Archive for Thursday, October 15, 1998


October 15, 1998


An anthropologist goes undercover to document the real-world fallout of corporate greed.

Dissatisfied with research that examined rural life largely from the perspective of independent farmers, Iowa anthropologist Deborah Fink designed a project to study Midwestern economics by looking dead-on at the region's small-town working class.

She had plenty of material. As Fink documents in ``Cutting Into the Meatpacking Line: Workers and Change in the Rural Midwest'' (University of North Carolina Press, $17.95), in the 1980s corporations largely abandoned big Midwestern cities, relocating to plants in small, isolated towns.

To get an inside look at how that change affected workers, Fink went undercover to work in an IBP meatpacking plant in the small town of Perry, Iowa.

In cities, unions thrived. Workers earned a livable wage, sending their kids to college and enjoying comfortable retirements. As late as the 1970s, four major unionized companies dominated the meatpacking industry. National labor agreements, called ``master contracts,'' assured fair, standardized wages industrywide.

But a revolution was under way. IBP and other ``new breed'' packers were establishing meatpacking plants closer to farms. The move to small Midwestern towns -- historically conservative and anti-union -- was calculated to cut wages, reduce competition for labor and increase corporate profits.

It was also a bold move to undercut organized labor. By keeping wages higher in non-union factories, forcing employees to watch anti-union videos and threatening to close any plant that organized, IBP effectively froze out the unions that, by 1977, had raised packers' share of profits to the highest level in history.

These illegal tactics were not prosecuted, Fink writes, due to the political climate fostered by Ronald Reagan's ``assault on labor.''

Results were devastating for workers. When IBP took over the Perry plant abandoned by big-four company Oscar Mayer in 1989, it slashed hourly wages from $9.50 to $5.80. Their unions crippled, packers watched helplessly as wages were halved from the high of $10.69 in the early '80s. Starting hourly pay at IBP on Jan. 14, 1992, when Fink began work, was $6.50.

Fink examines the problem of economic displacement from many perspectives, including gender, ethnicity, race and class. Much of this analysis will test the patience of general readers. But her involvement in the lives of her fellow employees balances that scholarly approach, and provides the most compelling and humane material in the book.

As an anthropologist, Fink is less interested in economic statistics than in how the changing face of factory work affected working-class people. Struggling to maintain scientific distance from her co-workers, she finds it hard to resist interfering in their lives. Anthropological ethics guidelines offer little guidance for negotiating this ``ethical quagmire.''

Her own immersion in the dispiriting life of the factory floor also hampers objectivity. There she observes -- and experiences -- appalling abuses of power. IBP supervisors verbally and physically attack workers. Production lines run at unsafe speeds, risking health and safety. Racial and sexual discrimination are rampant.

Fink experiences male hostility firsthand until a man ``sponsors'' her. ``Even though I knew that somewhere I had a life as a feminist,'' she writes, ``I had never before been so personally dependent on men as I was while working at IBP.''

The loss of objectivity is, in truth, the greatest strength of ``Cutting Into The Meatpacking Line.'' By documenting the degree to which IBP work is physically and emotionally debilitating, Fink makes the company's failure to pay a living wage even more unforgivable.

By noting the tax abatements such companies receive, by contrasting their skyrocketing profits with tumbling wages, by tallying the huge cost to states -- which must find ways to pay for the subsidized health care, mental health services, food banks and other support services needed to prop up a labor force subsisting on poverty-level wages -- Fink makes great strides toward a true accounting of the price of cutthroat economics.

A true accounting is badly needed. As Fink notes: ``In one way or another, society picks up the tab for the disintegration.''

-- Steven W. Hill is the book critic for The Mag. You can e-mail him at

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