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Food 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 wage.

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 workplace.

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.

1. Eric Schlosser, Fast Food Nation.

Joseph Arrieta is a Writer and Web Producer living in San Jose, California.

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