Friday, July 1, 2011

The Jungle Revisited: Or, Connecting the Dots

Back in the Eighties - 1984, to be specific - Hollywood released a trio of movies about families losing their farms: Places in the Heart, Country and The River.

This was no accident. Farms had been in a state of crisis for years. The situation had grown worse in the Reagan years, as farm foreclosures continued to climb.

One of these movies, The River, directed by Mark Rydell (who directed the moving 1981 drama On Golden Pond), depicted a farming family headed by Tom Garvey (Mel Gibson) and his wife, Mae (Sissy Spacek). In a desperate effort to hold on to his land, Tom goes to work in a huge factory. He soon realizes that he's a "replacement worker," brought in to cross the picket line of a strike. Tom and his fellow workers resent being called "scabs," a favorite term of the strikers. These "replacement workers" work long and gruelling days, and they want to be respected like everyone else.

At one point in the film - and this was by far the most memorable moment in the entire movie - a nervous little fawn wanders into the factory. She is frightened by the noise and begins running through the massive plant. The workers get excited - they point, they laugh, they abandon their machines to chase after the animal, and they eventually surround her. The trembling baby deer is soon encircled by men. Terrified, she suddenly begins to pee.

At first eager to trap the animal, the workers soon become saddened by what they see. They realize that, like the little fawn, they're trapped in a ruthless and uncaring world. Still surrounding the creature, they carefully escort her out of the factory, beyond the gates to the forest, where they humanely release her to run off into the woods where she'll enjoy a level of freedom they'll never know.

It's a poignant scene. Long before I became an animal rights advocate, this part of The River made me weep. And it helped me connect the dots...

Flash forward more than a quarter of a century: In the July/August 2011 issue of muckraking Mother Jones magazine, there is a brilliant article by Ted Genoways titled, "The Spam Factory's Dirty Secret." It is a profoundly unsettling article about the ghastly pork production practices at Hormel's massive Austin, Minnesota, plant. Please read it here, if you get a chance.

Those of you who've read Upton Sinclair's painful 1906 novel The Jungle, about poor immigrants working in the slaughterhouses of Chicago, will note that things haven't changed much over the past 105 years. Unions are still being crushed. Production is still being sped up to unnatural levels. And animals are being tossed into the meat grinder (literally) in the most violent ways imaginable.

A key graf from Genoways' powerful article:

In the first week of December 2006, Matthew Garcia felt feverish and chilled on the blustery production floor. He fought stabbing back pains and nausea, but he figured it was just the flu—and he was determined to tough it out.

Garcia had gotten on at QPP [Quality Pork Processors, which processes the meat for Hormel] only 12 weeks before and had been stuck with one of the worst spots on the line: running a device known simply as the "brain machine"—the last stop on a conveyor line snaking down the middle of a J-shaped bench [DC] called the "head table." Every hour, more than 1,300 severed pork heads go sliding along the belt. Workers slice off the ears, clip the snouts, chisel the cheek meat. They scoop out the eyes, carve out the tongue, and scrape the palate meat from the roofs of mouths. Because, famously, all parts of a pig are edible ("everything but the squeal," wisdom goes), nothing is wasted. A woman next to Garcia would carve meat off the back of each head before letting the denuded skull slide down the conveyor and through an opening in a plexiglass shield.

It only gets worse. Some of the Hormel workers on the production line began to complain of mystery illnesses, and when they sought workers' compensation, the company fired them.

Oh, and for you Spam lovers out there, wait'll you see what goes into it...

None of this should come as a shock. This is, after all, the same Hormel Foods that crushed a huge strike in 1985-86 at its Austin, Minnesota, plant. Workers went out on strike for several months beginning in August 1985. The company finally trucked in "replacement workers" (or "scabs," as the strikers called them) in January of 1986. The strike eventually ended in June of that year, with many of the desperate strikers returning to work. About 700 or so refused to return to Hormel and left their lives - and their livelihood - behind in Austin.

The workers at Hormel went on strike to protest against cuts in wages and terrible working conditions. Sadly and yet predictably, once the strike at Hormel ended, the conditions did not improve. The wages did not go up. Management failed to learn any important lessons.

Twenty-five years later, in 2011, it is clear from reading this Mother Jones article that Hormel is still concerned with the bottom line: Maximizing profits.

It should come as no surprise that a massive, profit-making institution like Hormel has so little regard for its workers. It also has no regard for the well being of the animals that it murders by the millions. Like the pigs in Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, the pigs at Hormel are subjected to the most nightmarish treatment imaginable before their lives are cut short. They're herded around by the thousands. Their throats are cut, often while still conscious. The lifeblood is left to drain out of them, one after another. One after another. One after another.

The death toll at Hormel's Quality Pork Processors, Inc. plant: 19,000 pigs per day. 5 million pigs per year.

Why do Hormel executives show such disregard for their workers and the animals they slaughter? Are they sadists? Are they callous? Are these evil people?

No. They're businessmen. Entrepreneurs. Like all other business execs, they want to make profits. They're vulnerable to fluctuations in the market. They want to serve their stockholders. They're playing by the rules. These aren't evildoers. They're managers. They're moneymakers. They simply do what we're all taught is good.

These men and women work in an economic system that champions high profits, efficiency and growth. To achieve these things, lower-level workers become interchangeable and need to be fired when they no longer serve their proper function. And pigs become commodities - millions and millions of squealing, pink dollar signs.

No, Hormel is merely playing by the rules. Rules that govern all profit-making enterprises.

Oh sure, some aren't as merciless as Hormel. Some companies treat their employees better. But whether a company is kind to its workers or not, they still have to make money. Maybe another company will do a better job of rendering a pig unconscious before cutting his throat. Maybe another company will give employees a Christmas turkey and some extra time off.

But they all operate under the assumption that lives are commodities. Human lives and animal lives. They're numbers on paper. Figures on a profit and loss statement. Miles to Pluto, as the philosopher once said.

In 1933, shortly after Franklin Delano Roosevelt was sworn into office, he appointed Henry Wallace the Secretary of Agriculture. By this time, the country had reached rock bottom. Millions were out of work. Farmers were losing their land and burning corn to keep warm. Riots erupted in cities across the nation. The first stirrings of the Dust Bowl were underway.

Henry Wallace realized the nation's farms and agriculture were in trouble. He launched a program to destroy surplus crops and livestock with the hopes of bringing prices up. It was classic capitalist economics: Reverse oversupply, watch prices rise.

One of his first tasks was to oversee the slaughter of 6 million piglets. Doing this, he hoped, would raise pork prices. Sure enough, it worked. 6 million pigs were murdered, many buried alive, squealing as dirt was steam-shoveled over their flailing bodies. It was a macabre scene: Workers working into the night, under the glare of spotlights, to fill mass graves with terrified piglets.

The economy was saved. But at what cost?

Henry Wallace was not an evil man. Far from it. He sympathized deeply with ordinary Americans. He stood out as a champion of the working class. He felt the suffering of farmers very deeply. Years later, when he ran for president as a Progressive (third party) candidate in 1948, he was a principled voice against the excesses of Cold War hysteria.

Henry Wallace loved people. He loved his wife and children. He was good at what he did. He was efficient. He played by the rules.

But the rules were twisted. They were sick rules. Rules with no regard for the sanctity of life. Rules that placed the value of a dollar above that of suffering - human and otherwise.

Those rules are still in place, nearly eighty years later, governing the production of Spam at Hormel's sprawling Minnesota plants.

When we start to connect the dots, it becomes possible for us to see that the very same forces that commodify and objectify animals - turn them into products to be murdered, then have their remains bought and sold - also end up degrading ordinary people, transforming them into statistics, into things, their lives possessing no worth or value.

So where is the hope? It rests with vegans, who recognize the value of life. It rests with men and women who create sanctuaries for animals. It rests with publications like Mother Jones, exposing the evils of Hormel. Every time an individual connects the dots, there is hope. Every time someone goes vegan, every time ordinary men and women resist being treated poorly (whether by a private company or a government), every time people recognize their kinship with each other - and with animals (like those workers did in that movie The River) - hundreds, thousands, of little lights flicker on.

Maybe those tiny lights aren't enough to reverse our current trajectory of global destruction. But they give off a beautiful glow. And when you get right down to it, they're all we've got.

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