I Gave My Employer a Chicken that Had No Bone: Joint Firm-State Responsibility for Line-Speed-Related Occupational Injuries
112 Pages Posted: 5 Feb 2013
Date Written: 1995
No one is naïve enough to imagine that 200,000 poultry slaughter workers have the right to set the speed of their disassembly line, but even cynics may be surprised that this basic working condition has never been controlled by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Rather, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, the agency charged with certifying the healthiness of (dead) chickens, regulates line speeds. How did this regulatory perversion come about?
Efforts by workers or the state to regulate line speeds (and thus throughout) meet with massive resistance by industrial firms, which mobilize their considerable structural power to prevail upon the state to refrain from regulatory intervention that would deprive them of prerogatives to invest their capital and manage their businesses with as little interference as possible. USDA has historically proven to be an extraordinarily compliant agency devoted to serving agribusiness. From the perspective of the poultry processing oligopoly, lodging regulation of line speed with USDA avoids intervention that would interrupt the maximum flow of chickens and the profit they embody. In contrast, although OSHA is a beleaguered agency, unable to serve effectively the class interests of workers, whom it is mandated to protect, for capital, it remains an untrustworthy agency, to be circumvented whenever possible.
This Article analyzes how government regulation has either expressly adopted (USDA) or failed to transcend (OSHA) capital’s agenda. The study begins with an overview of the origins, development, and structure of the industry. Following an account of the legislative history of national poultry plant regulation, the Article analyzes the evolution and consequences for workers and consumers of USDA’s capital-biased policy of elevating throughput über alles. After exploring the lawfulness of USDA’s line-speed regulations qua administrative law, the Article focuses on OSHA’s failure to assert its power to control line speeds to hold employers to their duty to provide workers with safe employment. Finally, conclusions are presented linking the specific case of chicken slaughterers to the broader issues of the division of labor and the relationship between producers and consumers in an undemocratic political economy.
Keywords: Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Food Safety and Inspection Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, chicken slaughter industry, line speed, carpal tunnel syndrome, occupational injuries and illnesses, repetitive trauma
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