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Tuesday, August 12, 2008

All Hat and No Cattle

California’s big factory farming interests are getting desperate. You can tell because their claims smell more like manure each day. The latest is their cynical assertion that cramming animals into cages where they can’t even turn around, lie down, and stretch their limbs is good for farm workers.

Crate Really? Since when has Big Agribusiness cared about labor? From Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle to Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, anyone who bothered to look has found the truth. Agricultural workers are among the most abused and exploited in this country.

In this coming election, for agribusiness to claim some cozy convergence of interests with farm workers in the raising of animals for food does more than defy credulity. It mocks the very people who are trapped in dead-end jobs and made to suffer, their health put at risk, just like the animals they work around—and why? For the sake of plundering an extra penny profit out of an egg. Yes, that’s the real price of this misery. And workers shouldn’t be paying it, or animals either. 

It’s a familiar story of suffering, not just in California but nationwide, and we know it well.

The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union is campaigning on behalf of 5,500 Smithfield workers in Tar Heel, N.C., who reportedly face poverty wages, brutal conditions, and crippling injuries at the world’s largest hog slaughter plant. Human Rights Watch cited the company for violating international human rights standards by creating an environment of intimidation, racial tension, and sometimes violence for workers who want a voice on the job.

A recent editorial in The New York Times described reports of “dirty, dangerous conditions” at a meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa, as “told by workers, union organizers, immigrant advocates and government investigators.” According to the Times, “A woman with a deformed hand tells a reporter of cutting meat for 12 hours a day, six days a week, for wages that labor experts call the lowest in the industry.”

No wonder Foster Farms funneled a quarter million dollars into the campaign against Prop 2. This company was the site of a worker being crushed to death in a grisly silo accident in 2006. A federal court had to force the owners to accept a union at its Livingston, Calif., poultry plant, after the court found it violated labor laws and unfairly punished and demoted union organizers.Chicken_1

And the egg industry has one of the most sordid histories. An employee was fatally electrocuted at Hillandale Farms of Fla., a subsidiary of Cal-Maine Foods, and the company was assessed fines and penalties of hundreds of thousands of dollars. A federal court ordered Kofkoff Egg Farm in Conn., a subsidiary of Moark—the top contributor to the campaign against Prop 2—to pay 34 employees $80,000 in back wages after an investigation found the company violating labor standards.

Here’s the truth about labor and farm animals. By crowding animals into tiny cages or stacking them in epic rows on top of each other, agribusiness doesn’t need the kind of skilled and semi-skilled hands who know a thing or two about husbandry. There’s no career ladder for workers on one of these operations. They’re the very bottom of the heap, just like the suffering animals. Prop 2 would phase out these confinement systems that have helped to transform factory farms into automated chambers of horror.

A single factory farm owned by Gemperle Enterprises in Turlock, Calif., confines one million chickens. The owners brag that only four people have keys to the facility, and fewer than a half dozen people are even allowed inside. A half dozen people for a million birds.

The paltry few jobs that remain expose workers to infectious diseases and concentrated chemicals. Factory farms generate toxic dust and gas plumes that cause respiratory irritation among workers. These are matters of everyday common sense, even to urban dwellers. But as usual, the health of farm workers is of little consideration to the political laggards of agribusiness—or to those who do their bidding.

In truth, industrial-sized farms cut corners every step of the way and drive traditional family farmers out of business. Yes, the big-city PR hirelings for the anti-Prop 2 campaign would like voters to imagine those serene, gentle farm vistas where happy animals are cared for by wise stewards. Sorry. It ain’t so, and Californians by the millions know it.   

CalfProp 2 won’t bring back those days, but it’s one modest step toward instilling some basic responsibility into the business of raising of animals. 

The legendary farm labor organizer Cesar Chavez said, “We need, in a special way, to work twice as hard to help people understand that the animals are fellow creatures, that we must protect them and love them as we love ourselves.” He taught us that “kindness and compassion toward all living things is a mark of a civilized society…Only when we have become nonviolent toward all life will we have learned to live well ourselves.”

That’s the voice of the real labor movement. That’s the voice of Prop 2. That’s the voice of Californians who want safe food, humanely raised by workers who care.

Factory farmers are unable to defend the cruelty they inflict for hardly any real gain. They cannot engage in honest discussion of Prop 2. So, they dodge and feint and ladle out the manure in hopes that Californians can be fooled. Sorry. Won’t happen. Voting YES! on Prop 2 is right for animals. It’s right for the men and women who work with them on the farm. It’s right for all Californians.

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