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Texas Observer VOLUME 93, NO. 8 A Journal of Free Voices Since 1954 Editors: Nate Blakeslee, Karen Olsson Managing Editor: Barbara Belejack Managing Publisher: Charlotte McCann Circulation Manager: Candace Carpenter Graphic Designer: Julia Austin Poetry Editor: Naomi Shihab Nye Copy Editor: Roxanne Bogucka Development Director: Susan Morris Interns: Jamie Kopf, Chris Womack Advertising Representative: Gene Akins Special Projects: Jere Locke, Nancy Williams Contributing Writers: Gabriela Bocagrande, Robert Bryce, Louis Dubose, Michael Erard, James K. Galbraith, Dagoberto Gilb, Paul Jennings, Steven G. Kellman, Lucius Lomax, Jeff Mandell, Char Miller, Debbie Nathan, John Ross. Staff Photographer: Alan Pogue Contributing Photographers: Jana Birchum,Vic Hinterlang, Patricia Moore; ack Rehm. Contributing Artists: Jeff Danziger, Beth Epstein,Valerie Fowler, Sam Hurt, Kevin Kreneck, Michael Krone, Ben Sargent, Gail Woods. Editorial Advisory Board: David Anderson, Chandler Davidson, Dave Denison, Bob Eckhardt, Sissy Farentholdjohn Kenneth Galbraith, Lawrence Goodwyn, Jim Hightower, Maury Maverick Jr., Kaye Northcott, Susan Reid. In Memoriam: Cliff Ologon, 1931-1995 Texas Democracy Foundation Board: D’Ann Johnson, Jim Marston, Bernard Rapoport, Geoffrey Rips, Gilberto Ocafias. The Texas Observer entire contents copyrighted 2001, is published biweekly except every three weeks during January and August \(24 issues profit foundation, 307 West 7th Street, Austin, Texas 78701. Telephone: E-mail: [email protected] World Wide Web DownHome page: . Periodicals Postage Paid at Austin, Texas. Subscriptions: One year $32, two years $59, three years $84. Full-time students $18 per year; add $13/year for foreign subs. Back issues $3 prepaid. Airmail, foreign, group, and bulk rates on request. Microfilm available from University Microfilms Intl., 300 N. Zeeb Road, Ann Arbor, MI 48106. Indexes: The Texas Observer is indexed in Access:Tho Supplementary Index to Periodicals; Texas Index and, for the years 1954 through 1981, The Texas Observer Index. POSTMASTER: Send address changes to The Texas Observer, 307 West 7th Street, Austin, Texas 78701. The Books & the Culture section is partiallyfunded through gra n ts from the City q f Austin under the auspices of the Austin Arts Commission and the Writer’s League of Texas, both in cooperation with the Texas Commission on the Arts. 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 expose 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 AllAmerican 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 Reaganera 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 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 workersand many otherswhose nasty jobs we would rather not think about. K.O. EDITORIAL Adding Insult to Injury 4/27/01 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 3