Long after he published The Jungle, Upton Sinclair famously complained that he had aimed for America’s heart and accidentally hit it in the stomach: His novelistic expos? of the inhumane, unsanitary conditions in Chicago slaughterhouses had prompted new food safety legislation but few gains for meatpacking workers. This year, journalist Eric Schlosser may have pulled off the reverse trick in Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal, a book that takes the measure of the fast food economy, tracing backward from the Big Mac and fries to the social and industrial complex that emits them. The survey includes in its scope not just the fast food companies themselves, but also the flavor laboratories, the agribusinesses and packing plants, the food inspection system, and the people employed in all these sectors.
While an account that focused only on the plight of meatpacking workers might gain a few respectful reviews in left publications, Schlosser’s book with its broader scope has been on The New York Times bestseller list for three months. Of course, Fast Food Nation is about more than those workers, and the book’s ultimate impact remains to be seen, but the fact that it has managed to raise some awareness of packing plant conditions is laudable in itself. For years, the plants have been operating with a kind of “out of sight, out of mind” immunity, aided by the Reagan-era declawing of safety regulations. Beef slaughter plants, almost all of which are run by one of four huge corporations, have been increasing line speeds to boost production, and hiring poor immigrants and refugees who are less likely to complain when they get hurt. And they do get hurt, at a rate of 33 percent per year according to federal statistics. That’s almost certainly a low estimate, since many plants discourage the reporting of injuries and many repetitive stress injuries go undocumented.
A major reason so many people get hurt in these plants is that companies are not seriously penalized for high injury rates. They make a workers’ compensation payment and then find a fresh Mexican or Guatemalan or Bosnian to stick on the slaughter line. The situation is particularly bad in Texas. Unlike any other state, Texas does not require companies to carry workers’ compensation insurance. In theory, there is a strong incentive for companies to carry insurance, since it shields them from lawsuits by injured workers. But in practice, the companies have stumbled upon a cheaper way of protecting themselves: making workers waive their right to sue, as a condition of receiving medical care and benefits when they are injured. This strategy has been adopted by meatpacking giant IBP at its Amarillo plant, as well as by companies in other industries. It was upheld by the Texas Supreme Court in March.
State Senator Robert Duncan, a Republican from Lubbock, is not known as a great champion of the working man, but as a lawyer who represents insurance companies, the implications of the court’s decision were not lost on him. The day the decision was announced, Duncan gave a rare personal privilege speech on the Senate floor. “Today, with this ruling, there is no incentive for an employer to be in the workers’ compensation system, absolutely none. The employers get their cake and eat it too,” he said. “This is bad public policy.”
Duncan went on to thank the other senators for having passed a bill he sponsored, S.B. 624, which would prohibit the use of injury waivers. (It still must be passed by the House and signed by the Governor.) “I believe it is morally wrong” for employers to require waivers, he said, “And unless this Legislature acts this session, members, that will be the law in the state of Texas, and we will be the only state in this country, the only state in this country, that allows such an injustice.” A ban on injury waivers would be a small step in the right direction for meatpacking workers-and many others-whose nasty jobs we would rather not think about.