Social Justice Comics: Comic Books Are Used to Tell Stories of Workers’ Struggles

Poultry processing workers and staff of The Northwest Arkansas Workers' Justice Center are featured on Worker Justice Illustrated

By Mark Pattison

WASHINGTON (CNS) – The old greeting “See you in the funny papers” is taking on a new relevance.

Comic books are now one more tool to tell the stories of workers – sometimes their successes, but more often their struggles.

“What puts pictures and words together? Comic books,” said Jeff Korgen, who works with the Chicago-based Interfaith Worker Justice and serves as a consultant to Catholic social justice organizations.

Korgen wrote some of the stories in the second volume of worker-oriented comic books, called “Worker Justice Illustrated,” which was published last year. Copies were handed out to participants at the Catholic-Labor Network’s annual meeting Feb. 7, held as part of the annual Catholic Social Ministry Gathering in Washington.

The comic book is fully bilingual. Flip it over, and the English turns to Spanish, or vice versa.

Tales of Inequity
“Worker Justice Illustrated” tells several tales, including the college intern in behavioral therapy whose family ran out of money for tuition and so had to work at Starbucks and pizza joints; Target janitorial contract employees who demanded – and got – the Sabbath off, which had been granted to Target contract workers in Bangladeshi clothing factories; “The Debit Card That Ate My Bank Account,” about workers getting paid with debit cards, only to have money deducted even for going online for a balance inquiry; and “The Roots of Solidarity,” which opens and closes with quotations from Pope Francis on Catholic social teaching.

There’s even a parody of the old Charles Atlas comic-book ads in which a bully kicks sand at another beachgoer – but here it shows how to gain strength by organizing to beat a “bully boss.”

CCHD Grantee
The first edition of the series, “Wage Theft Comics,” was funded by grants from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, the U.S. bishops’ domestic anti-poverty campaign, and from the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston. Korgen noted some of the stories told in “Wage Theft Comics” were set in the Houston area.

While the pages of “Wage Theft Comics” were printed on heavy paper with the illustrations in black-and-white, “Worker Justice Illustrated” is printed on glossy paper stock and all illustrations are in color.

The idea for “Wage Theft Comics,” which was published in 2013, came from “Wage Theft in America,” the 2008 book by Kim Bobo, who founded Interfaith Worker Justice and stepped down in 2014 after 18 years as its executive director.

Religious and Youth Education
“The comics are being used in youth groups and religious education classes – just not enough of them,” Korgen said.

Another primary audience is the workers whose lives closely mirror those of the workers depicted in the comic books.

“There is a real tradition in Latin America of using comic books” to tell larger stories, he added.

Although each comic book bears a $2.99 retail price on the cover, Interfaith Worker Justice has “really negotiable bulk prices” for large groups interested in purchasing mass quantities, Korgen said.

Editor’s Note: The Interfaith Worker Justice website offers a link to “Wage Theft Comics.” Go to

Mark Pattison is a writer for Catholic News Service.

Legislator: Fast meat ‘at what cost ?’

By Sarah D. Wire
This article was published February 28, 2014 at 2:17 a.m.

     WASHINGTON - Alicia Acosta left her job at an Arkansas poultry processing plant after four years of the quick, repetitive work because of pain in her hands and wrists.
On Thursday, Acosta, 53, of Siloam Springs spoke to a handful of lawmakers and reporters in Washington through a translator, urging them to keep the U.S. Department of Agriculture from increasing line production speed by 25 percent. The department is expected to soon finalize a rule that will allow companies to increase production from 140 birds per minute to 170 birds per minute. The rules will also change how and when poultry is inspected and reduce the number of federal inspectors to one per line.
     Rather than have federal inspectors located throughout the facility, poultry companies would use their own employees to inspect chicken and turkey, and the federal inspector would do a final check.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in 2012 that about 1,000 government inspector jobs at poultry plants would be phased out as companies take over the job of looking for flaws such as bruises in chickens on the processing line. He said the remaining inspectors would shift to jobs more important to food safety, such as sampling for pathogens and keeping conditions sanitary.
     The move could save the government as much as $95 million in the first three years, Vilsack said at the time. The change has been studied in a handful of plants for over a decade.
Sens. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., and John Boozman, R-Ark., joined 11 other senators in a December 2013 letter to Vilsack urging him to finalize the rule and move forward with the changes.
“He feels that the research that has been conducted so far shows that it can enhance public safety while saving money so it is a win-win,” Boozman spokesman Patrick Creamer said. Staffs for several Arkansas congressmen said they were examining the issue.
      According to the National Chicken Council, companies that produce and process chicken in Arkansas employed about 43,000 people in 2012. The bulk of those jobs, over 27,000, are in the 3rd Congressional District in northwest Arkansas. Chicken companies have said they support the change. Tyson Foods has tested the inspection change at two of its poultry plants and said it reduced redundancies and lets federal inspectors focus on other things. “We believe changes to the current inspection system would benefit food safety by allowing USDA inspectors to spend more time looking for potential contamination or disease,” said Dan Fogleman, spokesman for Tyson Foods, Inc. "We can also tell you we’ve seen significant improvements from an updated USDA inspection system the agency has been testing at two of our poultry plants. This modified system gives USDA’s staff more flexibility to focus on things that verify the effectiveness of our food safety activities.”
“We don’t want to see anyone hurt on the job and have programs and policies in place to prevent workplace injuries and illnesses.” Fogleman added.
      Acosta and other poultry employees from around the country said at Thursday’s news conference that they are concerned because the current speed of the production line already leads to injuries.
Acosta said she worked at a Simmons Foods poultry plant in Siloam Springs from 2009 to 2013 using a machine to butcher chicken for cutlets and nuggets during 12-hour shifts.
Calls placed to Simmons Foods were not returned Thursday.
“I started to feel pain in my wrists and I started to see bumps. … It hurt a lot. I was in a lot of pain,” Acosta said during an appearance on Capitol Hill. She said plant managers told employees the production line’s speed would increase to keep up with production demands. “I noticed the line speed going faster, and I started seeing the pain grow stronger,” she said.  Acosta said each time she visited the plant’s on-site nurse she was given some ointment and sent back to work. She said she struggled to keep up with the line and finally quit when she was repeatedly threatened with firing.  Workers from other companies spoke about losing fingers, developing carpal tunnel syndrome or being fired for going to a doctor.
     Members of the Congressional Black Caucus urged other members of Congress to help them block the rule.
“The majority of the poultry workers on the line are minorities and/or women, mostly African-American or Latino,” Chairman U.S. Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, said. “Many line workers have been critically injured or have suffered debilitative pain or have lost their life.”
She said that while the USDA says the change will save money and increase production, “I ask at what cost?”
“Is achieving cost savings more important than workers’ health, their lives and the safety of our food?” Fudge said.  Minor Sinclair, director of Oxfam America, an antipoverty advocacy group, said people are hurt when plant lines process birds at 2½ every second.  “To increase that rate by 25 percent? Folks, that’s unconscionable,” he said. “We don’t live in the meatpacking jungle of 1900.”
Information for this article was contributed by Tina Parker of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
Business, Pages 27 on 02/28/2014
Print Headline: Legislator: Fast meat ‘at what cost?’

Guest commentary: Workers pay a price in poultry business

Walter Hinojosa

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

As Tyson shareholders gather in Springdale on Friday, they will celebrate a banner year in a thriving industry: in November, Tyson Foods forecast record profits, sending its shares soaring to an all-time high in December.

While this is great news for shareholders, and our local economy, there is more to the story. The poultry industry is, in fact, thriving on the backs of thousands of workers, who stand on the processing lines in the cold for hour after hour every day, hanging and trimming and packing millions of chickens.

The Northwest Arkansas Workers' Justice Center recently surveyed 500 poultry workers from a variety of companies in Arkansas, and found that working in the poultry industry is difficult, dirty and dangerous. The industry relies on populations that are economically desperate and vulnerable; of roughly 250,000 poultry workers in the US, most are minorities, immigrants, and refugees.

Maria is one of these workers. Until one day in June 2011, she had no problems with her health, or her job with Tyson in Arkansas. That morning, a chlorine leak in the plant changed everything. The gas damaged her lungs and her throat, leaving her with chronic asthma and reflux. To this day, she has two inhalers for her lungs, one for a nostril that doesn't work, and pills for reflux.

And now, she has no job. Last year, a specialist told her she can't work in the cold temperatures on the processing lines (which hovers around 40 degrees, to inhibit microbial growth in the chicken flesh); he wrote a note that requested a change in her position, authorizing the fact that she needed to be in warmer temperatures.

When she presented the note to the company, they told her they had no place for her. She is facing difficulties receiving workers' compensation benefits. Tyson's insurance carrier is denying payment for pulmonologist visits that correlate to her lung injury. She has to pay for her medicine out of her own pocket. After 13 years with Tyson, Maria has little to show but permanent damage to her health; she now has no job and no income.

Her story may be shocking but, sadly, it's not uncommon. In fact, many workers meet a similar fate every year.

This is work that chews up the body. Rates of injury and illness among poultry workers are five times higher than among all workers in the US. Dangers include amputations, cuts and lacerations; slips, trips, falls; respiratory hazards; and exposure to dangerous chemicals.

Most commonly, workers suffer musculoskeletal disorders from the repetitive motions on the line--from 20,000 to 100,000 per shift. Poultry workers suffer carpal tunnel syndrome seven times more often than workers in other industries; they suffer occupational illnesses at five times the rate.

The Justice Center found that almost six in 10 workers have suffered from injuries or health problems while working in poultry. Most of these workers typically received no treatment or compensation for missed work; nearly 60 percent took no action after an injury. Over 90 percent have no access to earned sick leave; and 62 percent have gone to work while sick. 78 percent cannot afford the costs associated with their health care. These results confirm the findings of recent research by Oxfam America, which reports that the poultry industry is not doing enough to protect the health and safety of these workers. Instead, poultry companies aim to paint a portrait of declining incidents of injuries and illnesses, at the same time that they urge the federal government to increase maximum line speeds and push the workers even harder.

The line speed may also compromise workers' ability to take care of the food properly. Over half of the workers the Justice Center surveyed said that line speed and time pressure forced them to do things that might harm the health and safety of the consumer.

This is a booming industry that should do better by its workforce. Chicken is the most popular meat in America, and consumption grows every year. Arkansas processes nearly a billion chickens each year. Profits are climbing, consumer demand is growing, and executive compensation is increasing rapidly.

We hope the shareholders and the Board of Tyson will consider the people who do the hard work of hanging, trimming, cutting, and packaging these billions of pounds of chicken every day. People like Maria have given their time and sweat and health for this industry; the companies should do more to pay them back.

NWAWJC & Oxfam America

Commentary on 02/03/2016

Inside The Grim, Grisly World Of Working At A Chicken Plant

A new report documents harsh conditions on the disassembly line. But producers say they are “proud of advancements in worker safety.”

Oxfam America

Oxfam America


The average American poultry plant today is found at the edge of a highway, near a company town, lights blazing and chimneys smoking at all hours. Outside, the ground is all concrete and feathers, and the air smells of fried chicken and bird feces. Inside, the plant is humid, loud, and cold — kept at low temperatures to better preserve the chicken. Sharp knives fly alongside powerful machinery, and everywhere are chemicals, like ammonia and chlorine, used for cleaning, processing, and cooking. Floors are slick with blood, grease, and water to periodically clear away viscera and offal.

This is the workplace in which America’s favorite meat is produced. Over the past half century, Americans have tripled their poultry consumption, and the $50 billion industry today employs a quarter of a million workers. This workforce is anything but stable: By some estimates, employee turnover in the sector has been higher than 100% in recent years.

The churn is due in part to grueling labor conditions in the plants, where low-wage workers repeat the same hanging, twisting, slicing, and hacking motions thousands of times a day to process fowl at ever-increasing speeds, as described in a new report from Oxfam America. The work leads to high rates of musculoskeletal disorders — five times that of other industries, according to the most recent numbers from the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) — as line workers’ hands swell and warp from the stress, leaving them unable to hold spoons, glasses, or their children.

While workplace injuries are reported and tracked by OSHA, critics of the industry say such numbers are unreliable estimates of the true scale of harm being done to worker health. Injured staff who should be at home healing may instead be asked to come in and sit in an office so they don’t appear on lost time logs, Celeste Monforton, a former OSHA legislative analyst now teaching at George Washington University, told BuzzFeed News.

To read the full story:

Source: BuzzFeedNEWS

Slaughterhouse Work Is So Horrible, Canada Can’t Find Anyone to Do It

If a job is so incredibly distasteful that no one wants to do it, what do you do? In Canada, sadly, the answer might be to offer those terrible jobs to incoming Syrian refugees.

Such is the dilemma faced by Canada’s slaughterhouses. According to the Canadian Meat Council (CMC), the nation is short about 1,000 meat packing plant workers. The jobs the plants can’t fill are the worst ones, of course.

Canadian slaughterhouses need strong, healthy labor to man the kill floors and cut the carcasses. Money is tight, jobs are hard to find, and the jobs are critical to the industry. Even so, few Canadians step forward to volunteer to kill and dissect animals for food. Of those who do, many just can’t take it.

“We have people who walk away after a couple of hours,” Werner Siegrist, of Canadian Premium Meats, told Global News.

It’s no wonder, is it? You’d have to be numb to suffering or desperate for work to survive in a slaughterhouse for long.

The Psychological Toll of Slaughterhouse Work

Love This? Never Miss Another Story.

The Canadian meat industry employs over 64,500 nationwide. Despite good benefits and steady work, there’s been an “industry threatening scarcity of Canadian butchers, meat cutters and laborers who are willing to accept job offers… in smaller, more distant and rural locations,” according to the CMC.

The reason why isn’t hard to discern. For most people, it’s horrific work that leaves them reeling.

Slaughterhouse workers often experience a form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) known as Perpetration-Induced Traumatic Stress (PITS). PITS results from situations in which the sufferer was a “causal participant” in a traumatic event. Symptoms include depression, dissociation, paranoia, anxiety, panic, drug and alcohol abuse, and dreams of violence.

As one worker confessed to a researcher:

The worst thing, worse than the physical danger, is the emotional toll. If you work in that stick pit for any period of time, you develop an attitude that lets you kill things, but doesn’t let you care. You may look a hog in the eye that’s walking around down in the blood pit with you and think, “God, that really isn’t a bad-looking animal.” You may want to pet it. Pigs down on the kill floor have come up and nuzzled me like a puppy. Two minutes later I had to kill them — beat them to death with a pipe. I can’t care.

Similarly, Gail Eisnitz, author of Slaughterhouse: The Shocking Story of Greed, Neglect, and Inhumane Treatment Inside the US Meat Industry, told VegNews magazine that many workers she interviewed for her book “described suffering from alcoholism, while others explained that they had taken out their frustrations through physical violence directed at their wives and children.”

Should Refugees Have to Face This New Form of Trauma?

For the last 10 years or more, Canada has authorized skilled immigrants to work in its slaughterhouses under its Temporary Foreign Worker Program. The CMC now proposes that because of the chronic shortage in this industry, Canada adjust its rules to permit incoming Syrian refugees to take these jobs under the country’s new “Express Entry” program.

While that action might help resolve the meat worker shortage, what toll would such work take on people already traumatized by war? What kind of welcome would such a bloody business be to a country that’s supposed to represent a bright and shining new chance for happiness?

The choice to accept slaughterhouse jobs would be up to the refugees, of course. Would many of them, needing the work, refuse? Probably not, which might make you wonder what such jobs would mean for their emotional well-being in their new homeland.

The era of the slaughterhouse must end, in Canada and around the world. It’s no longer necessary for most humans to eat meat to survive. If we can end the demand, we can end the need for this barbaric industry.

Photo credit: Thinkstock