some of whom have testified before Congress, have complained about treacherously fast production lines, where meat flies off damaged conveyor belts and blood splatters in their faces. They have described cysts, infections and crippling hand and back pains that make it hard to lift their children, comb their hair or hold a glass.” Such misery is to be expected when, according to the UFCW, meatpacking production climbed 20 percent between 1984 and 1989 even as production employees dropped by almost 10,000. Understaffing has continued in many plants, as revealed for instance by wildcat strikes in September, 2001 and February, 2002 at IBP and Excel plants over low pay and chronic staff shortages.[52]

The ergonomics wave of the 1990s, however, reduced injury rates, showing that technology, if used properly, can be a force for good in the workplace. As Roger Horowitz notes, “1991 marks the high-water mark of injury [as opposed to illness] rates; within ten years, aggregate levels dropped by 50 percent.” Amputations and cuts were less common than they had been in the 1970s, due in part to the more extensive use of safety equipment, including not only hardhats, goggles, and earplugs, but also, as one expert states, “stainless-steel mesh gloves, plastic forearm guards, chain-mail aprons and chaps, leather weightlifting belts, even baseball catcher’s shin guards and hockey masks.” On the other hand, the incidence rate of repetitive motion disorders in 2001 was thirty times higher than the average for all private industry. In the same year, to quote Human Rights Watch, “the reported injury and illness rate for meatpacking was a staggering 20 per hundred full-time workers in 2001. This is two-and-a-half times greater than the average manufacturing rate of 8.1 and almost four times greater than the overall rate for private industry of 7.4.” Government-reported injury rates in meatpacking have not been reliable since 2002, when the Bureau of Labor Statistics adopted new, business-friendly ways of recording data. Even with the new recording methods, though, occupational illness rates in meatpacking are almost twenty times higher than in manufacturing as a whole.[53]

The degree of government underreporting of injuries is highlighted by a 2009 study conducted by Nebraska Appleseed, a nonpartisan public-interest law organization. In its survey of 455 workers in Nebraska meatpacking plants, the organization found that 62 percent of workers had been injured in the past year. Seventy-three percent of workers stated that line speeds had increased over the year, while, according to 94 percent, the number of staff had decreased or stayed the same. About half of the respondents claimed that there were ways in which their workplace had become less safe in the previous year, the vast majority blaming line speeds.[54]

The speed made possible by automation and deskilling is harmful not only for the injuries it causes and its tendency to make government inspection of carcasses more difficult, but also because its increase of pressure on supervisors to make employees work harder leads to considerable verbal and emotional abuse. A common form is the denial of bathroom breaks. Examples could be multiplied without end. According to one union official, when in 1997 he met with a large group of employees who worked at an IBP plant, “[p]eople were crying, talking about being covered in diarrhea the entire shift because the supervisor wouldn’t let them go to the bathroom.” The above-cited report by Nebraska Appleseed quotes comments such as the following: “The supervisors scream at you without having any reason.” “I know of three people who urinated and pooped in their pants and afterwards they just laugh at you.” “It would be good if they trained the supervisors how to manage personnel. There is a lot of screaming and that isn’t good.” “They treat you worse than animals….” Sexual harassment of women is also common.[55]

All these phenomena, as already stated, are manifestations and consequences of “deskilling,” which is really just another word for worker disempowerment. It has been going on to some extent since the Industrial Revolution and will continue as long as industrial capitalism persists. The reason, as Harry Braverman said, is simply that it is in the interest of owners to control as much of the labor process as they can. Technological change does not have to entail deskilling, just as the latter does not have to entail the former — it can be accomplished through intensifications of the division of labor — but in the meatpacking industry since the 1950s, most advances in technology have, as we have seen, indeed had the effect of depriving workers of ever more autonomy. From mechanical hide pullers to automatic feed grinders, power cleavers, electrical stimulators, and Intellijanitors, inventions have made possible faster speeds and reduced worker control over his or her job. At the same time, tasks have become easier (although the increase of line speeds has made them difficult again, and added new health and safety problems). Technological progress is neither “good” nor “bad”; what matter are the uses to which it is put, and the interests it serves.

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[1] “Guy Standing: ‘Precariat’ of Insecure Workers Is Stirring,” The Cap Times, November 6, 2011, http://host.madison.com/ct/news/opinion/column/article_54c036b6-123e-5917-b45f-82947a3133c8.html (accessed November, 2011); Yepoka Yeebo, “Corporate Profits At All-Time High As Recovery Stumbles,” Huffington Post, March 25, 2011, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/03/25/corporate-profits-2011-all-time-high_n_840538.html.

[2] “The Point of No Return for Everybody,” LIFE, July 19, 1963, 68B, UPWA Papers, box 286, folder 1, State Historical Society of Wisconsin. See David Montgomery, The Fall of the House of Labor: The Workplace, The State, and American Labor Activism, 1865-1925 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987) on the conflict between owners and workers over who was to control the labor process.

[3] Harry Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1974), 112-121.

[4] See Robert Brenner, The Economics of Global Turbulence (New York: Verso, 2006) for a magisterial overview and explanation of economic history since World War II.

[5] Arthur Cushman, “The Packing Plant and Its Equipment,” in The Packing Industry: A Series of Lectures (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1924), 99-102; Jimmy Skaggs, Prime Cut: Livestock Raising and Meatpacking in the United States, 1607-1983 (College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press), 108, 109; Roger Horowitz, Putting Meat on the American Table (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006), 26-30.

[6] James R. Barrett, Work and Community in the Jungle: Chicago’s Packinghouse Workers, 1894-1922 (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1987), 22-23.

[7] National Provisioner, Vol. 2, July 4, 1981, 32-35; Barrett, Work and Community in the Jungle, 24.

[8] Barrett, Work and Community in the Jungle, 24, 25, 27; Donald Stull and Michael Broadway, Slaughterhouse Blues: The Meat and Poultry Industry in North America (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2004), 34.

[9] David Brody, The Butcher Workmen: A Study of Unionization (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1964), 4; Barrett, Work and Community in the Jungle, 27.

[10] Roger Horowitz, “Negro and White, Unite and Fight!” A Social History of Industrial Unionism in Meatpacking, 1930-1990 (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1997), 17-22; Victor Munnecke, “Operations: Beef, Lamb, and By-products,” in The Packing Industry, 145, 146.

[11] Ian MacLachlan, Kill and Chill: Restructuring Canada’s Beef Commodity Chain (Buffalo, NY: University of Toronto, 2001), 137-141; quotation from Horowitz, “Negro and White, Unite and Fight!”, 18; Wilson Warren, Tied to the Great Packing Machine: The Midwest and Meatpacking (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2007), 131.

[12] MacLachlan, Kill and Chill, 172-174.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid., 174, 175.

[15] National Provisioner, June 19, 1954, 19; Horowitz, “Negro and White, Unite and Fight!”, 250; MacLachlan, Kill and Chill, 175; Agricultural Research Service, USDA, U.S. Inspected Meatpacking Plants: A Guide to Construction, Equipment, Layout, Agriculture Handbook No. 191 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1961), 18.

[16] Shane Hamilton, Trucking Country: The Road to America’s Wal-Mart Economy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), 135-162; Jimmy Skaggs, Prime Cut, 190; Dale C. Tinstman and Robert L. Peterson, Iowa Beef Processors, Inc.: An Entire Industry Revolutionized! (New York: Newcomen Society, 1981), 8.

[17] Tinstman and Peterson, Iowa Beef Processors, 8; Hamilton, Trucking Country, 156, 157; Horowitz, “Negro and White, Unite and Fight!”, 250.

[18] OECD Secretariat, “The Beef Chain in the United States of America,” in Towards a More Efficient Beef Chain: Documentation Assembled for the Symposium Organized by the OECD in Paris from 10th-13th January, 1977 (Paris: OECD, 1977), 142; James M. MacDonald et al., Consolidation in U.S. Meatpacking, USDA Agricultural Economic Report No. 785 (Washington, D.C.: USDA/Economic Research Service, 2000), 8, 9; Food & Water Watch, “Horizontal Consolidation and Buyer Power in the Beef Industry,” July, 2010, at http://documents.foodandwaterwatch.org/BeefConcentration.pdf (accessed November, 2011); Michael Ollinger et al., Structural Change in the Meat, Poultry, Dairy, and Grain Processing Industries, USDA Economic Research Report No. 3 (Washington, D.C.: USDA/Economic Research Service, 2005), 11.

[19] MacDonald et al., Consolidation in U.S. Meatpacking, 6, 9; James MacDonald and Michael Ollinger, “Consolidation in Meatpacking: Causes & Concerns,” Agricultural Outlook, June-July, 2000: 24, 25.

[20] Eric Schlosser, Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal (New York: Perennial, 2002), 173; “Farm Animal Statistics: Meat Consumption,” The Humane Society of the United States, August 26, 2011, http://www.humanesociety.org/news/resources/research/stats_meat_consumption.html.

[21] J. Russell Ives, The Livestock and Meat Economy of the United States (Ann Arbor, Michigan: American Meat Institute, 1966), 105.

[22] National Provisioner, April 14, 1962, 53; April 7, 1962, inside back cover.

[23] Ibid., April 11, 1964, 39. “Non-penetrating” stun guns like this were invented earlier than 1964.

[24] National Provisioner, January 9, 1965, 23; April 3, 1965, 80; February 6, 1965, 38.

[25] “Beef Packer Eyes High Chain Rates,” National Provisioner, July 27, 1968, 10 ff.; ibid., September 7, 1968, 47; October 5, 1968; February 15, 1969, 45; May 10, 1969, 2.

[26] “Will Automated Materials Handling Really Save on Labor?”, Meat Industry, August, 1977, 20-21.

[27] “The Automatic Shocker,” Meat Industry, February, 1979, 47.

[28] The name “Whizard” first referred to an air-powered circular knife invented by Lou Bettcher in the 1950s, which made meat trimming much easier and is still in widespread use today. See Bettcher Industries, Inc., “History & Mission,” http://www.bettcher.com/about-us (accessed November, 2011).

[29] Meat Industry, August, 1977; January, 1978, 27; September, 1977, 33; Meat & Poultry, August, 1989, 136; August, 1990, 48.

[30] Michael Broadway and Donald Stull, “‘I’ll do whatever you want, but it hurts’: Worker Safety and Community Health in Modern Meatpacking,” Labor, Vol. 5, No. 2, Summer 2008: 28; Temple Grandin, “More on the Super Restrainer,” Meat & Poultry, February, 1987, 60, 62, 63; Temple Grandin, “Restraint of Livestock,” at http://www.grandin.com/restrain/intro.rest.html (accessed November, 2011).

[31] National Provisioner, October, 1995; July, 1996; October, 1997; May, 1997; June, 1998; August, 1997.

[32] Keith Nunes, “Technology: ‘We Haven’t Seen Anything Yet,’” Meat & Poultry, January, 1995, 22; cf. Roger Horowitz, Putting Meat on the American Table.

[33] John Teresko, “A Meat-Packing Robot,” Industry Week, September 1, 2008; Michele Linck, “IBP Engineers Create Automation for Meat-Packing Plants at New North Sioux City Facility,” Sioux City Journal, October 6, 2002.

[34] “Companies Say End to E. Coli Is Found,” The New York Times, April 12, 1995; Elise Golan et al., Food Safety Innovation in the United States: Evidence from the Meat Industry, USDA Agricultural Economic Report No. 831 (Washington, D.C.: USDA/Economic Research Service, 2004), 29. Businesses and scientists have also devoted much attention to the problem of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad-cow disease, but such biotechnological research is peripheral to the concerns of this paper.

[35] Email to author from Meatingplace.com, October 26, 2011.

[36] Technology and Labor in Four Industries, BLS Bulletin 2104 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1982), 1.

[37] Richard B. Carnes, “Meatpacking and Prepared-Meats Industry: Above-Average Productivity Gains,” Monthly Labor Review, Vol. 107, No. 4 (April, 1984): 38; Martin Personick and Katherine Taylor-Shirley, “Profiles in Safety and Health: Occupational Hazards of Meatpacking,” Monthly Labor Review, Vol. 112, No. 1 (January, 1989): 7; Choices: The Magazine of Food, Farm, and Resource Issues, 4th quarter 2003, http://www.choicesmagazine.org/2003-4/2003-4-06.htm.

[38] Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Data Retrieval: Employment, Hours, and Earnings,” http://www.bls.gov/webapps/legacy/cesbtab1.htm (accessed November, 2011); Jimmy Skaggs, Prime Cut, 190; MyPlan.com, “Slaughterers and Meat Packers,” http://www.myplan.com/careers/slaughterers-and-meat-packers/employment-51-3023.00.html; Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2010-11 Edition: Food Processing Occupations,” http://www.bls.gov/oco/ocos219.htm; NPG, “Facts & Figures,” http://www.npg.org/facts/us_historical_pops.htm; U.S. Census Bureau, “U.S. PopClock Projection,” http://www.census.gov/population/www/popclockus.html.

[39] Bureau of Labor Statistics, http://www.bls.gov/webapps/legacy/cesbtab1.htm; William Strauss, “Is U.S. Manufacturing Disappearing?”, Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, August 19, 2010, http://midwest.chicagofedblogs.org/archives/2010/08/bill_strauss_mf.html (accessed November, 2011); Brenner, The Economics of Global Turbulence.

[40] Packinghouse Worker, June, 1961.

[41] Ibid., May, 1961; Lyle Cooper, Packinghouse Worker, July, 1960, 8.

[42] “The Point of No Return for Everybody,” LIFE Magazine, July 19, 1963.

[43] “How Mechanization and Plant Closures Are Holding Down Packinghouse Employment,” UPWA Papers, box 382, folder 5.

[44] “Progress Report, Automation Committee,” 3, 4, UPWA Papers, box 286, folder 1; “The UPWA Rejects the Armour Program for Employee Obsolescence,” ibid.; Roger Horowitz, “Negro and White, Unite and Fight!”, 256.

[45] Human Rights Watch, Blood, Sweat, And Fear: Workers’ Rights in U.S. Meat and Poultry Plants (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2004), 12, 13; Jerry Kammer, “Labor Market Effects of Immigration Enforcement at Meatpacking Plants in Seven States,” Center for Immigration Studies, http://www.cis.org/node/1577 (accessed November, 2011); Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2010,” http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes513023.htm; Horowitz, “Negro and White, Unite and Fight!”, 260.

[46] Roger Horowitz, “‘Where Men Will Not Work’: Gender, Power, Space, and the Sexual Division of Labor in America’s Meatpacking Industry, 1890-1990,” Technology and Culture, Vol. 38, No. 1 (January, 1997): 187-213; Deborah Fink, Cutting into the Meatpacking Line: Workers and Change in the Rural Midwest (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1998), chapter 3.

[47] Horowitz, “‘Where Men Will Not Work,” 211; Fink, Cutting into the Meatpacking Line, 93, 94; author’s interview of Tom Alter, a former employee at IBP.

[48] Matt McKinney, “Meatpacking raids illustrate how much industry has changed — Automation and declining wages opened the door to immigrant workers,” Star Tribune: Newspaper of the Twin Cities, December 26, 2006; Tracy Overstreet, “Cultural Balancing Act for Swift,” The North Platte Telegraph, April 14, 2009.

[49] Charlie LeDuff, “At a Slaughterhouse, Some Things Never Die,” New York Times, June 16, 2000. See Deborah Fink, Cutting into the Meatpacking Line, chapter 4.

[50] Associated Press, “Meatpacking Injuries Spawn Union Drive,” February 18, 2007; Tanya Golash-Boza and Douglas A. Parker, “Human Rights in a Globalizing World: Who Pays the Human Cost of Migration?”, The Journal of Latino-Latin American Studies, Vol. 2, No. 4, Fall 2007: 40; Eric Schlosser, Fast Food Nation, 160.

[51] Roger Horowitz, “‘That Was a Dirty Job!’ Technology and Workplace Hazards in Meatpacking over the Long Twentieth Century,” Labor, Vol. 5, No. 2, Summer 2008: 13-25; “Here’s the Beef: Underreporting of Injuries, OSHA’s Policy of Exempting Companies from Programmed Inspections Based on Injury Records, and Unsafe Conditions in the Meatpacking Industry,” Committee on Government Operations, U.S. House of Representatives, Report 100-542, 100th Congress, 2nd session (1988), 8, 22.

[52] Associated Press, “Pain with the Paycheck: More Productivity May Mean More Workplace Hazards,” The Press of Atlantic City, November 12, 1989; Karen Olsson, “The Shame of Meatpacking,” The Nation, September 16, 2002.

[53] Horowitz, “‘That Was a Dirty Job!’”, 21, 22, 25; Human Rights Watch, Blood, Sweat, And Fear, 30.

[54] Nebraska Appleseed, “‘The Speed Kills You’: The Voice of Nebraska’s Meatpacking Workers” (October, 2009), 3, 29, at http://www.neappleseed.org/docs/the_speed_kills_you_ne_appleseed _100709.pdf.

[55] Karen Olsson, “The Shame of Meatpacking”; Nebraska Appleseed, “‘The Speed Kills You,’” 34; Fink, Cutting into the Meatpacking Line, chapter 3; Elizabeth Cutter, “IBP Workers Note Vulgarity, Abuse,” The Gazette (Cedar Rapids-Iowa City), May 1, 2001.

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