The sold out audience that packed the Statler Auditorium last night to hear renowned author and journalist Eric Schlosser, whose 2001 bestseller Fast Food Nation provided a stomach-churning behind the scenes look at the fast food industry, may have come expecting to hear horror stories about fast food like those in Schlosser’s book. What they got instead was a forceful speech about the dangerous working conditions in American slaughterhouses, enthusiastically delivered by Schlosser.
“Basic human rights are being violated in the United States every single day” in the meatpacking industry, Schlosser said. Meatpacking, he added, “is one of the worst paid industrial jobs in the United States, with one of the highest turnover rates.”
Schlosser painted a vivid picture of a meatpacking industry which brutally exploits workers, often with fatal consequences. He cited government figures from 2001 by the Bureau of Labor Statistics ranking meatpacking as the most dangerous job in America, and a Human Rights Watch report which documented “systematic human rights violations” at meatpacking plants, to support his argument.
Schlosser also shared gruesome stories of workers who lost their arms, legs or even heads to machinery in the slaughter-houses.
“Most of the work is still done by hand… by hundreds of workers crammed together with sharp knives,” said Schlosser. He explained that in recent years companies have pressured workers to speed up production on the assembly line, resulting in a rapidly growing number of injuries. “What’s going on inside [meatpacking plants] is not really a pretty scene, to put it mildly,” said Peter Sikora ’97, an advocate for Consumers Union who introduced Schlosser.
Perhaps the most serious charge which Schlosser leveled was that worker injuries and deaths were in a sense not the results of accidents.
“Industrial accident is a misnomer,” he said. “If you go outside in Ithaca in the winter and slip and fall on the ice, that is an accident. Thousands of meat packing workers being injured every year in the same way is not an accident – it’s a system of exploitation.”
80 to 90 percent of workers at meatpacking plants are recent immigrants, many imported illegally from Mexico by the meatpacking companies to lower labor costs, Schlosser said. Companies have taken advantage of the immigrants, forcing injured workers to waive their legal right to sue or risk the loss of their jobs and possible deportation.
The subject of workplace safety in slaughterhouses was raised in Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation although the main focus of the book was the economics of the fast food industry and the threat to consumers from bacteria such as E. coli and salmonella. When the book was released, most reviews focused on the chapters about these topics.
Schlosser, however, explained that for him, the most important part of the book was the chapters that dealt with “the exploitation of poor immigrant workers in the meatpacking industry.”
Schlosser drew parallels between his book and The Jungle, Upton Sinclair’s widely influential 1906 muckraking expose of the Chicago meatpacking industry. The response to The Jungle, like the response to Fast Food Nation, largely overlooked issues of workers rights, Schlosser said.
“Sinclair aimed at people’s hearts, but he hit them in their stomachs,” he added.
One of the points which Schlosser emphasized was that working conditions have taken “an enormous leap backwards,” after improving during the middle of the 20th Century as a result of unionization efforts. Even after 100 years, he implied, The Jungle was still relevant. Wages for slaughterhouse workers have fallen 50 percent since the 1970s and four companies now control 80 percent of the meatpacking industry, up from 56 percent in1906.
Schlosser closed his speech by appealing to audience members to take action which could impact the plight of slaughterhouse workers.
He encouraged campus activism for “people here in the United States,” not just for “distant, abstract workers” in foreign countries, and he argued that for all the admirable concern about animal welfare, the “two-legged animals” who work at slaughterhouses deserved more attention.
Finally, noting that fast food chains like McDonald’s are by far the largest purchasers of meat from slaughterhouses, he urged audience members to use the power of the free market to influence meatpacking companies.
“Don’t buy any meat produced by the big meatpacking companies,” he said. “If there’s anything you eat that you should spend a little extra money on [to get locally produced or organic food], it’s meat-trust me.”
The speech was sponsored by a number of organizations, including the Cornell Organization for Labor Action, the Farmworker Advocacy Coalition, Cornell Students Against Sweatshops, Cornell Coalition for Animal Defense, and the Cornell Democrats.
Students had generally positive reactions to Schlosser’s speech.
“I was quite shocked. I had no idea[labor] conditions were this severe, especially in the United States,” said Nabil Iqbal ’06.
Heather Marciniec, grad, liked that Schlosser highlighted what students could do to change the fact that “human rights for workers have worsened,” while Clair Anderson ’07, the treasurer of the Cornell Coalition for Animal Defense, expressed satisfaction that Schlosser had brought up issues of animal cruelty.
Mitch Fagen ’07, president of Cornell Democrats, sought to connect Schlosser’s speech more directly to politics. According to Fagen, the speech, “clearly illustrated some of the problems of conservative government… and their urge to deregulate and allow giant corporations to merge freely while ignoring workers rights.”
Archived article by Elijah Reichlin-Melnick