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Jungle Redux

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) -- He works in a world of long knives and huge saws, blood and bone, arctic chill and sweltering heat.  For Martin Cortez, this is life on the line as a meatpacker.

It's no place for the squeamish. Some workers can't stomach the gore -  chopping up the meat and bones of hundreds of cattle, day after day.  Cortez has been at it more than 30 years. It also can be very dangerous.  Some workers have been slashed, burned or scarred. He has not.

Even so, Martin Cortez, a soft-spoken man with sad eyes, doesn't  recommend the work. The thrashing animals, the heavy lifting ... all  that goes into putting steak and hamburger on America's dinner tables,  he says, makes for a backbreaking day on the killing floor.

"You know what I like to say to newcomers?" he says. "They don't kill  cows. They kill people."

This, some would say, is The Jungle of 2006.

It's not anywhere near as horrible as the world muckraker Upton Sinclair  surveyed 100 years ago in his sensational book "The Jungle." A harrowing  portrait of an immigrant's oppressive life in meatpacking, the novel  angered the president, sent meat sales into a tailspin and inspired  landmark consumer-protection laws.

Even the harshest critics acknowledge government regulations and  inspectors have made meatpacking far cleaner and safer than it was when  Sinclair described rats scurrying over piles of meat, sick workers  spitting into processing vats and diseased animals stumbling to  slaughter.

But 100 years later, the industry that produces the meat for America  still faces some of the same tensions and troubles that Sinclair  exposed.

In 1906, there were accusations the meatpacking giants exploited  immigrants, battles over unions and complaints of paltry pay for  hazardous work.

In 2006, the problems persist - though the names have changed. The  eastern Europeans who flocked to Chicago's bustling stockyards 100 years  ago have been replaced by Mexican and Central American immigrants  chasing their own dreams in the remote reaches of the rural Midwest and  Southeast.

"It's not as bad as it was in the sense of the sheer brutality of 100  years ago - before labor laws and food safety laws," says Lance Compa, a  Cornell University labor law expert who wrote a stinging Human Rights  Watch report on the meat and poultry industry last year. "But for the  times we're in now, the situation is much in line with what it was 100  years ago."

"It's extremely dangerous when it shouldn't be," he says. "Workers are  exploited when they shouldn't be. The companies know it."

Others also say even with better regulation, if the meatpacking industry  is judged against other workplace progress, it falls short.

"It's a new 'Jungle,' measured not against the standard of yesterday,  but the standard of today," says Lourdes Gouveia, director of the Office  for Latino/Latin American Studies at the University of Nebraska at  Omaha.

The American Meat Institute, the trade group founded the same year  Sinclair's book was published, dismisses those claims. It says wages  (about $25,000 a year) are competitive, turnover is wildly exaggerated  and safety has dramatically improved in recent years.

"It's a new world," says J. Patrick Boyle, the institute's president.  "If Upton Sinclair walked through our plants today, he'd say he was a  successful reformer. He'd be astonished and, I think, impressed with the  changes that have occurred."

Some of those changes came soon after "The Jungle" was published.  President Theodore Roosevelt dispatched investigators to Chicago and  their report - detailing filthy conditions on the killing floors - was  sent to Congress. Within months came two major reforms: the Pure Food  and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act of 1906. More legislation and  improved technology followed over the decades.

Still, some people continue to draw parallels to "The Jungle." "I think  they're living in a time warp," Boyle says.

Boyle says in the last 15 years, there has been a new emphasis on  partnerships - the union, the federal Occupational Safety and Health  Administration and companies - collaborating to improve ergonomics,  equipment and share ways to make the job safer, including more power  tools, fewer knives and better-designed work stations.

It appears to have paid off: Federal figures show illnesses and injuries  in the meat and poultry industry fell by half from 1992 to 2001 - from  29.5 to 14.7 per 100 full-time workers, according to a 2005 Government  Accountability Office report. (Still, that is among the highest of any  industry.)

The GAO also cautions progress may not be that dramatic because injuries  and illnesses still appear to be underreported - immigrants may fear  retaliation or job loss, and supervisors may not report the problems or  encourage workers not to because some plants have incentives, such as  money or other prizes, for maintaining a safe workplace.

Numbers aside, the GAO also says the industry is still plenty dangerous  with knife-wielding workers standing long hours on fast-moving lines,  chemicals, animal waste and factory floors that can be dark, loud,  slippery or unbearably hot or bitter cold.

The risks are many: cuts and stabbings, burns, repetitive stress  injuries, amputations and worse. Knife accidents blinded one meat worker  and disfigured the face of another, the GAO said, citing OSHA records.

Oscar Montoya lost most of his left index finger in a 1999 accident  using a huge split-saw to divide cattle carcasses. He had three  operations, returned to meatpacking, then finally quit.

"It was just a lot harder than I thought it would be," he says. He's now  a heat and air-conditioner repairman.

Turnover can exceed 100 percent in a year, the GAO said - a number that  Boyle, the institute president, says is greatly overstated. He says  meatpacking companies spent much time and money on training to ensure  workers will stay.

Jose Maria Montoya (no relation to Oscar) lasted just a year his first  time around at Nebraska Beef. He deboned meat and says the repetitive  cutting motions, hour after hour, made his hands ache so badly, he lost  all sensation in his fingers. He had night sweats. But he never  complained.

"I didn't say anything," he explains, his voice rising with surprise by  any suggestion that he would. "What can I do about it? When you need  something (money) for your family, you don't ask questions. You just do  it. I don't have many choices. I don't speak English very well. I don't  have much education."

His words are reminiscent of Sinclair's days when Lithuanians, Poles and  other eastern Europeans crowded into the shadow of big-city  slaughterhouses in hopes of building a better life. Their schooling  counted for less than a strong back, a weak nose and willingness to  sweat.

The character who symbolized the struggle in "The Jungle," was Jurgis  Rudkus, a Lithuanian immigrant whose life was a nightmare. He was  injured, lost his job, went to jail, his house was repossessed, his wife  and son died.

"The Jungle" paints the most gut-wrenching possible portrait of those  desperate times - designed to touch the nation's conscience. Today's  real-life meatpacking story is far from that fictional horror, but parts  of the book's message resonate in the here and now.

Thousands of immigrants still come, as they did a century ago.

Some are refugees from countries such as Somalia, Sudan and Vietnam;  many more journey across the Mexican border and find their way to  Nebraska, Kansas or other states where giant meat plants seem to have an  inexhaustible need for labor.

Jose Maria Montoya left Mexico as a teen, hoping to make good money,  then return home. It didn't turn out that way.

After he quit meatpacking, he stayed in the Omaha area, finding work in  a garment factory. He says he was so good at cutting cloth, he more than  doubled his $8-an-hour salary.

But the job fizzled out when, ironically, the company moved to Mexico to  take advantage of low wages. Montoya picked up new skills, learned to  drive a forklift, then returned to the same meatpacking company - this  time in the shipping department.

At 37, Montoya has a grand ambition: He wants to start his own business  making heavy-duty work uniforms. His slender, boyish face lights up just  talking about it.

"I love this kind of work," he says. "It's what I really want to do in  my life."

He even has a name for his company: Del Valle Apparel.

But Montoya also has a mortgage, a stack of bills, a $12.50-an-hour wage  and eight kids to feed. Though his wife works, their combined dollars  only go so far.

"My dream now is for my kids," he says, sitting in the family living  room, his squirming 2-year-old, Emanuel, in his arms. Montoya says he  urges his children to study hard so they can become teachers and  doctors, lawyers and judges. And when they whine about school, he firmly  silences them:

"You have no choice," he says. "You want to be like me and work like a  donkey?"

Juan Valadez understands. When he arrived from Mexico 30 years ago  looking for work, most doors were not open to him. Meatpacking was. He  needed the check. The company needed him. It was a match.

Now, he says the rigors of the job have caught up with his 50-year-old  body.

"The line never stops and you keep working and working and you get  tired," he says. "You sometimes hope the line breaks so you can rest a  little bit."

"It's the easiest job to get, but the hardest job to do," he adds. "It  kills you little by little."

Over three decades, Valadez, a father of five, has doubled his pay to  more than $11 an hour and witnessed a changing population in the  factory. "Back then, it was Mexican, black and white. Now it's only the  people you see here," he says, motioning to other Hispanic workers  sitting around a table at the union hall. "Maybe the others have better  opportunities."

From 1980 to 2000, the number of Hispanic workers in the meat industry -  including poultry - increased more than fourfold to 35 percent,  according to federal statistics, says William Kandel, a sociologist at  the Economic Research Service of the Agriculture Department.

The industry is believed to have large numbers of undocumented workers -  one federal official said it may be as high as one in four in  meatpacking plants in Nebraska and Iowa, the GAO said, referring to its  own 1998 report.

Federal agents have raided plants and taken other steps to crack down on  undocumented workers over the years, but it's not hard to buy fake  identification cards.

Both the meatpacking companies and the United Food and Commercial  Workers union - which says it represents more than 50 percent of meat  and poultry workers nationwide - have adapted to the reality of large  numbers of foreign-born workers, offering, among other things, classes  in English.

"Any time the workers can communicate ... they know they're not being  exploited, the supervisor can't say it was miscommunication," says Donna  McDonald, president of the union's Local 271 in Omaha.

The union, fighting to bolster its ranks, also is making its pitch on a  different landscape. In places such as Omaha, it has joined with  community activists and church leaders - including priests and nuns who  have leafletted at plants - to organize workers.

"It gives us credibility," McDonald says. "There's a level of comfort."

Decades ago, the meatpacking business was centered in labor-friendly  urban areas. But the giant stockyards of Chicago, Fort Worth and Kansas  City are long gone. The industry built huge plants closer to the  livestock - and in right-to-work states where unions are far less  popular.

"If Sinclair were to write his book today, he would not go to Chicago.  He'd go to Garden City (Kan.) or Lexington (Neb.)," says Roger Horowitz,  a historian and author of three books on the industry, including  "Putting Meat on the American Table."

In the new meatpacking capitals, he says, paychecks have been shrinking.  In 2004, the average annual wage for a worker in a slaughtering plant  was about $25,000 - compared with $34,000 for manufacturing, according  to federal figures.

It wasn't always that way.

The workers had their heyday in the 1950s and 1960s, when the union  flexed its muscle and helped push up wages, turning meatpacking into a  stable, middle-class job.

"For blue-collar people without much education, packinghouse workers  were able to have second homes, send their kids to college so they don't  have to do (the same job)," Horowitz says. "It became the American  success story."

It didn't last.

In the late 1970s into the 1980s, big changes came. A new tough breed of competitors, mostly nonunion, led by Iowa Beef Processors - now part of Tyson Foods - emerged. Old-line companies went bankrupt. The master contract, one that covered several plants with a standard wage, vanished.

Meatpacking wages that were 15 percent above the average manufacturing salary in 1960 dropped to 20 percent below by 1990, says Don Stull, a  University of Kansas anthropology professor and industry expert.

Longtime workers such as Martin Cortez are stoic about all these ups and downs.

At 55, he's not about to shift jobs. This is what he knows. But he tells  newcomers at the plant to get an education and do something else. He  tells his two daughters (ages 16 and 20) to go to college.

"Everybody says there's an American dream. Some people get it. Some  people don't," he says.

"I'm not complaining," he adds. "We survive here. I don't know how. But we do."

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