on the Table
June 1, 2002
By Joseph Arrieta
“Holy Father, let us always be grateful for the labor that
brings food to our table.” Such is the short refrain that
starts every dinner for my small family. The United States
has always been so rich in soil, weather, and cheap labor
that food has never been a pressing issue.
In this modern age of machinery, transportation and communication
one could easily surmise that food production has significantly
evolved from its humble labor-intensive roots. In many ways
it has not. In fact, many modes of modern labor in food production
are much worse than they ever were in the 19th or 18th centuries,
bad enough to make even the sturdiest farmer of those times
run for his life if he faced the same conditions.
As Democrats, we have always demanded that labor should never
degrade the individual. Labor should be performed in safe
conditions, free of any elements that shorten the life span
or impose crippling injuries. Finally, it should pay a living
Approximately 20 years ago the beef industry decided to garrote
their unions and switch to immigrant labor. Good family jobs
vanished, replaced by assembly-line production that can only
be described as horrific. Workers routinely lose fingers and
hands. Limbs are often crushed in the machinery. The lines
are so fast and the workers so close together they’re often
seriously cut with the very sharp knives. The repetitive stress
injury rate is not known, but it’s high—around 35%. Starting
pay is approximately $8.00 an hour.(1)
The story isn’t much better for chicken production. Precisely
the same, except the rate for crushed limbs and broken bones
is lower. Chicken workers don’t have to handle carcasses that
weigh hundreds of pounds.
Very few vegetables have been converted to machine harvesting.
It’s still almost all manual for thinning, weeding and picking.
The short hoe still ruins backs and knees, workers are exposed
to numerous deadly and deforming chemicals spraying crops,
and their temporary housing often makes the worst slum in
Rio de Janeiro look good. The pay, of course, is barely above
the federal minimum wage. The farm workers in California thought
it was a major victory when they simply gained portable toilets
in the fields.
At least the fruit pickers are spared the pains of laboring
over row crops. Other than the absence of back and knee injuries
that plague the field workers, the fruit pickers are not any
better off than their brothers and sisters in the fields.
Migrant laborers often bring their families with them. How
a grower sees their filthy, rat-infested shantytowns populated
with undernourished, uneducated, diseased children and still
sleeps at night is beyond me.
Democrats have never accepted the rationalizations of free
trade, productivity, or costs that demean human labor. It
has never been, nor will it ever be, acceptable that humans
labor in the United States but are still poor. That humans
labor and are likely to lose a hand. That humans labor and
thus their children have birth defects. That humans have to
fight for ten years just to get a portable toilet at their
The Republicans may now set the agenda of cutting taxes for
the rich, letting corporations escape all taxation, making
us pay the cleanup for polluters, gutting OSHA and the Department
of Labor, and denying workers health insurance. They may steal
an election, make us the laughingstock of the world, hand
over energy policy to the oil companies, and ignore food laborers,
but one day they will be gone.
When they finally are it will be up to us to repair the damage
and start the fight anew. So that food workers, on whom we
all depend on so much, won’t lose a hand at work one day.
So that chemicals won’t give their children birth defects.
So that their spouses can cook a decent meal at night in a
clean room instead of a rat-infested shanty. So that we show
the country and the world one of our founding principles:
that humans will never labor in this country under conditions
that Satan himself would cackle with glee over.
Until then, Holy Father, please watch over them.
Eric Schlosser, Fast Food Nation.
Joseph Arrieta is a Writer and Web Producer living in San