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The Food Movement's Final Frontier: Taking Care of Workers

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Rita has worked for the same Missouri-based pork processing company for 13 years. And yet she feels like she could lose her job at any time. If this 49-year-old mother of four is late for work by as little as five minutes, that's one strike. If she takes more than her allotted seven minutes to race to the bathroom and back, that's another strike. Three strikes is all it takes.

Rita (not her real name) cuts pork on a line she says has sped up considerably in recent years. The factory has reduced its staff, but demands the same amount of work from the employees that remain. She has to move fast, with a sharp knife, on her feet, for eight to 10 hours a day. "I've never seen so many people with heart problems," she said of her co-workers over the phone recently. "I think it's because of the stress. Where there used to be four of us, now there are two people. [The managers] say, 'You all can do this.'"

In recent years, some workers have started talking about the conditions they face and trying to organize for better ones. Whenever this has happened, the company takes two approaches, Rita tells me. They start with a small raise (most meatpacking workers make a dollar or two more than minimum wage) to calm everyone down. If that doesn't work, they'll start firing people. Through all this, Rita has stayed on at the plant. "There are no other jobs," she says.
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