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Behind the scenes of the fight for the protection of animals and workers and the preservation of the environment - my experiences as a Tyson slaughterhouse hanger/killer turned activist. Exposing the evils of factory farming, by Virgil Butler. If you have arrived here looking for the Tyson stories, view the early archives. Some of them are now featured on the sidebar for easy searching.
Sunday, February 20, 2005
Well, after a little bit of back and forth, one of the members there, Cindy, told her personal story of her brush with the poultry industry and graciously allowed me to use her story and her name. Even though this didn't come to me in a personal email and had already even posted publicly, I still felt like I should ask her permission before sharing this on my site, as I do with everything someone writes to me, and especially if that is done through personal emails, as you all know. Here is what she had to say (her first post on this is found here):
**Note: For clarification purposes, I have made notations throughout this post that will be bracketed and otherwise obviously noted in this bold text color so that you do not get confused as to what are their words and what are mine.**
I got my first taste of the poultry industry when I moved to rural Maine in the early 1970s, to a town where poultry was the primary industry. Later I had friends who worked in the plants (I never did, but would go in briefly to speak to friends, and so at least SAW the environment, which was people standing on wet, bloody concrete, suffering repeated hand injuries that later became infected and eventually ruined their hands, while mostly dead chickens, straight from scalding and de-feathering, had their heads slowly PULLED off by a fork as the line passed [This machine is called a head-puller and is now (in most plants) part of back dock.], and where there was a 50 gallon bucket stenciled with drippy letters 'CONDEMNED', where the chicken parts too cancerous or otherwise hideous to consume were thrown). [These condemned parts are used for animal feed. At the end of a shift a floor person weighs these barrels, and this weight is subtracted from what the grower is paid, even though it is still used for feed and the company still makes money from it.] But in the early days all I knew about it was the trucks hurtling by, spewing feathers, and the gossip (true, it turns out) that in winter the unprotected chickens in the outside cages froze and their bodies insulated the inner ones, and the fact that periodically we would see a white chicken running through the underbrush, or lying in the road. Our small flock was begun when my brother and I began catching and bringing home the unfortunate survivors, and one of my earliest was Chickadee, a little pullet [commonly referred to by the industry as "broilers"] nearly frozen to death, who lived, sans one eye and all her toes, but who became a loving pet. My father, who had worked as a commercial artist in NYC all his adult life before moving to Maine, tried to find work gathering the chickens from the barns, but lasted maybe two weeks. The practices he described suggest underpaid and ignorant workers taking their frustrations out on the birds. [These are the same people I refer to as "catchers.]
Her next post follows up with the rest of this information:
Virgil, you are more than welcome to use my words for any purpose you think might help, and please use my name as well. Unfortunately, I don't know much more than what I wrote, as I never actually worked in the plants. Everything I saw took place between 1971 and 1978, when I graduated HS and moved to NYC for some years - the plants in question were the Maplewood and Penobscot poultry processing plants in Belfast, Maine. Shortly after I left the area, the bottom dropped out of the poultry industry in midcoastal Maine, and both plants closed. Many people I graduated with took out large loans to buy poultry barns, which were then rendered useless. The barns were enormous, with very tiny windows that provided some ventilation but let in almost no light, so some tried to grow mushrooms in them once the poultry industry went south (literally, to where heating costs were lower), but basically they were worthless without 45,000 chicks to stuff into them.I do remember as we were building up a small home flock of chickens (as pets and for eggs, founded by rescued birds who had fallen off trucks), acquiring a few dark-colored chicks. These would supposedly cause a stampede and mass suffocation in the overcrowded conditions of a poultry barn (full of yellow chicks), so they were routinely fed (alive, I believe) to pigs. I also remember years later being back in the area, going to a jobs services office looking for employment. As I waited, I sat beside an older woman with claw-like crippled hands. [The claw-like condition she describes is so common that we had a name for it. We called it "hangers hand." For some it is permanent. For others it is only temporary. Either way, almost every hanger has it to some extent, especially if they do it for very long.] We got chatting, and she told me that she had worked for many years for one of the plants, and like many, repeated infections that she was forced to work through had destroyed her hands. She told me that a large group of plant workers had organized a lawsuit against the former plant owners for crippling them, but I don't know what came of it or how far it got. Interesting that as I think about it I do remember some things, just from living in the area... I remember visiting a friend at I think Penobscot, and her job was termed 'venter'. [Actually a "venter" is the 2nd person to handle the birds in evisceration line. The transfer hanger is the first. The "vent" is the anus. The position at our plant was called the "button holer." The reason for pulling the gut out was to expose the gall bladder so the "fat breaker" could pull each side of the "vent" open for the inspection by the USDA without bursting the gall bladder since bursting it causes gall fluid to squirt out. This fluid both ruins the meat and is dangerous. If it gets in a person's eyes, it is very painful and can cause an infection which requires immediate first-aid. If left untreated, it can cause blindness, usually temporary, but in the very worst cases can be permanent. I was warned abut this by Deborah Shands, RN, who was once the plant nurse where I worked.] She was the first person to handle the bird after it was scalded, feathered, and had its head slowly pulled off by the method I mentioned earlier. As I recall it, her job was to take every second bird (hanging by the feet, of course), stab a knife into its vent, pull out a loop of intestine and cut it loose on one side, leaving about 8 inches of gut dangling. I can't recall what the point of this was, but I do remember further up the line the people with dangling vacuums, [also known as a "lung gun"] sucking all the innards out of the opened cavities of the birds... right next to that ol' CONDEMNED bucket...I remember it seeming like a form of hell, and vowing I would never work there. I did nonetheless take a job as a 'clam-shucker' at one time, and lasted one interminable day. The clams, lightly scalded, squirmed when you opened them to rip them from their shells. As you and Lily have pointed out, treating living things as 'product' seems to me the primary problem here (I have used the analogy of a car assembly plant before myself). If things are alive, and you treat them so, and take their life quickly with the full knowledge that you are taking a life, this seems very different to me from factory-farming-hell.I am much more comfortable eating local venison than beef - I know the deer lived a normal life, and then died suddenly. This is very different from eating an animal that was tortured from birth to premature, miserable death, and never allowed to really be alive, in my mind. I am in full respect for veganism, but I also would like to be able to eat meat (and eggs, and milk products, which I love) without knowing that I am contributing to systematic torture. I'll pay whatever they ask, if they can reassure me that the animals are treated like... well, like animals (as we humans are), rather than like 'product'. Brooks (pop. 900 or so) is actually the town I lived in, tho everyone commuted to Belfast.
Of course, it is obvious by her words, that she realizes that even dairy and eggs contribute to severe animal cruelty, unfortunately. These are living, feeling animals, not the "product" ("pre-processed product" and "post-processed product" - never chickens or birds) that Tyson refers to them as in order to help workers (and probably themselves) with the desensitization necessary to treat animal this way. If only more people saw that...
She then led me to a couple of links to another woman's story, another poultry worker from the same area that she thought I would be interested in. As it had already been publicized, I felt that there was no need to gain permission to simply call attention to and educate you on what was already there for anyone to see. I have provided the links to this at the bottom of this story for those that would like to see the parts I edited out, which were really only the interviewer's comments, notes, and footnotes, and didn't pertain to the facts of the story for our purposes.
Hopefully, the inclusion of both of these sad stories will help you and others to realize how widespread the problems are in this industry and help dispel the industry-promoted myth that these situations are isolated. As readers of this blog are aware, or at least beginning to recognize, these situations are the norm and are quite widespread. Fear and fear alone is what keeps these workers quiet.
On February 24, 1988, Penobscot Poultry--Maine's last broiler processing plant--closed its doors, bringing an end to a once productive and nationally competitive agribusiness. Located in the coastal community of Belfast (pop. 6,200), Penobscot Poultry for many years was the single largest employer in Waldo County, and its demise left nearly 1,000 people without jobs. Already suffering from high unemployment, Belfast had little to offer by way of alternate jobs for these workers.
Penobscot's demise is not an isolated incident but part of a larger trend of industrial decline affecting all regions of the country. Most often explored in economic terms, deindustrialization is rarely considered in terms of the human, social costs. Our project examines this important social and economic phenomenon on the local and individual level, focusing on the closing of Penobscot and its effect on one worker, Linda Lord.
A twenty-year veteran of the plant, Linda Lord had spent fifteen of those years working in "the blood tunnel," [In this instance the "blood tunnel" is the killing room, with Linda being what I have referred to as a "killer.] where she hand-slaughtered the chickens missed by the automatic neck-cutting device--a job held by few women. In a work-related accident she lost the sight of her right eye and fought hard for a settlement. In 1984, she joined a strike for higher wages and better benefits. She was 38 when the plant closed. Single and self-supporting, her goal was to remain and find work in the Belfast area, to be near her family and tend to her elderly parents.
The following interview was conducted by Stephen Cole (SC) and Cedric Chatterley (CC) with Linda Lord (LL) at Callagher's Restaurant, in Brooks, Maine, in March 1988, not long after the plant closed. The excerpts have been edited lightly for clarification.
SC: Linda, were you born in Brooks?
LL: Na, I was born up in Waterville at The Old Sister's Hospital. But I've always lived here in Brooks . . . . After high school I went right into the hospital for an operation, and I wasn't supposed to work for a year; and come September, I got edgy and I started working a short time over at the [Unity] hatchery before I went down to the plant.
SC: What did you do?
LL: I de-beaked chickens, sexed them, injected them, de-toed them, de-beaked them, you name it I did it [laughs].
CC: What is de-beaking?
LL: De-beaking is burning part of the bill off so they don't peck each other as they get bigger . . . . Because as it grows it gets awful pointed and stuff and they can peck each other and make raw places on other birds.
SC: Did you like working out there [at the hatchery]?
LL: It was all right; it was a job. At that time I was young, and I wanted to stay close to home on account of my mom being bad [ill]. And I wasn't there very long before they transferred me down at the plant because things were getting slow . . . . It was either they were going to be laying off or I had a chance to go up to the plant. I had looked around for other jobs and I figured, well, I had been working with the company, I'd stay with them. So I went down to Penobscot.
SC: Let me back up a little bit. Did you go to the hatchery to work initially because your dad had also worked in the poultry industry? Is that what I remember you having said last?
LL: My father had been a pullorum [poultry blood] tester for a good number of years with the University of Maine. He did work for Penobscot and at the time for Maplewood [another poultry processor in Belfast, bankrupt by 1979]. Of course, during the summers, I worked for him testing birds. So I got to know quite a lot. Of course, we raised birds, too; we had laying hens for Maplewood, so I'd grown right up. But no, that wasn't why I went over to the hatchery. It was, at that time, just about the only place that was hiring, you know. And I wanted a job, I was getting edgy not doing anything, even though I was supposed to stay out a year and not even work.
SC: Did lots of friends, did other people you know from Mount View [High School] also hook up with Penobscot for a job?
LL: Not too many, no. As a matter of fact, a lot of the guys in my class were wiped out in Vietnam. I think we lost four or five; and the ones that did come back were disabled, or not with it, or either freaked right out on dope . . . . I think it was a little over, maybe like a hundred and twenty in our class. I can't remember now, but I've got it on the back of my diploma . . . .
SC: So they transferred you down to Penobscot. What did you start doing there?
LL: "Transferring." That's hanging [poultry] from the "New York" room after the feathers have been taken off and they've gone through the foot cutter. . . I was working on Line Two, which did big birds and small birds. And I did that for about, oh, five years; but I kept breaking the skin away from my nails and getting blood poisoning streamers going right up my arm, so that's when I signed up for the sticking job-and the pay was a lot better. At that time I was going through a divorce, so I was out to get as much money as I could to support myself . . . SC: So how long did you do that now?
LL: About four or five years, then I signed right up for the rest of the time to go right out sticking . . . .
SC: Yeah. So that job you had four or five years, and that's a total of how many years that you were at Penobscot? [Clinking sounds of a spoon in a cup, stirring.]
LL: Twenty years, in all with the company.
SC: Twenty years. So after that [transferring] it was into the sticking room or the "blood tunnel"?
LL: The sticking room, the "blood tunnel," or what I called it, "the hell hole," where they had so much blood. No one wanted to come in there when you were in there. You were just by yourself until you got done work.
SC: Tell us about that work, what you did in there?
LL: When I first started out sticking, we didn't have any machinery in there then, except for just the stunners. And that first stunner that made the bird's head hang down is where we usually sat--two of us. There were two stickers in there and we had to do every other bird running right in a full line. And then about '79 . . . they were thinking about increasing the production down there. So they went into the sticking machines, which at first didn't pan out very good. But after awhile, about a half a year, they got it straightened out so it would do a pretty good job--and then you had to back up the machine.
SC: So initially the stunner stunned the bird, but you had to stick them.
LL: Right. Grab it, take a knife and cut the vein right in by the jaw bone.
SC: So, by stunning, essentially that means that the bird was in shock?
LL: Yeah, but not dead; heart was still beating--just kept it kind of quiet. Then you had another stunner that would help to jar it again to get it pumping its blood out, so it would bleed out before it went into the scalder.
SC: You know, we--the first day we photographed the hell hole, we were a little taken aback. It's a pretty gruesome scene in there. How did you feel about it when you began to work in there . . . ?
LL: I was the type of kid growing up that nothing bothered me--blood or anything like that. So when I signed up for that job--of course I'd been in there and I'd watched and I had tried some, you know, on my breaks and stuff . . . So I knew what I was getting into and it didn't bother me, and I preferred working by myself than working by someone that might cause trouble for you on the line . . . .
SC: What were the--it probably got pretty lonely in there [the "blood tunnel"] didn't it?
LL: Well, sometimes if they ran the line real slow you could get hypnotized. You had to keep getting up, moving around--so you wouldn't fall asleep or something. It wasn't a very pleasant job, like in the summer it was real hot with all that rain gear and stuff on; and then in the winter, you just about froze to death before you got a good heating system in there.
SC: Were the birds all pretty much dead by the time they got to you?
LL: No, they were still, you know, flopping their last flop before they died. That's why I was more or less, as you could see--with the rain kerchief, I was more or less covered right up so I wouldn't get too bloody . . . .
SC: Did you make more money working in that job [sticking]?
LL: Yeah, because that was top pay. I mean I got the same as the trailer truck drivers did.
SC: Do you mind telling us what top pay was at Penobscot then?
LL: The last of it then was $5.69 an hour, which was more than what the people were getting on the line. Maybe five, ten, fifteen, or twenty cents more-because each job through that plant you had different wages.... The trailer truck drivers, or straight job drivers, and stickers and weighers got the same wages--$5.69 an hour . . . .CC: What was it paying when you first started working at Penobscot?
LL: When I first went in there, maybe like $3.25, $3.75 an hour. That was way back in '67.
CC: So, between '67 and '88?
LL: We got up to $5.69 an hour. I remember one summer working there, I made $1.25 an hour working in the plant. That was before I was out of high school.
"I Was Content and Not Content" . . . originally took the form of a traveling exhibit, "One Year Later: The Closing of Penobscot Poultry and the Transition of a Veteran Employee." The original exhibit opened in 1989 in Belfast, on the eve of the one-year anniversary of Penobscot's closing. Several Maine scholars lectured that evening, including Carolyn Chute, who presented an earlier version of her essay, "Faces in the Hands." Taking Linda's edited oral history and Cedric's photographs back to the community was an electrifying experience. Audience response led us to pursue the book project.Both the exhibit and the book project were made possible in part through the sponsorship of the Maine Folklife Center and grant support from the Maine Humanities Council.
The links where Linda's story can be found are here, though you have to keep changing the number before the html part of the link, as there is no "next" button to hit.
Try to remember that most workers are just as much exploited victims of this industry as the poor chickens. Most of them truly feel like they have no choice. It's quite distressing to me and a few others in the movement to see these people so demonized. It wasn't so long ago that I was standing there in a pool of blood, with it splattered on me literally from head to toe, in my eyes, nose, and ears. And look how far I have come in such a relatively short time, once I was shown a little love, support, understanding, and a different way of life. Please try to include these workers in your circle of compassion you normally reserve for the innocent animals. Very, very few of the workers are truly sadistic. Most are just like me and would never do that job if they thought they had any choice.
I didn't become an animal advocate that does not consume animal products overnight. It took a little bit of time. Remember that when all this started, I was simply trying to improve the conditions these people endure every day so that the majority of you can consume "cheap" meat. After reading stories like the ones posted on this site, I hope you realize that it is anything but "cheap." There is truly a high price in suffering. Take that into account the next time you sit down to a meal.
Remember the sacrifice and suffering it took to put that meat on your plate.
Remember the price paid by human and non-human alike that was paid just so you can satisfy your taste buds.
Is it really worth it?