The Bodily Damage of Cheap Chicken

Obviously this week, we are being asked to think about labor, about who makes the food we eat and what it means to be a worker in an industrial food change.  Think about the geography of chicken product.  These are businesses that prey on the most vulnerable workers, people who have nothing to sell but their labor and can’t really complain.  Really the processors look for these people.  First it was largely African American women and then Latino laborers.

This week we tackle head on the question of labor.  What does it mean to “make” food for a living?  No doubt working at chicken plant sucks — it is hard, dirty, work.

But this is also a story of geography — a geography forged by capital.  Poultry producers have gone to the “rural ghettos,” to the frontiers of capitalism to find the most vulnerable of workers, first in the 1960s and 1970s, unmarried African American mothers, and then in the 1980s, Latinos, to kill and cut up millions and millions of chickens everyday.

See this US Meat Map:

 

 

 

 

But historically how can we think about these kinds of jobs?  In many ways, this is work that amounts to a return to the Gilded Age, to Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.   The parallel here is not just about taking about animals on an assembly line.  It is about the destruction of workers and their bodies as well.  Literally.  No one works at a chicken plant for thirty years, like people once did at an auto plant or steel mill.  No one can stand it.  Long before they get to a retirement party, their bodies have been used up.  And when they are used up, they are discarded.  This is, in a sense, a step back to The Jungle, but in terms of political economy, it is also a renunciation of the New Deal (ish) social contract.  (Think here maybe of Jeff Cowie’s idea of the New Deal as the Long Exception.)

The Progressive Era/New Deal/Great Society (and even Nixon’s New Federalism) order was built on a (gendered model to be sure) of the notion of security.  Really, the state encouraged stability and (privately administrated, tax supported) life-long employment programs followed by fair pensions on retirement.  This Fordist/Keynesian social bargain was put in place to ensure social stability and on-going consumption.  But in the mid-1970s, this bargain fell apart — at least this is my sense of things.  It was replaced by a new globalized form of social Darwinism (neoliberalims?) where we exchanged — maybe this was forced on us — cheap products (and cheap government) as a savings to all instead of public/private investment in human capital.  But of course, the hidden costs of cheap are tremendous and nowhere is this clearer in the toll cheap jobs take on laborers in China, Vietnam, Honduras, and Siler City, North Carolina.

Cheap chickens (and iPods and Nike sneakers) come at the very real expense of people bodies — bodies that are eventually discarded.

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