Thursday, January 27, 2005

Annals Of The Ownership Society 

This story would be funny, if it weren't so unfunny. Come to think of it, the same could be said of this president's notion of what reforms are necessary to remake America into a forward-looking, twenty-first century version of itself, that ownership society which sprang, full-blown, from the conjoined brains of Newt Gingrich and Frank Luntz, and of which this story is an almost iconic example:
WASHINGTON, Jan. 21 - The Environmental Protection Agency said on Friday that it would shield operators of large livestock operations from prosecution from air pollution violations if they participated in a new program to collect emissions data from their farms.

The information gathered from the participants would be used to determine which of the thousands of factory farms, known as animal feeding operations or A.F.O.'s, violate the Clean Air Act or other environmental laws.

The voluntary program is a stark departure from the current strategy of focused prosecutions. As an inducement to join it, the agency assures operators that they will not be sued for current violations during the program's two years of monitoring.

"This is one of the most important compliance agreements we will do this year," the agency's acting administrator for enforcement and compliance, Thomas V. Skinner, said. "It will allow us to reach the largest number of A.F.O.'s in the shortest period of time and ensure that they comply with applicable clean air standards." (read the rest HERE)

Got that? The US government is going to reward operators of industrialized livestock farms who have failed to operate within current environmental standards with a guarantee they will not be prosecuted for those violations, in exchange for cooperating in a two year program that will measure just how badly they are fouling the environment.

There is no reason on God's green earth, other than the greediest of profit motives, for the existence of these large-scale livestock operations, whether cattle feedlots, or pork factories, or pountry concentrations camps. The animals live a terrible, utterly inhumane existence while alive, the antibiotic-drenched meat they invariably produce, because you can't keep animals in those kind of dispicable circumstances without over-medicating them against disease, is not healthy for humans, and the foul effect on the air, the earth, and all water that comes anywhere near these industrial cesspools is almost impossible to describe to anyone who hasn't experienced it. Nor are these factory farms even efficient; the reasons the meat produced costs less in your local supermarket has more to do with systems of distribution stacked against smaller producers than with any cost-effectiveness of such large-scale, industrialized animal husbandry. Perhaps saddests of all, the only local support for such facilities usually comes from potential employees who are desperate for the rotten, often dangerous, invariably non-union jobs that come with the meat packing facilities often located nearby.

You want a values issue that can unite red-blooded red state voters with us blue-veined liberal elites? There is one here. Go talk to an old-fashioned hog farmer in North Carolina about the impact on the life of his family, on the life of his community, ask him what happened to his own land, to the air he breathes, to the rivers and lakes that used to grace his life; no, don't talk about environmentalism, talk about large-scale factory farming, talk about the impact of corporations on family farms, and talk about why you, who may live in a city, care; you'll find out how many more values you share with that hog farmer, and I think there's a real good chance he and his family will find out how many more values they share with you than with George W. Bush, whose playtime ranch, devoted entirely, apparently, to the raising of sagebrush, will never be in danger of having a feedlot located nearby.

In a related development, also reported in the NYTimes:

Meat Packing Industry Criticized on Human Rights Grounds


Published: January 25, 2005

For the first time, Human Rights Watch has issued a report that harshly criticizes a single industry in the United States, concluding that the nation's meat packing industry has such bad working conditions that it violates basic human and worker rights.

In a report issued today, Human Rights Watch, often echoing Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle," found that jobs in many beef, pork and poultry plants were so dangerous that the industry violated international agreements promising a safe workplace.

Noting that the industry's injury rate was three times that of private industry over all, the report describes plants where exhausted employees slice into carcasses at a frenzied pace hour after hour, often suffering injuries from a slip of the knife or from repeating the same motion more than 10,000 times a day. The report describes workers being asphyxiated by fumes and having their legs cut off and hands crushed.

"Meat packing is the most dangerous factory job in America," said Lance Compa, the report's author. "Dangerous conditions are cheaper for companies - and the government does next to nothing."

The report also concluded that packing companies violated human and labor rights by suppressing their employees' efforts to organize by, for example, often firing employees who support a union. The report asserted that slaughterhouse and packing plants also flouted international rules by taking advantage of workers' immigration status - in some plants two-thirds of the workers are illegal immigrants - to subject them to inferior treatment.

"Every country has its horrors, and this industry is one of the horrors in the United States," said Jamie Fellner, director of United States programs for Human Rights Watch. "One of the goals of Human Rights Watch is to promote the understanding that workers rights are human rights. The right to organize and the right to have a safe place to work are human rights no less than the right not to be tortured."

Industry officials denied that they violated workers' rights, saying that the number of injuries was declining and that packing companies did their utmost to make their plants safe. The industry also asserted that packing companies did not violate laws allowing workers to unionize and did not treat workers more harshly because of their immigration status.

J. Patrick Boyle, president of the American Meat Institute, said the report was "replete with falsehoods and baseless claims."

"In fact, there are so many refutable claims and irresponsible accusations contained in this 175-page report that it would take another 175 pages to correct the errors," Mr. Boyle said.

The report, "Blood, Sweat and Fear: Workers' Rights in U.S. Meat and Poultry Plants," focuses on Omaha for beef, Tarheel, N.C, for pork and Northwest Arkansas for poultry.

In his research, Mr. Compa, who is a professor of industrial and labor relations at Cornell University, focused on three companies: Tyson Foods, Smithfield Foods and Nebraska Beef. He spent more than a year preparing the report and based it on interviews with workers, company responses, regulatory reports, judicial rulings and court testimony.

"Nearly every worker interviewed for this report bore physical signs of a serious injury suffered from working in a meat or poultry plant," the report said. "Meat and poultry industry employers set up the workplaces and practices that create these dangers, but they treat the resulting mayhem as a normal, natural part of the production process, not as what it is - repeated violations of international human rights standards."

The report said that many companies pressured injured workers not to file worker compensation when they are injured as a way to save the companies money on medical bills and worker compensation payments.

Gary Mickelson, a spokesman for Tyson Foods said: "We're disappointed by the report's misleading conclusions, but not surprised given the author's extensive ties to organized labor. Ensuring our team members are treated fairly is an integral part of the way we do business."

Dennis Treacy, Smithfield's vice president for environmental community and government affairs, faulted the report for focusing on labor violations from nearly a decade ago.

"They make no mention of the current situation of our plants or anybody else's," he said. "We're proud of our plants."

He said worker safety was one of Smithfield's highest priorities and that the company was appealing a National Labor Relations Board decision finding dozens of labor law violations against workers trying to unionize its Tar Heel pork-processing plant in 1997.

The Human Rights Watch report describes Smithfield's violations during that 1997 unionization drive, including firing pro-union workers, stationing police officers at plant gates to intimidate workers and orchestrating an assault on union supporters.

Human Rights Watch called on federal safety officials to increase enforcement and to slow the line speed in packing plants to reduce the number of repetitive stress injuries. The group urged state officials to enforce worker compensation laws more vigorously, and it urged companies not to fire and intimidate workers seeking to unionize.

Officials from Nebraska Beef did not respond to inquiries about the report (LINK).

To be fair, when Bill Clinton was Governor of Arkansas, Tyson Foods was a welcome employer. But it is also true, in a state with one of the constitutionally weakest state governments, Governor Clinton got the first environmental legislation ever in the state's history passed. And as President, Clinton's appointees to the NLRB were pro-union. Paul Bremer, President Bush's personal choice for the Presidential Medal of Freedom made sure that Saddam's anti-union decrees stayed on the books in Iraq, even while he was passing new laws, though neither he nor a single person on the interim governing council had been elected by even a single Iraqi, that would give free reign to international corporations to privitize Iraq's state industries. We will not pretend that

There was a very specific reason for that odd formulation in thie president's inaugural last Thursday:

We will encourage reform in other governments by making clear that success in our relations will require the decent treatment of their own people. America's belief in human dignity will guide our policies, yet rights must be more than the grudging concessions of dictators; they are secured by free dissent and the participation of the governed. In the long run, there is no justice without freedom, and there can be no human rights without human liberty.
Stay tuned and I'll explain it to you.

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