Archive for Sunday, November 30, 2003

Study of industry finds ‘Slaughterhouse Blues’

KU anthropology professor’s book examines how packinghouses affect communities

November 30, 2003


The framed black-and-white photograph above Don Stull's desk commands a first-time visitor's attention.

Taken by famed photographer Richard Avedon, the portrait is of Blue Cloud Wright, a kill-floor worker in an unnamed slaughterhouse in Omaha, Neb. His clothes are blood-splattered. He is exhausted.

"There are thousands more out there just like him," Stull said.

It's a stark, disturbing image. Most people wouldn't want it hanging in their office.

Stull is different. An anthropology professor at Kansas University, he's studied the history, trends and consequences of the nation's meatpacking industry. For him, Blue Cloud Wright is a daily reminder of the stories that need to be told but few want to hear.

"I'm of the opinion that all of us, as eaters, should be informed about where our food comes from and the consequences of how that food is produced," Stull said.

Those consequences, he said, have long included some of the nation's harshest jobs.

"If you don't speak English, where else in America are you going to get a $10-an-hour job? Nowhere," Stull said.

Routinely, packinghouse workers are expected to stand in place, knife in hand and, depending on the plant, process 400 cattle or 1,000 hogs an hour, or 100 to 150 chickens a minute.

Kansas University anthropology professor Don Stull and a partner
have spent years writing a book on the nation's meatpacking
industry. Wednesday at his office at KU, Stull held a photo by
Richard Avedon of Blue Cloud Wright, a slaughterhouse worker in
Omaha, Neb.

Kansas University anthropology professor Don Stull and a partner have spent years writing a book on the nation's meatpacking industry. Wednesday at his office at KU, Stull held a photo by Richard Avedon of Blue Cloud Wright, a slaughterhouse worker in Omaha, Neb.

They get a 15-minute break in the morning. For lunch, Stull said, workers have 30 minutes to get out of their gear and bloodied aprons, wash, eat, dress and return to work. Those who can't keep up are fired.

"Turnover is a huge problem," Stull said.

Stull, 57, is co-author of the recently published "Slaughterhouse Blues: The Meat and Poultry Industry in North America," a short but thorough history of the meatpacking industry.

"It's really the first comprehensive look at the industry through the eyes of a social scientist," Stull said.

Stull and co-author Michael Broadway, a former Wichita State University professor who is now chairman of the geography department at Northern Michigan University, led a Ford Foundation-funded study of immigrant workers' experiences in the late 1980s in the then-new packing plants in Garden City.

Kept from the city's two packing plants, Stull gained access to workers by taking a part-time bartending job at Tom's Tavern, a popular worker hangout.

"I ended up living in Garden City for 16 months," Stull said. He later conducted similar studies in Guymon, Okla., Lexington, Neb., and Webster County, Ky.

With "Slaughterhouse Blues," Stull has become a key figure in the growing debate over the nation's meat and poultry industries.

"I'm not anti-industry. I eat meat," Stull said.

The industry, he said, is all about cutting and controlling costs.

"The cost for the animal is pretty much set by the market," he said. "But you can control your transportation costs by putting your plant close to the animal. And you can control your labor costs by keeping the unions out and by keeping the (production) line moving."

Rural communities almost always welcome the plants, he said, because they bring economic stability and growth.

"The meatpacking industry is clearly the engine that's driven the economy in southwest Kansas -- and because of that engine, southwest Kansas has been able to withstand a lot of the ups and downs that have defined the ag economy for the past 25 years," Stull said.

Garden City's population, for example, grew by one-third from 1980 to 1985, Stull said. Finney County was the state's fastest growing county in the 1980s; the third fastest in the 1990s.

But these communities, he said, soon learn there's a downside.

"What happens is the plant starts out recruiting workers locally," Stull said. "But because turnover is so dramatic -- 6 to 8 percent a month -- workers start coming in from the outside, which creates an incredible demand for housing."

School officials soon find themselves trying to educate children who don't speak English and who, because of the turnover, may be gone in two or three months. Law enforcement, too, gets overloaded.

"With growth comes crime; that's to be expected," Stull said. "The complicating factor for law enforcement comes with the fact that most of the newcomers are young males and don't speak English."

Churches and charities, he said, are hit the hardest.

"The wages are modest and unless a worker can somehow supplement those wages, he's going to need help taking care of a family," Stull said. "And that burden pretty much falls on the faith community because if you go to the corporations, they say, 'Sorry, we're not a charity,' or 'We're not a housing authority.'"

Stull said he had grown to appreciate the irony of industry officials' each year calling the public's attention to the plants' United Way contributions.

"It's their way of saying 'See, we care,'" he said. "But think about it. Where does that money come from? It doesn't come from the corporations, it comes from the workers themselves. There's irony in that."

Too busy

Penny Schwab, who runs the Garden City-based United Methodist Mexican-American Ministries, said she was too busy to sort through the industry's costs and benefits.

"It's a mixed bag," she said. "On the one hand, you've got people employed who otherwise might not be employed. The pay is better than it was 20 years ago and there seems to be a bigger emphasis on safety; the number of on-the-job injuries is down.

"But at the same time, a lot of people aren't making it," Schwab said. "What we're seeing now is the plants are cutting everybody back to 32-hour weeks because demand for beef goes down in the winter. Well, if you're struggling on 40 hours a week, there's no way you're going to make it on 32."

Schwab said United Methodist Mexican-American Ministries, which includes a medical clinic, food pantry and counseling center, was as busy as it ever had been.

"I can't tell you how much unmet need there is," she said. "All I know is we're at capacity -- have been for 20 years."

Still, with the industry has come a well-being for many who arrived with little or nothing.

"Look at the Vietnamese," Schwab said. "Most of them have started small businesses or found other jobs in the community. Very few of them are still working in the plants."

At the Garden City Chamber of Commerce, vice president Steve Dyer said growth hadn't been -- and isn't -- easy.

"Anytime there's change, there's going to be a time when the picture isn't all that rosy," he said. "Garden City's been through that, and I think we're past that. This is a town that opened its arms and said, 'OK, how are we going to make this work?'"

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