User-agent: * Allow: / Trenton Butcher Block: Of Unions, Sioux City, Times on the Farm and in the Meatpacking Industry

"Our Liberties We Prize, Our Rights We Will Defend."

Commentary on national and local events from the standpoint of a Trenton city resident and state worker.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Of Unions, Sioux City, Times on the Farm and in the Meatpacking Industry

I believe that today, unions represent only about ten percent of the workforce, with public employee unions accounting for an ever growing proportion of the membership.  Outside of government, few office workers belong to unions.  As a college graduate, why am I so loyal to unions?

My formative experiences with unions of course, came partly from growing up in New Jersey back in the 1960s.  My father worked in the American Standard pottery and was a union member.  He went on strike a few times, but the union helped make up for the lost wages if you pulled picket duty.  He told me to work in a union place because they pay a lot better than nonunion factories. 

But lots of people growing up here in the 1960s came from similar backgrounds.  Our governor, for instance, was born in Newark and his mother was a unionized teacher.  This background didn't cause him to develop any love for unions.  So what else gives?

When I went to Iowa State University, I got a degree in something called Farm Operation.  As you can probably guess, that's a bachelor's degree in how to run a farm.  The problem is that colleges are very good at teaching material out of books, but not so good at teaching you the basics, like how to run a tractor or castrate a steer. 

Most people who take farm operation come from farms and already know how to do these things.  I did not because I grew up in Copperfield Estates in Hamilton Township where about the only thing people get to farm are a few tomato plants in the back yard.  The folks who developed the curriculum at the college realized this could happen and had a requirement that students spend a year working on a farm.  It was something they called Practical Work Experience.

I took a job on a hog farm in February 1978.  The place was located near Storm Lake, in Western Iowa.  For all you 1950s music fans, this is near Clear Lake, the site of the Buddy Holly airplane crash, also known as "the day the music died".

The pig farm job provided plenty of experience in what it is like to work nonunion.  You worked six days a week, 10 hours a day for a whopping $140 a week and the use of a house.  Since I was living in the dorms before going there I had no furniture and was sleeping on the floor.  The pigs or hogs as the farmers call them, were raised inside a total confinement facility, which we urbanites would call a factory farm.

As you could probably guess, pigs were never meant to be raised indoors on concrete slats.The place was poorly run and the farm was in bankruptcy.  The boars (breeding male hogs) were so old, they could not mount the sows (female adults).  So we had to jerk them off into a thermos and inject the sows with a syringe stuck on the end of a rubber pig penis.  Sounds a lot like a bad porno movie, doesn't it.

The place was dirty and disease ran rampant.  at least a dozen baby pigs died each day.  In fact, you would go around with a bucket several times a day picking up dead pigs.  I would carry a pliers and grab the dead animals by the leg and toss them into a bucket.

The dead pigs, where do they go exactly?  Once a week or so, the rendering truck would come by to pick them up and bring them to the rendering plant where they are cooked down and turned into meat and bone meal, which is one of the ingredients used in dog and cat food as well as farm animal feed.  Yes, they feed dead animals to the other animals.  Gross!  To see a link about rendering plants, click here

Cleaning up pens was somewhat automated.  We used a power washer, like the ones at self-serve car washes to clean up.  The pig manure would run off the concrete and down the slats.  When a sow died, we would wrap a chain around its leg and pull the carcass out with a tractor.  Of course you would have to drag it to the door and that could take two or three guys.  A sow can weigh up to 400 pounds.

To keep disease down, we would inject the animals with antibiotics.  I understand that the use of antibiotics in agriculture is more tightly controlled now, but back then we used to go through it like candy.  No telling what "extras" people were getting in their pork chops back then.

To get the animals from one part of the building to another you had to herd them.  We didn't use cattle prods or any thing like that.  For you city boys, a cattle prod is basically a stun gun with a long wand attached to it so you could shock the animal from a couple feet away.  All we did was get behind them, start yelling and kick them gently and they would move.  Once I had a boar charge me and he stuck his head under my crotch and I wound up on his back facing backward.  I got to ride him like a bronco at the rodeo.  He threw me off and the crystal on my Timex watch broke, but the watch kept running.  This was at the time of the "takes a licking and keeps on ticking" commercials.  I should have sent the watch in, because I might have gotten on TV.

The farm job didn't last long.  I got fired for something, I forget what.  I think I screwed up some piece of machinery.  Good riddance.

Sioux City is an old industrial city like Trenton.  It is where Sioux Tools and Sioux Bee Honey come from.  It also has a stockyards district.  The stockyards were barely operational when I was there.  Meat packing was revolutionized in the 1960s by companies like Iowa Beef which located themselves in the country and bought the animals directly from the farm, rather than locating next to the stockyards where cattle dealers sold the animals to the slaughterhouses.  Prior to the 1990s, Zenith televisions were also made in Sioux City.  The IBP plant was in Dakota City, located across the Missouri River from Sioux City.  Sioux City was about the same size as Trenton and Dakota City about the same size as Morrisville, PA.  The Missouri was about as wide at Sioux City as the Delaware is at Trenton.  Kind of reminded me of home.

The old Swift plant was still standing at the time.  It was being used as a flea market.  The doors on the stalls were made out of meat hooks that were welded together.  The Armour plant burned down a few years before I moved there.  Sioux City had a skid row called Lower Fourth Street.  On Lower Fourth you had the Swan Hotel where you could stay for $4 per night.  Across the street was the Gospel Mission where you could go and crash for free.  They would feed you a plate of slop that looked like discards from the supermarkets, you would have to go to a church service and listen to the preacher then go upstairs and sleep on army cots.  I stayed there once when my truck broke down in a snowstorm and I couldn't get back to my farmhouse.  I just got paid and had $300 stuck in my boot.  My boots didn't come off that night.  Also on Lower Fourth were lunch counters, pawn shops and bars for the bums and hookers.

Of course, Sioux City is more conducive to working than to being homeless.  Back in the late 1970s there was no public assistance program for housing the homeless or providing money to single people.  In other words if you don't have a place to live and no income, find a mission operated by a charity and stay there, or freeze to death.  The bums clung to the Gospel Mission in the wintertime like ticks to a dog in the winter.  According to sources I can find, the average temperature in Sioux City in December is colder than the average temperature in Moscow, Russia.  During the rest of the year, Sioux City is warmer than Moscow, but it is still saying something to say that the place is colder than Moscow in December.  Here is the monthly average temperatures for Sioux City:  and for Moscow:,Moscow,Russia

The town was noted as a hotbed of unionism and left wing politics.  It elected several socialist mayors in the early 20th century.  The IWW, also known as the Industrial Workers of the World or the Wobblies held conventions there.  By the time I got there the packinghouses in town were closed and most to this aspect to the town had already died out.  Here is the Wikipedia link on Sioux City:,_Iowa.  Here's another link on the influence of the IWW, Communism and Socialism on the labor movement in the United States:

The IWW was founded in the first decade of the 20th century and peaked in membership at 100,000 in 1923.  It was the union that the famous organizer Joe Hill belonged to.  Joan Baez sung a song about him which is on one of her albums.  The union was a powerful force in the first part of the 20th century and was responsible for the 8 hour work day.  It did not catch on partly because it did not believe in signing contracts with employers in its early days, preferring to preserve the right to strike over the rights gained in a collective bargaining agreement.  Perhaps more important to limiting the power of the union was its association with Marxism and anarchism.

It remained a powerful presence in the metalworkers unions in Ohio (a place where lots of auto manufacturing goes on.  Incidentally, the IWW was involved in the formation of the United Auto Workers). It continued to remain strong there until the early 1950s when it was suppressed by the federal government after passage of the Taft-Hartley Act which forbade communists from holding leadership positions in unions.

The IWW remains alive to this day and currently has a membership in the low thousands.  It represents workers employed by Starbucks among others.  You got to hand it to those lefties, they are persistent.  Once they get an idea in their heads, they keep trying.  For the Wikipedia article on the IWW, click here:   Here is the official Industrial Workers of the World website:  Anyone up to starting a branch to represent state workers?  Viva la revolucion.

Neither homelessness, mission, soup kitchens, or Socialists are new to Sioux City, a place most of you associate more with the GOP than the IWW.  Here is the story of where the homeless, unemployed and Republicans met together in Sioux City in 1915, the year of the Sioux City Free Speech Fight, an event of national proportions organized by the IWW.  This was published in an underground newspaper out of Ames, Iowa in 1977:

I know this was supposed to be about IBP, but it got to be about everything else.  Here's a little bit about the plant.

I started working there I believe in October 1978 and stayed to February 1979.  The pay wasn't bad.  I got $6.42 per hour for cutting flanks from loins and $7.47 per hour for cutting loins from rounds.  Back in 1978 that was General Motors type wages, more than double what a lot of nonunion workers got.

The work was hard.  There were two sections to the plant.  Cattle would come in on the hoof and get dropped off at one end, where they would go inside to be killed.  The carcasses would be hung up as sides of beef in a big refrigerated locker in the middle of the plant.  The end where I worked was where the sides were broken down into boxed beef which is sent to supermarkets.  I worked on breaking the sides down into smaller pieces which were placed on belts where other workers would reduce them to supermarket-sized cuts.

When I started there the first week or so was spent in classes and in training exercises learning the fundamentals of butchering.  They taught you things like how to keep a knife sharp and where to cut to get a piece of meat that looks presentable.  You also got to spend a few days trimming meat off of back bones to toughen up your hands so you could handle the assembly line.  Once you get on the job, the meat came at me on a chain and I had only about 30 seconds or so to get each piece done.

The first day on the plant floor, I got first hand instruction in unionism.  I was issued a cheap plastic belly guard (to keep you from slicing your gut wide open), two knives, a scabbard to put them in, a hook, to hold the meat still while you worked on it, a helmet and a mesh glove (made of chain mail, like the knights used, to keep you from loosing fingers).  I was then assigned my work station, near the door where the sides of beef came in.  I stood on a platform with a few other 6 foot tall men and we cut off big pieces and dropped it onto conveyor belts for the women and Mexicans to work on.

The shop steward grabbed me at break time and asked me if I wanted to join the union.  I asked him what was in it for me.  In New Jersey, we are a union shop state, which means that after a month or two you must join the union if you work in a union shop.  The state has something called "agency shop".  You don't have to join, but if you don't, you are still charged agency dues for the cost of representing you, about 70 percent of regular union dues, but you don't have to vote.  In Nebraska, and other "right to work" states, the only kind of shop there is is the "open shop" which means you don't have to belong to a union.  You have the "right to work" and cross picket lines if being a scab is your kind of thing.  That makes it very hard to mount an effective strike because the non-union guys will ignore the strike, and the union people are left outside the door without paychecks, while the plant keeps running.

The shop steward asked me if I valued my life.  I said yes.  He said to the foreman, "Hey Joe, get him a real belly guard."  The foreman cam back with this heavy leather apron with shin guards.  It looked something like gladiator body armor.  I immediately joined the union.

Needless to say, IBP was a dangerous place.  You worked in a room which hovered around the freezing point.  Everybody had colds all the time.  At least once a day, they would shut down the line and carry out another causality that just got accidentally cut or stabbed.  This was especially common on the conveyor belts where people are swinging knives and meat hooks at a rapid pace while standing cheek by jowl.

I said earlier that the open shop makes strikes very difficult to mount.  At IBP we were very successful at striking because most people were union members and everybody stuck together against the common enemy which was the company.  We really had solidarity.  As I said, the area had a history of having a meat cutting industry and had experience with unions and left wing politics.  Why, the man I was standing next to, his grandfather could have been a Wobbly back at the turn of the 20th century.
The place was noted for its strikes. 

When I came there they just came off a 14 month long strike.  The union won a contract even though the company imported Mexicans and built them a cinderblock village next to the plant.  The Mexicans were brought there to work as strikebreakers.  Many stayed on after the strike and some even joined the union.  IBP was about the only place you would see any nonwhites it that part of the state.

Strikes in New Jersey are peaceful affairs.  What the CWA needs to do is to take lessons from the union guys at IBP.  They had shootings, firebombings, stabbings and all kinds of goings on.  The company even had to call in the National Guard a few times.

When I worked at IBP, I lived in a farmhouse just outside Bronson, which is about 10 miles outside Sioux City.   I got the place rent free by working part time for a farmer.  The place was so isolated, you couldn't see another house looking from any direction on the hill where the house was located.  I got to take care of the farmer's hogs.  He did it the old fashioned way, with a farrowing barn with a straw covered floor and no restraining stalls for the sows.  Needless to say, these hogs were a lot healthier than those on the factory farm.

The farmer also had cattle, and I helped out with a cattle drive.  We moved about 20 cattle down the road for about five miles from one farm to another.  We herded them down the road using a pickup truck and horses.  It is legal to drive cattle down public streets in Iowa.

I went back to college basically because of a snap decision.  There was a major blizzard the last Friday I worked at the plant.  After the shift ended at 11PM there was so much snow on the roads that I couldn't make it out of the Dakota City/Sioux City area.  Forget about driving through the country to Bronson.  The first night I stayed at the Ramada.  Saturday night, the roads were still blocked and I slept at the Gospel Mission.  On Sunday, I gave it a shot and buried my truck in a big snowbank just outside Bronson.  I had to walk the next 3 or 4 miles to my farm house.  The next day the V-plows came and opened the road from Bronson to my house. 

School was starting at that time.  They were still registering students.  So I got my truck, loaded it up and went back to Ames, claimed my financial aid and got a room in an apartment with some other students.  When I graduated, I tried to get a job at IBP as a foreman but they wouldn't hire me because I quit without notice.  If I got hired, my life could have been completely different from how it turned out.  I would have been living around Sioux City instead of Trenton.

To learn more about IBP and their notorious strikes, check out this link:

(Scroll down the page once you get to the link.  The text of the article appears a little ways below the part that's viewable when you first open the link.  It's worth checking because there is little that the company or the unions hadn't done.  (Company:  Anti-trust violations, union-busting, OSHA violations, collusion with the mafia, etc.  Unions:  Basically acting like the truckers in the strike scene at the begining of the F.I.S.T. movie.  Yes, they got a veteran union goon working at the state

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