Academic journal article Sociological Focus

From Collective Bargaining to Social Justice Certification: Workers' Rights in the American Meatpacking Industry

Academic journal article Sociological Focus

From Collective Bargaining to Social Justice Certification: Workers' Rights in the American Meatpacking Industry

Article excerpt

This article examines the economic and political forces that shape the characteristics of jobs in the meatpacking industry and assesses worker- and consumer-based strategies to improve pay and working conditions. I analyze one example of each strategy: first, the mid-twentieth century United Packinghouse Workers of America labor union and second, ongoing efforts to create a social justice certification program for kosher meat products. I argue that neoliberal patterns of economic organization and policy have undercut labor unionism and supported consumer-based strategies, but that these latter strategies have a limited potential to restructure power relations in the meatpacking industry and may even contribute to market fragmentation and worker exclusion. These programs are contradictory in their effort to use market mechanisms to resolve the exploitative conditions created by the market, and they raise important questions about the relationship between political rights and economic democracy in contemporary American society.

In the past several decades, meatpacking plants have restructured labor relations in many Midwestern towns (Apostolidis 2010; Fink 1998; Miraftab 2011; Stull and Broadway 2003). These plants are often the largest employers in rural communities, but the jobs that they offer are among the worst in the country, with low wages, high rates of injury, and a grueling pace. This paper examines the economic and political forces that shape meatpacking jobs and worker-and consumer-based strategies to improve pay and working conditions. I situate meatpacking work within a historical narrative about the rise and fall of organized labor in the United States. Drawing from historical sources, I demonstrate that meatpacking jobs are not by nature "bad" and that labor unions in the middle of the twentieth century helped to bring workers in these jobs into the blue-collar middle class. Conversely, the decline of union influence, which was connected both with changes in the meatpacking industry at the end of the twentieth century and with broader neoliberal policies, eroded these gains. I also ask new questions: Can consumer demand for ethically produced products, such as those bearing Fair Trade or organic certification, also improve the conditions of labor in meatpacking? More generally, what is the potential of consumer-based social justice programs to replace the labor unions that provided a countervailing force to corporations in earlier eras?

These questions were prompted by an immigration raid that took place at a kosher meatpacking facility owned by the AgriProcessors company in Postville, Iowa, in May 2008. The raid, which involved law enforcement agents from 16 different agencies and which resulted in the sentencing of 260 workers to five-month prison sentences for using false documents to obtain jobs, was remarkable for its size and punitive nature (Camayd-Freixas 2008). In the aftermath of the raid, observers realized that AgriProcessors not only employed large numbers of undocumented workers, but that the company also violated child labor laws and provided unsafe working conditions. Twenty of the workers arrested in the raid were younger than the legal working age, and some described working shifts that lasted for 12 hours or more, without safety training or overtime pay (Preston 2008). The raid, therefore, gave impetus to ongoing efforts within the Jewish community to develop a system of certification that combines Jewish dietary laws-kashrut-with social justice and fair labor standards for kosher meatpacking operations. The certification, known as Magen Tzedek ("Star of Justice"), would identify products that meet these standards to consumers, who would be able to select meat produced in factories with just working conditions. Although the Magen Tzedek program has not been launched in the market at the time of this writing, its standards are available for public review on the Internet (www. magentzedek. …

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