Living Wages and Working at a Chicken Plant
Living Wages and Working at a Chicken Plant
Living Wages and Working at a Chicken Plant
February 10, 2011
In this Hub, I want to briefly explore the relationship between the worker, owner, the paycheck and surviving America today. In 1867 Karl Marx wrote, “Let us consider, on the other hand, the capitalist. He wishes to receive as much labour as possible for as little money as possible. Practically, therefore, the only thing that interests him is the difference between the price of labour-power and the value which its function creates. But, then, he tries to buy all his commodities as cheaply as possible, and always accounts for his profits by simple cheating, by buying under, and selling over the value. Hence he never comes to see that, if such a thing as the value of labour really existed, and he really paid this value, no capital would exist, his money would not be turned into capital.” (Marx pg 541) Marx thought that businesses would not make as much of a profit, if they paid the employees what their true worth was. He also points out, accurately I might say, that businesses try to get their labor cost, along with their other resources, as cheap as possible. If you do not believe me, sit in on a union contract negotiation sometime and you will see this theory in practice. Usually, wages and benefits are the most hotly contested parts of any contract talks.
According to Marx, the system that we are currently working under has to maintain this level of worker and a labor pool of cheap unemployed labor in order to function as it has. By keeping this available pool, it helps keep the overall cost of labor down. This is funny because that appears to be in conflict with what Adam Smith wrote in 1776. Many will claim that his work The Wealth of Nations is the blueprint of the modern capitalistic system. Smith said, “A man must always live by his work, and his wages must at least be sufficient to maintain him. They must even upon most occasions be somewhat more; otherwise it would be impossible for him to bring up a family, and the race of such workmen could not last beyond the first generation.” (Smith pg 170) He believed and advocated that the wages a worker should receive was sufficient enough to maintain a family on. So Adam Smith was one of the first advocates for what we would call today a “living wage”; a concept that is still hotly debated today.
Let me share with you a little story that will show in many cases we are closer to Marx’s economic reality than we are to the one that Smith envisioned. In 2006 I had an opportunity to work in an environment that I would not normally find myself. Through a series of events I found myself working on the production line at a poultry processing plant; which I have to say is not the nastiest job I ever had, but it ranks up there. (I worked in North Dakota as a sanitation engineer) I am not going to say which company I worked for; that is not really important to this article. What I want to focus on is the quality of life the workers had in relation to the physical and mental conditions of the work they had to perform.
I entered this world through a temporary agency by answering an advertisement in the local paper, which was looking for 20 people to work the night shift. I went to the location with proof of a TB test and was hired on the spot for work that night. The rate of pay was $7.50 an hour and $8.00 an hour if you completed your shift. The shift was eight (8) hours and no over time was allowed. So after completing the required new hire paperwork, I had to get the required clothing items for the job. A smock, rubber gloves w/liner, goggles, hearing protection, and a hard hat (the rubber boots were optional). I could get all these items from the temporary agency for a modest fee or they could be purchased through the chicken plant’s company store for a slightly higher fee; either way the cost of the items would be deducted from my first paycheck.
The work rules from the temporary agency’s perspective were simple. Each night every employee had to show up at 4:30 p.m. to sign up for the bus ride to work; no drinking or drugs were allowed on the premises and if you wanted to drive you own vehicle you had to call in. If you showed up on time, you had to make sure that you placed your name on a list to ride the bus. Since there were just two vans driving out to the site, the first 28 people to sign up got a ride, for $8.00 a night. If you did not get on the list, and did not have a car, you did not work that night. The work site itself was about an hour’s drive outside of town or roughly 50 miles. So if you drove it was 100 miles round trip; roughly four (4) to six (6) gallons of which means $12 to $18 a night in gas depending on the price of gas. Either way, each night the first hour or more of work went to pay for transportation to and from this location.
Let me talk to you about some of my co-workers from the temporary agency that did not make the bus ride. They showed up near the required time, signed in and then went outside. The ones who wanted to make sure that they got a ride waited inside to confirm their seat. The ones that went outside were not really interested in working that night. They were outside to share a drink or a smoke. A bottle of what looked like whiskey was being passed around. They showed up to fulfill a legal requirement imposed on them as a part of a court arrangement. They had to make an appearance to prove that they made the effort to work. The fact that there was not enough room on the bus was not their fault.
The group that got a seat on the bus arrived at the worksite at 5:30 pm. When we were getting ready to go through the security gate, a disagreement broke out between two individuals; one was on night shift and the other was on the day shift. The two met outside the security gate at shift change and shortly afterwards the shouting and arguing began. The argument was over a late payment of some crack cocaine. The discussion ended when one of them threatened the other that he would deal with it when he got off work. I was told by another co-worker not to worry about it because those two were always shouting threats at each other, but nothing ever comes from it.
Once inside the plant, there is some confusion on what to do with us. For most of us, it is our first time at the plant and we stood around for about an hour waiting for some direction. During that time small talks start between the workers. They begin an interesting dance trying to feel each other to see if they have anything to prove. Most of them talk about why they are working there. One young man claims to have worked at every chicken plant in the area and was working at this plant to stay out of jail. He had recently been arrested for assault and if he could show the judge that he was actively employed, he would satisfy the requirement of his plea agreement. Another had been laid off at his other job and took the pay cut to keep money coming in. A young lady in the group was hoping to make it through with the temporary agency, because after 90 days as a temporary employee, they became a full-time employee at the plant. Becoming a full-time employee with this company meant that you would be eligible for benefits, which included a good health care plan. Her story seemed to fit the majority of people who rode the bus that night. They wanted a place to work that provided benefits. Of course, with full time status came a pay increase to $10.00 an hour. While the pay increase was immediate, the insurance would not kick in until they had worked 30 to 45 days, depending on the time of the month that they changed status to fulltime.
Once we began working, the job itself was mind-numbing and repetitive. Each new person was assigned a task, given a short briefing on how to do the task, then left to repeat the task until the end of the shift. The next night, we were all given a different assignment. Very little direction was given and when a person asked a question the response rarely answered the question. The first night I was given the task of loading a box with pieces of chicken. The cutters would cut the quarters into pieces, I would load the box, and when I thought that I had the right amount I would carry the box to a scale, weigh it, label it, and send it on its way. It is hard work in a very loud, wet and cold environment.
I want to focus the rest of this Hub on the group that was using the temporary position as an access point to full employment. This group was far more interesting than the rest. Out of the 28 people who rode the bus out that night, the majority wanted to make the transition from a temporary assignment to full time employment. However, there was a few that you could just look at and tell they would not make it to the end of the week for one reason or another. But the group that I am focusing on was a very mixed group of individuals. They were Caucasians, African Americans and Hispanics; that night there was no one demographic group really in the majority. All of them were treated about the same by the plant management; as a temporary worker who they did not have to pay attention to, and they could throw a person away if they did not fit in.
I am not going to romanticize the working class; these are people with all the flaws that all humans have been blessed with. But for these workers, even though they are willing to work hard, the American Dream is not even close to becoming a reality. There are a couple of points playing against them. First they are working for $8.00 an hour; the first hour goes to pay for their transportation, the second hour goes to taxes. So for an evening of $64.00, maybe if they are lucky, $48.00 of it will actually go into their pocket. In the first week (40 hours full time employment) after paying for their uniform, they will be lucky to bring home $200.00. After the first week at work, the employee's take-home wages should average $220 to $240 a week. For the first three (3) months or 13 weeks, they can expect to take home roughly $3,120.00 with no benefits.
For a single person living in Dover, Delaware, let us see what $240.00 a week will buy. A one room apartment cost roughly $167.75, food is $85.00, medical insurance $19.00, transportation $58.00 (PSU). That leaves a person about $62.25 in the hole with nothing left to pay for utilities, phone, etc. These numbers are assuming that the person in question only has to support him or herself. The chart shows the basic costs if there are children or other family members to support. These numbers show that by any stretch of the imagination $8.00 an hour is not enough to buy the basic needs.
Let us look at what happens if the employee becomes full time. They automatically receive a pay raise to $10.00 an hour. With a 40-hour work week, the employee will gross $400.00 a week and with two (2) paychecks in a month, $1,600.00 gross. Looking at Chart 1 it still shows that an employee would have a hard time supporting them self, let alone a family; especially if you take into consideration that taxes still need to be withdrawn from the wages.
A disconnect exists with how information is presented to reflect the status of workers in America. According to Pennsylvania State University Living Wage Calculator, a conservative estimate for a single parent with one child to live in Dover De, it takes roughly an annual before tax income of $33,242 (PSU) to live, while at $10.00 an hour they are making a before tax income of $20,800. However, according to the United States Census Bureau the poverty threshold for that same family is annual income of $14,787 (Census). This family is more than $12,000 below what it takes to live in Dover De., while at the same time it is $6,000 over the poverty threshold. This separation between the poverty threshold and what it takes to life impacts how low income families are viewed. In Delaware there roughly 4,360 Meat, Poultry, and Fish Cutters and Trimmers who make on average $11.01 (DDoL), which equates to $2290.00 annually, which is $10,340.00 below what it takes to reasonably provide in a single parent home. Meat, Poultry, and Fish Cutters and Trimmers are the fourteenth largest employee group in the state. Of the other thirteen, only four groups earn enough money on average to provide for a family.
We talk about the break down of the family in this country, which is due in part because both parents have to work just to survive and the stress that places on the family. Yet, we have created a system as such, which in the name of keeping the prices down and the profits up, requires that both parents work or one parent is no longer actively participating in the family.
Still, the reality is that we need workers to perform the tasks associated with production. A rise in the labor costs, if the producer is not willing to take a cut in profits, means an increase in what a consumer has to pay for the product. In the case of food, which is a commodity that the employees have no choice but to buy, an increase in that market effectively negates a pay increase they might receive. This is a hard cycle to break. But the alternatives are not pleasant either, an increase of welfare recipients and an increase in the incarcerated population. This is the situation that Charles Dickens was writing about in his, A Christmas Carol:
"At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge, “aid the gentleman, taking up a pen, “it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”
“Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge.
“Plenty of prisons,'' said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.
``And the Union workhouses?” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”
“They are. Still,” returned the gentleman, “I wish I could say they were not.”
“The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?'' said Scrooge.
“Both very busy, sir.”
“Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,'' said Scrooge. “I'm very glad to hear it.”…….. “Many can't go there; and many would rather die.”
“If they would rather die,'' said Scrooge, ``they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population. Besides -- excuse me -- I don't know that.” (Dickens)
Understand that I am not pointing my finger at the managers of the temporary agency nor the plant, saying that they are breaking the law or that they are evil people or that they acted unethically. For the most part, I found them to be reasonable individuals working within an environment that they did not create. The Human Resources manager at the plant was Hispanic and the owner of the temporary agency was African American. But, let us go back to the two authors I was quoting at the start of this article, Karl Marx and Adam Smith. What is at work is basic economics. The cost of labor has to be factored into the price of the product. Labor is the only cost that the employer can immediately manipulate. The use of temporary labor from the plant owner’s perspective is an easy way to keep costs down.
Regardless of the racial/gender makeup of the workers, all of them cannot support a family on $8.00 an hour; so the 2009 U.S. minimum wage increase of $7.25 (DoL) an hour falls considerably short. To put this in perspective, a single parent with one child living at home, living in Dover, Delaware, and who is making $10.00 an hour, falls about $1,000.00 short every month paying their basic bills.
Delaware Department of Labor (DDoL) Delaware Works. http://www.delawareworks.com/oolmi/Information/LMIData/OES/DelawareWages.aspx. (accessed February 11, 2011)
Dickens, Charles. A Christmas Carol. 1843. http://www.literature.org/authors/dickens-charles/christmas-carol/. (Accessed February 11, 2011)
Marx, Karl. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy Volume 1: The Process of Capitalist Production. International Publishers. 1983 (Original Copyright 1887)
Smith, Adam. The Wealth of Nations Books I-III. Penguin Books. 1986 (Original Copyright 1776)
Pennsylvania State University (PSU). Living Wage Calculator: http://www.livingwage.geog.psu.edu /. (Accessed February 10, 2011) Updated information can be found at http://livingwage.mit.edu/
U.S. Census Bureau (Census). Poverty Threshold for 2009. http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/poverty/data/threshld/thresh09.xls. (Accessed February 10, 2011)
US Department of Labor (DoL) http://www.dol.gov/dol/topic/wages/minimumwage.htm (accessed February 11, 2011)
© 2011 Mark Monroe