Chapter 7 Summary
Cogs in the Great Machine
Greeley, Colorado, is the home of the largest meatpacking plant, and the stamp of that industry is everywhere—the constant smell of rendered cattle, the substandard wages for the plant workers (generally resulting in an influx of migrant workers, both legal and illegal), and an increase in crime, poverty, and homelessness. In addition to the packing plant, Con Agra operates two Montfort feedlots nearby, each holding as many as a hundred thousand cattle at a time. Three months before they are slaughtered, the animals are brought here to be fattened. In that time, each animal consumes more than three thousand pounds of grain and gains four hundred pounds in weight. A typical steer also produces about fifty pounds of manure each day, which is slogged into giant pits called lagoons. These two feedlots alone produce more excrement than Denver, Boston, Atlanta, and St. Louis combined.
Originally Greeley was the home of thinkers and moralists, who at one point built a fifty-mile fence around the city to keep cattle out of it. During the Depression, Warren Montfort began feeding his cattle grain when it was too cheap for farmers to sell anywhere else. The beef was more tender and flavorful (fatty), and it could be sold and eaten almost off the hoof. Beef from grazing cattle had to be aged before it was as edible. From this beginning came a Montfort feedlot and even a small Montfort meatpacking plant. Workers were unionized, and relations between management and workers were good.
This rural Greeley packing plant was not typical. Most packing plants were located in urban centers, near the railroad on which the cattle were shipped. Chicago became the premier meatpacking plant in the world, shipping its beef (via refrigerated railroad cars) all over the country and eventually Europe as well. Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel The Jungle was a condemnation of this brutal industry, a place rife with injuries and where workers were treated as part of the machinery rather than as human beings. The novel created a stir in Congress, but not much was done to improve worker conditions or treatment. The meatpacking plant owners fought adamantly against unionization but eventually lost that battle. A few plants in the industry, such as Monfort and Swift, did have healthy, responsive relationships with their unions.
In 1960, Iowa Beef Packers (IBP) was created and modeled on the Speedee System the McDonald’s brothers used. This meatpacking plant was an assembly line factory in which workers simply “disassembled” cattle as they came through the line. Each worker was responsible for one thing, standing in the same spot and making the same knife cuts day after day. Fewer workers were needed in this more automated system, which added profits to the plant owners. IBP also revolutionized the way beef is sold, as it no longer shipped whole sides of beef. Instead, the meat was processed into made smaller cuts, vacuum sealed, and sold as “boxed beef.”
This, of course, meant lost jobs for unionized butchers across the country. In New York, the butchers’ union refused to buy the boxed beef, and only when IBP agreed to pay a kickback to the mob did their sales resume. The union-mob connection was eventually prosecuted and punished, but it was a vivid example of how easily organized crime could infiltrate an organization. Eventually the Chicago meatpacking plants shut down because they could not compete with the nonunionized plants that were paying wages as much as fifty percent less than the Chicago plants. The industry once employed about 400,000 workers but has diminished to 2,000—95% of those jobs have gone elsewhere, and a quintessential American industry is gone forever.
Back in Greeley, after several years of union unrest and even violence, the Monfort slaughterhouse reopened with nonunion...
(The entire section is 970 words.)