There have long been problems with the plant. According to the Register, "Accidents that led to partial amputations of three workers' hands in 2005 resulted in only $7,500 in state fines."
Indeed, the pathetically low amount of the fine employers had to pay speaks volumes about what is wrong here. Indeed, as Frank reports, the massive labor law violations uncovered in the wake of the immigration bust set back AgriProcessors only $42,750 in fines (an amount reduced from the original, and still ridiculously paltry, sum of $182,000 ).
When plants like AgriProcessors go uninspected and labor law violations go undiscovered, employers have no incentive to provide even the bare minimum of safety and fair treatment to their employees. Especially when the fines for violations that are discovered are so pitifully small, employers making a simple cost/benefit decision will decide it is in their interest to violate the law.
Who's responsible for this outrageous state of affairs? Tom Frank pins the blame right where it belongs: on conservatives. He cites a recent op-ed published in the Washington Times by conservative leader Paul Weyrich, in which he lauds Elaine Chao's Labor Department as having "the best record of accomplishment of anyone in the Bush administration." After all, Chao has cracked down on labor unions and held the line against card check. Who could ask for anything more, right?
But I would hazard a guess, dear reader, that unless you're some kind of amoral, sociopathic freak, you're not exactly proud of a country of where, with impunity, employers force children to work 17-hour days, employees regularly get cheated out of their hard-earned wages, and losing body parts is shrugged off as the price of doing business. What do we need to reverse this appalling state of affairs?
Well, first and foremost, we need unions. As Frank points out, unions are an indispensable institution that keeps the pressure on and fights for the rights of all workers, not just union members. Changes in labor law such as card check, which would make it easier to organize, are crucial.
Secondly, we need federal bureaucrats who will actually do the job they're supposed to do and enforce laws that look out for workers' interests.
Thirdly, we need to step up workplace inspections. In practice, this will mean hiring more civil servants and devoting more resources to our pathetically defunded regulatory agencies.
Fourthly, we need to change the law, so that employers who violate labor standards will get off with more than just a slap in the wrist. They need to know that if they're caught breaking the law, it will hurt. Fines of just a few thousand dollars are not gonna cut it.
Fifthly, we need immigration law reform that includes a general amnesty and a path to citizen for undocumented workers. A big part of the reason AgriProcessor was able to screw over so many workers so hard for so long is that their workforce mostly consisted of undocumented immigrants. Frank writes that their employer:
. . . had them over a barrel. Many of them were illegal immigrants, had probably borrowed money to come to Iowa, and consequently were "very malleable," in the words of University of Northern Iowa anthropologist Mark Grey, an expert on the local meatpacking industry. "They're at the mercy of whomever's going to hire them. They're at the mercy of their employer, at the mercy of the immigration authorities. You're going to do what the boss says or they'll turn you in to la migra [border patrol]."
Now, to implement all those policies -- labor law reform, immigration reform, better bureaucrats, more resources for inspections, tougher sanctions on employers who violate labor standards -- two things are vital. One is more and better Democrats, including a Democratic president, a Democratic House, and a filibuster-proof Democratic majority in the senate. The Republicans have shown, time and again, that their only fealty is to their corporate overlords. They cannot be trusted, ever, to look out for the interests of ordinary Americans. Their heart's desire is to drag American labor relations back to the 19th century, and that project is well on its way to succeeding.
But vanquishing the Republicans, alas, is only half the task at hand. The other crucial part of the equation is keeping the pressure on Democrats to do the right thing. As we've seen time and again, with the bankruptcy bill, with FISA, with the deregulation of the financial services industry in which Democrats enthusiastically participated, Democrats, at this point, are often more a part of the problem than they are a part of the solution. This is why we need an independent movement that, while it makes strategic alliances with Democrats, is also something separate and apart from them.
Though vastly superior to the Republicans in every way, Democrats, in and of themselves, are unlikely to make the changes we so desperately need. The Clinton administration showed us that much. But Democrats in combination with a mass movement -- be it the labor movement, in FDR's day, or the civil rights movement in the time of LBJ -- now that is the way to get things done, as history has shown.
UPDATE: David Neiwert has more. Hint: it's even worse than you thought.