Kevin Garvey, authorSurvival was learning the ways of the plant and how I fit in.  This ethnography of a meat packing facility is based on my personal experience as a new employee at a John Morrell plant that operated in Cincinnati for nearly a century. At the time I didn’t realize it, but looking back I was an anthropologist in the plant. I just turned 18 and had virtually no experience in a working environment, let alone a social environment outside of my friends. In order to survive I had to learn the ways of the plant and how I fit in.

 The meat packing plant. In 1979, the Morrell Company had recently built a new processing addition on to the existing plant, which was built before the turn of the century. Due to the cost of renovating the hog killing operation, the company moved the kill to its facility in Dubuque, Iowa. From there they shipped five tractor-trailers of hog carcass a day to Cincinnati for processing. The plant was broken up into five separate operations: processing, packing shipping, smoking and the sausage room. Each operation had a foreman and each foreman had an assistant, all of whom answered to the plant superintendent. The foremen could be recognized by the bright red safety helmets they wore and the clipboards they carried. The foreman were all Company men and had the authority to discipline or replace you at will if they felt you weren’t working at a pace suitable to them.

Bet you $5.00 half of them will be gone after Preist gets through with them.  It was a cool morning in November of 1979. The front gate of the plant was being rushed by employees to clock in on time at 6:00 a.m.  A group of 40 new hire employees stood in the waiting room as an endless line of regulars passed by to hit the time clock. As they waited to clock, you could hear the various conversations about the night before or the comments about the new hires waiting to be assigned within the plant. Two men approached the group of new hires and laughed as they viewed the lot. One commented to the other, “I bet you $5.00 that half of them will be gone after Preist gets through with them.” The one who made the comment was Ben, the Union Steward, a massive black man with a look that would scare the hell out of you and the one who declined the bet was Leon, a tall rugged black guy who carried an array of knives on a belt around his waste. Preist was Bill Preist, the plant superintendent, who was probably the meanest man the Morrell Company could find. Among Preist’s responsibilities was to screen the new hires for then first 60 days of employment to determine who would become regular and join the Union and who would be let go.

Put on your hats and follow me. We’re going to the floor. Within minutes Preist entered the doorway and glared at the group. He was a short, squatty guy with a stone face and thick glasses. As he sized up the group, he glanced at a clipboard and then at his wristwatch. The room was extraordinarily quiet. All you could hear was the shifting around of the bodies as he stood at the door. After what seemed forever, he pointed out half a dozen or so men and said, “Call off your names.” As they did, he checked off his board and said, “Put on your hats and follow me, you’re going to the floor.” The floor was the facility that processed the slaughtered hogs that had been shipped in. As we walked up flights of stairs, he talked about what was expected of us and that the various jobs we’re about to embark on required a strong back. He also stated that he would be checking up on us during the course of the day. As we entered the facility, the lines of tables and processing equipment were moving and filled with men working with knives on the hogs. From around the huge room the men looked at us, most of them laughing.

First assignment. Preist assigned us to various positions to be trained by whomever he picked. I ended up in the back of a semi unloading hogs. This is where I met Jack. Jack had been at the plant for about 20 years and was assigned to the cooler room. Day after day I unloaded tons of hog carcasses onto tree hooks, meat hooks on rollers that were suspended on rails that ran along the ceiling of the plant. It was here that Jack corrected my mistakes on plant protocol and instructed me on who was where and the plant’s hierarchical structure.

 Stay away from those guys. One day at lunch, I went outside to buy my food from the “roach coach,” a food truck that would arrive every day at break and lunch. After I purchased my food, I sat with a group who were sitting at tables outside of the locker room. I was somewhat warmly received by the group, which was a mixed-bag of guys. They all made fun of the “hog juices” that had soaked through my smock onto my clothes. Most commented onmy age and inquired on why I would want to work at such a place. Afterwards, Jack came to me and said if I want to continue to work here, to stay away from those guys because I was still on my 60 day probationary period and they were all suspected of dealing drugs in the plant. Preist would fire me on the spot, just for being with them.

Ham boners, the elite. Ben was right. After the first 30 days, only 15 remained from the original 40. During the next month, I worked in every department as a utility man, learning not only the business, but also the ways of the plant. There were individuals who commanded respect because of the seniority and the type of work they did. The ham boners were looked upon as the elite of the plant because of the speed and skill required to perform the work. Boners were paid a combination of hourly rate and piece rate. They were guaranteed eight hours, but were paid more if they met a particular quota.

The boning table. After I completed probation, I was assigned to work the boning table and was informed by Jack it was quite an opportunity. Ben and Leon were the lead men on the boning line and taught me the skill of boning hams without serving “finger sandwiches” (cutting off your fingers) or “passing chunks” (leaving excess meat on the bones). For two years I worked with a crew of 18 men learning the trade and listening to the stories of how things were like in the plant years ago.

Milking the pace in lean times. The schedules and quotas were established by the Company foremen, but the flow of work was done by the men on the lines. In most instances, it wasn’t the foreman you had to be concerned with, it was the guys you worked with on the line. If a person was working too slow and couldn’t keep up the pace, you would hear the remarks coming from around the boning line only if the lead men started first.  The pressure to produce came from your co-workers because, as they saw it, you were costing them money. However, there were exceptions and variations to this unwritten rule. For example, if a demand for hams was low, the work you had for the day was done at a more casual pace. Ben would set this pace and without saying a word the rest would follow. The foremen were aware, but conducted themselves as usual. They seemed to accept the fact that when the work was exceptionally heavy, it was always done on schedule, so if there were lean times, they wouldn’t concern themselves with the crew milking the pace.

The steward manages the pace. One day, one of the boners named Tom was riding another named Pete who wasn’t keeping pace.  None of the other boners was saying a word. At break, Ben and Leon walked over to Tom and you could hear them cussing and pointing at him. After break, I asked Ben what was going on and he informed me that Pete was having marital problems and really wasn’t into being at work, but couldn’t afford to be off.  What was transpiring was the rest of the boners were expected to pick up the slack for Pete without saying a word.  This was done through Ben (the steward) if you had a sufficient reason, you could tell him and you would be more or less permitted to work at a slow pace or as far as that goes, leave the line if needed. None of this was done with the Company’s permission, it was all done within the group.  If Priest (the plant superintendent) would ever inquire on why someone wasn’t at the line, Ben would walk him away and talk in his ear.  Priest would only nod his head and leave.

Some times you can’t keep up. Every man was expected to be on time and be mentally and physically ready to work.  If you were not, you heard about it all morning. Mostly someone would be hung over from the night before and couldn’t keep up. This was okay once in a while. You just had to listen to the endless insults and be the topic of the jokes.  However, if a person made a habit of it, they were walked away by Ben or Leon and informed that they better straighten up or they wouldn’t be needed on the line.  Again this was handled without the foremen’s involvement.

Dealing with monotony.  The normal work schedule was six 10 hour days, 6:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. At 60 hours a week you had a lot of time to listen to the crew and talk about their families and events that occurred in their lives. There wasn’t any particular protocol for conversation, usually one would start on a given topic and the rest were expected to comment on that topic. This would usually last for an hour or so and then another topic was brought up for discussion, all the while working at the pace established by Ben. The work was monotonous and there were times when it would get quiet and all you could hear was the clanking of knives and the tapping of bone or the sliding of a knife on a sharpening steel.  Just when you were aware of the silence, someone would comment on another guy’s wife or girlfriend and the air would fill with laughter.

 Being one of the crew became being part of a family.  The ethnic and social composition of the boning crew was diverse. There were blacks from the inner city and there were country boys from the farms in Kentucky and Indiana. There were young and old, educated and illiterate. There was a preacher and there was a guy who was homeless. (He lived in the locker room and would ride around the city on a bus after work drinking wine. The bus would bring him back to the plant and he would sleep on the locker room bench until someone from third shift would wake him up so he could be ready to start at 6:00.) The diversity among the group was only apparent if you were not part of the crew. Being one of the crew became being part of a family. After work they would usually stop at Harold’s, a bar across the street, and on Saturday night there would be card games or a party at someone’s house. We went to each other’s family weddings and funerals if the work schedule permitted.

Attending the monthly Union meeting at Local 7 was a must. Most importantly, being that Ben was a steward, the monthly Union meeting at Local 7 was a must. The solidarity amongst the crew and the plant members was very strong. The Union was taken very seriously and every member was expected to participate.

Plant closing leads to bumping.  The seniority system at Morrell was Company wide and then plant wide, depending on one’s ability to perform the job. This was a major issue during the last months of my employment. Morrell was closing plants in various cities and the Cincinnati facility was receiving transfers from other plants who had bumped in by seniority. Other men would bid on a job as a boner and the foremen and the lead men would argue over their ability to perform the work. Usually the bid was denied because the person wasn’t trained enough to take a spot. Primarily I felt that the lead men were questioning a bid person’s ability only because they were trying to protect the other men on the crew. However, as more plants closed, more people bumped Cincinnati and I was finally out of seniority.

A work culture that exceeded work. My last day at Morrell wasn’t any different than the rest, it just ended differently. After the shift, Ben and Leon came over to me and informed me that I was going to be laid off, but I could exercise my seniority and bump to a plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. This was strange because I never heard from a foreman about the layoff. Preist had talked to Ben earlier that day and Ben requested to give me the news. That night the crew went to Harold’s for one more and it was there that I realized I was part of a work culture that exceeded work. The senior men were visibly concerned for me and extended their help any way they could. I declined the transfer and went on as an apprentice retail butcher. The Cincinnati plant closed six months later and the members of Local 7 were either transferred or laid off. The experiences and education received from that environment formed the work ethic and values for many who were employed there, and, for me, ones that I rely on today.

EPILOGUE

After leaving John Morrell Packing Company, Kevin Garvey went to work at Kellers Market where he became a journeyman and served a shop steward for Butchers Union Local 610. He is currently Executive Vice President of United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) Local 75.  Local 75 represents over 30,000 members along the I-75 corridor in Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana.  Members of UFCW Local 75 work mostly in supermarkets, drug stores, food processing and packing plants, and health care facilities.

 

Iles Minoff received his doctorate in anthropology from Princeton University. He taught at St. Xavier College in the Chicago area and taught a class in the anthropology of work at the George Meany Center for Labor Studies in the 1990s. He worked for the labor movement for 28 years, first with the Human Resources Development Institute in the early 1980s where he worked on retraining programs for displaced workers, and later for Union Privilege where, for over 20 years, he developed benefit safety net programs for union members and their families. He has a wonderful and amazing wife, three great daughters, and two, soon to be three, of the cutest grandchildren on the face of the earth.

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