tiliA RACE, COCAINE, AND CORRUPTION IN A SMALL TEXAS TOWN AgA 4>P. allateriaMt4gaxxiatat,.. And that was what he did. Six months after graduation, Fred got a job on the line at Missouri Beef Packers in Plainview. Almost thirty years later, he was still working for the company, now called Excel. It’s about a twenty-minute drive from Tulia to the company’s sprawling plant on 1-27, though if the wind is blowing the right way it can be smelled much sooner than that. Over the course of Fred’s career , meatpacking became one of the Panhandle’s major industries. Modern packing plants are highly mechanized facilities that can slaughter and process several thousand animals per day. Carcasses move through the processing side of the plants on huge chains past workers armed with various cutting tools, like assembly lines in reverse. The packinghouses are among the few unionized workplaces in the Panhandle, though they are not known for the high job satisfaction of their workers. On the contrary, meat-packing is the most dangerous job in America. Workers make the same cuts hundreds of times per day, leading to repetitive motion injuries; accidents, caused in part by pressure to keep the line moving as fast as possible, are common. Annual injury rates run as high as one employee in four in some plants, and amputations are not uncommon. Not surprisingly, turnover is high. In the Panhandle, the plants are staffed chiefly by Mexican immigrants. Fred started out on the processing side of the plant as a trimmer. He stood at a moving belt with a sharp knife and trimmed cuts of meat as they came past him. The work was hard on the joints and the plant was cold and noisy and foulsmelling. But the money was better than he could make as a farmhand. He married his longtime girlfriend, Patty, at 19 and started a family. In time the couple had four children, John, Kent, Mary, and Freddie, Jr. Responsibility just seemed to fall naturally on Fred. He became a union steward, helping his fellow workers navigate the pitfalls of a work environment that was both ruthlessly efficient and dangerously insensitive to their safety. Fred found himself down on his knees one morning looking through trimmings for a coworker’s fingers. It was just something a person got used to. One day in 1995, Fred got into an argument with a supervisor who felt Fred had questioned his authority. Fred tried to walk away, but the supervisor followed him down a long hallway, berating him every step of the way. When Fred had finally had enough, he turned and took a swing at the man. The union managed to keep him from being fired, but he was suspended for a year. Patty had recently lost her job as well, and the family was broke. Patty went down to the welfare office to apply for food stamps, and Fred did not try to stop her , though he was too proud to go there himself. Patty came back empty-handedthe caseworker told her to sell one of the family’s two cars for food money. Patty was disconsolate. “What are we going to do?” she said. Fred’s answer was the same one he always settled on when trouble came. Work harder. “Get a bucket,” he told Patty the next morning. “We’re going to slop some hogs.” Over the last few years, Fred had kept a few hogs and calves on a piece of rented property near Happy. He had bought them mostly so his kids would have work in the summer, though the operation had never made much money. Now it would have to replace a steady paycheck for the family to get by. The union finally called one morning and told him he had his job back. There was one hitch: after twenty years on the job, the company wanted him to work the night shift. Fred agreed. He threw himself into his work. In short order he was made a green hat, a leader of his department. A few years later he was offered a job as a supervisor. He hated to leave the union, but he took the promotion. Fred never complained about conditions at the plant. Meatpacking had allowed him to raise a family. But he wanted something more for his kids. Although they lived on the south side of town like most black families, the Brookins family had always moved easily between white and black Tulia. In the 1970s, the Tulia Church of Christ decided to close its mission to the black community for financial reasons. The black congregation, SEPTEMBER 9, 2005 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 7
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