Why I love labor

It’s Labor Day, the day we pay homage to the folks who brought us the weekend (among many other things). It’s a fitting moment to show some love for the labor movement, which has seen union membership decline from a high of nearly 33% of the U.S. workforce in the 1950s to a mere 12.5% in 2004. Yes, I know, our nation is very different now than it was then; traditionally unionized sectors (e.g. manufacturing) have moved abroad, while sectors that are generally not unionized (e.g. high tech) have grabbed a big chunk of our economic base.

Despite all that, I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that the health of our nation’s unions may be linked just as strongly now as ever to the health of our economy and– of particular interest to Ethicurean readers– to the health of our food system. The fact that union membership is declining rapidly is a big, fat warning flag. Why? Let’s take a look.

(No) fun with bargaining theory

Basic game theory says that bargaining takes place when two parties want to cooperate ultimately, but would each prefer an outcome that meets their needs (and their needs are generally not the same). The strength of each side’s bargaining power will be affected by its ability to leverage resources or threats. An employer’s threat of job termination may be enough to cow an individual worker, but the opposing threat of collective action by organized workers balances out the power of the company that employs them. Because in the end workers need jobs and companies need workers, an agreement can ideally be reached that meets each party’s need halfway.

Things begin to get sticky when the balance of power tips toward one party or the other– and that happens when, for example, highly mobile firms operate in a community where the bulk of workers are not mobile (usually because they cannot afford to be) and where there are few other employers. That creates a kind of skewed desperation: the workers have to take what they can get.

Which brings us, conveniently, to the food system. You’re probably aware of the newest statistics on market control in food and agriculture: four companies produce 58% of the broiler chickens in the U.S., slaughter 66% of the pork, and process 83% of the beef. The number of firms raising pork just got even smaller thanks to #1 producer Smithfield’s recent acquisition of #2 Premium Standard Farms. As the number of companies involved in producing, processing, and selling food declines, we can expect one of two outcomes for their workers. Either unions grow in size as well and continue to provide a counterbalance, or they lose power as the companies grow and workers’ rights start eroding. The data on union membership suggests it’s the latter. And since workers are generally the ones who pick, process and package the food we eat, I’d venture to say that we all have a stake in ensuring that they receive fair treatment and respect.

Living high on the hog

The bargaining debacle of the hour involves our good friend Smithfield, the largest pork producer and processor in the world. There’s been quite a bit of hubbub over at the company’s Tar Heel, NC packing plant, where workers slaughter some 32,000 hogs per day (yep, you heard right– that’s 2,000 per hour, or about one hog every 2 seconds). Workers have complained of suffering severe injuries on the job and then being fired; of sexual harassment; and of being threatened or fired for attempting to organize a union. More info is available over at the Justice at Smithfield campaign website. The majority of workers voted against forming a union in 1994 and 1997, but a federal court found that Smithfield had "improperly influenced" the process by threatening and intimidating workers prior to the vote. It forced the company to pay $1.1 million in back pay. Smithfield then hired its own police force, authorized to carry weapons in the factory and arrest workers on-site. A worker-led media campaign forced Smithfield to disband it.

The plant is still without a union, but things seem to be moving in a positive direction: backed by nearly 1,000 supporters from religious and civil rights groups, workers brought their complaints to Smithfield’s shareholders meeting in Virginia last Thursday. Smithfield CEO Larry Pope acquiesced to meeting with union reps and promised to schedule a new union vote (of the experience of management in the 12-year battle over the union, he said "We’re tired too"… poor guy. At least you’re getting paid $10.8 million a year for your pain). Union leaders are demanding that workers be able to vote by handing in signature cards to the union on their own time rather than by participating in a secret ballot, claiming that the latter is more easily influenced by the company. Incidentally, this exact issue was just taken up by California’s state legislature, which sided with the union position.

Here’s my point. Workers at the Tar Heel plant process a hog every 2 seconds. With line speeds this fast, it’s only a matter of time before workers get hurt or aren’t able to perform their jobs correctly — especially if they’re denied proper medical care, or breaks, or forced to work overtime. A human-rights issue to the core, the erosion of workers’ rights also affects things like animal welfare during slaughter, food safety (the majority of e. coli contamination happens at the packing plant), and the economic vitality of the rural communities where the workers live. Put simply, there are lots of reasons to love labor. And today, of all days, is a good time to remind ourselves of that.


Image of farmworkers taken at the 1:25 scale model village Madurodam, in Holland, by Bonnie (aka Dairy Queen).

One Responseto “Why I love labor”

  1. msk says:

    Thanks for this posting. Your point is right on the money. It would be interesting if unionization at Smithfield forced significant slowing of the production line AND some changes in how they manage waste. One wonders if unionization could begin to force prices up to something that reflects the real cost of Smithfield pork, although the environmental impact of their waste appears to be pretty much incalculable.

    It’s nice that Smithfield management is “tired” of the union battle now, as if they were dragged into it against their will and didn’t have the power to make it go differently over the past 12 years. Any guesses as to whether an anti-union marketing campaign starring Paula is on the way?