Tuesday Feb 20

EXCERPT FROM The Hamlet Fire: A Tragic Story of Cheap Food, Cheap Government, and Cheap Lives By Bryant Simon: Disposable Workers in North Carolina Chicken Factories

Georgia Quick started at Imperial on the second shift. By the late 1980s, Emmett and Brad Roe extended production in Hamlet as they tried to expand their business, and later in order to recover from their bracing financial setbacks in Colorado and Alabama. On her first day, Quick pulled into the company’s gravel parking lot. She walked to the wood-framed office across the street from the unmarked front door of the red brick factory. The company’s only human resources person met her and gave her a rundown on the job. He told her she needed to be on time for work and that if she came late she would get written up. Five mistakes and she would be out of a job. When they went over to the plant, the first thing that hit Quick was the smell. She would later say it reeked of day-old chicken. Trying not to think about it, she turned her attention back to the company official showing her around. He pointed out the time clocks in the marinating and cutting room and showed her how to stamp her card, then he told her that she needed to punch in in the afternoon and out at midnight. He showed her the break room with the lockers, long tables, and vending machines.

Nearby were the bathrooms. The company guide laid down the rules: a ten-minute break two hours into her shift, a half hour for lunch (or a meal) midway through, and one more ten-minute break after that. Use the bathroom during those times, he told her. If you have to go at another time, don’t take more than five minutes when you do or you will be written up. Five write-ups, he reminded her again, and she would be out of a job.6

Quick would get paid every week. If she wanted health insurance, she could get it for herself and her family beginning 90 days after she started the job. The company would take $10–15 out of her check for each person covered by the plan.

Every once in a while, he continued, confirming what she had heard before she took the job, the company would ask her to work overtime. She would be paid for time and half when she did, and she best show up, if she knew what was good for her, on those Saturdays when they asked her to be there. Maybe he told her, too, about the Christmas party. There would be sandwiches and soda, but only workers would be invited. No spouses to dance with.7

A foreman told Georgia she couldn’t wear heels or open-toed shoes, not that she would have wanted to after seeing the grease and water that puddled up on the concrete floors. If she had a few extra dollars, he suggested, she should go to K-Mart and buy a pair of shoes with grippers on the bottoms. They would make it easier for her to move across the slick surfaces that covered the plant. She couldn’t wear rings, earrings, or necklaces. No chewing gum while on the line either. No eating except in the breakroom. The last two were USDA rules. He told her to avoid loosefitting clothing, because the sleeves could get caught in the machinery. He walked her over to where she could find the blue smocks and mesh hairnets she needed to wear on the job. He told her she would have to clean these at home herself. Later, Quick learned that this was a new policy, one only recently implemented. Previously, the company had paid for laundry. He told her to wear gloves and explained that she could buy them for fifty cents a pair over at the office. The company didn’t provide those anymore either. And he told her that if he or anyone else caught her stealing chicken pieces, she would be fired on the spot and hauled down to the police station.8

The company official didn’t say anything to Quick about what to do in the event of a fire or an emergency. He didn’t offer instructions about how to operate the fire extinguishers. He didn’t say anything about exits or which doors were locked and which were not. He didn’t mention anything about the company’s evacuation plans. He didn’t say one word about safety meetings set for the next week or next month or ever.

After watching another line worker for an hour or so, Quick’s training period was over. Before the whistle blew for the first break, she stood on the line, pulling apart pieces of marinated chicken and laying them flat on a conveyor belt before they went into the flash freezer. The chicken pieces came fast. She struggled to keep up. It got easier after a few weeks on the job, but it was always hard to keep up with the pace of the line.

Again and again, however, Imperial’s derelict equipment saved the day for Quick. The belts often stopped moving. “The fryer,” remembered an- other worker, “would break down at least twice a week.” When the equipment faltered, Quick and the others on the line got unscheduled breaks.

As Imperial Foods revved up the work in Hamlet, adding shifts and more overtime, mechanics constantly had to “nigger rig” the overtaxed machinery, in the words of one white worker. But they couldn’t fix everything right away, and Imperial laborers, white and black, came to count on the malfunctions to give them a chance to catch their breath, massage their wrists, rub some Bengay into their backs, and sit outside and get some fresh air.9

No one at Imperial, certainly not “the line ladies,” as the women who loaded the conveyor belts were called, had a job set in stone. “We move the people around daily in the plant from room to room,” a foreman explained. “It was almost like an everyday thing.” The company shifted workers to where they needed them the most. The strategy of shuffling employees from station to station, from the trim room to the processing room, had an added advantage, managers believed. It kept the workers from breaking down. “After we started . . . changin’ ’em around on jobs,” one foremen recalled, “we had less problems with peoples’ wrists or backs or things like that.” 10

Most nights, Quick stood in pools of water in the trim room, pulling at tough white tendons, cutting out stray pieces of bone, and scraping fat from chicken pieces that sometimes felt slimy or smelled sour. “I hated this job,” she recalled. “It was cold and wet.” No matter what it was like outside, it always felt like a frozen tundra in there—the temperature never climbed too far above freezing. After an hour in the trim room, Quick would be soaked from the waist down, shaking off drops of water as she walked. The cold seeped inside her. She wore two, sometimes three, pairs of gloves to keep her hands warm and fingers moving, but nothing really helped. No matter how many pairs of socks she put on or the shoes she wore, her feet felt like icicles all night long. She tried wrapping them in plastic bags as some of her co-workers did, but this still didn’t keep out the cold. Nothing helped but getting home and pulling off her wet socks and taking a few minutes, if she had them, to rub her hands and warm up her toes and feel them move again before she had to start to cook and clean.11

Sometimes, as the clock inched toward midnight, Quick would start to drift off, thinking about her daughter and the piles of laundry back home. She never got very far away, though. “Get to work,” the foreman would bark in her direction, asking, “What did you come to work for . . . just to stand around?”

The second shift, Quick remembered, had fewer supervisors and managers than the first shift did. That gave it a looser feel than daytime. The workers tended to be younger, unmarried and without kids, and rowdier. They goofed around more, smoked dope on breaks, and kicked frozen chicken parts around like hockey pucks. “Still,” Georgia pointed out with a shot of pride, “we got the work done.”

Quick worried all the time about child care. Who could watch her daughter? How much would it cost? Most nights, Quick’s aunt took care of her. But not long after Quick started at Imperial, her daughter began to struggle somewhat in school. Quick thought it would help if she were home after classes ended, so she asked the foreman for a transfer to the first shift.

By that point, a year into the job, Quick had already lasted longer than most of the women and men who went through Imperial’s first day of orientation and training. Theresa White lived in the public housing project down the street from the plant. A few days after the fire, she stood next to a loose stream of yellow police tape surrounding the perimeter of the mangled building. She looked up and
said to a reporter, “I worked in there for eight days once. . . . Then I quit. Slavery time’s been over. I couldn’t do it anymore.” 12

Some didn’t even last a week. Imperial consistently registered high turnover rates. That’s one reason the company didn’t invest much time in train- ing and didn’t make health insurance available to new workers for three months. (New laborers not used to the work usually got hurt during their first ninety days on the job.) “It was like a revolving door in there,” Quick’s co-worker, Ada Blanchard, recalled. It didn’t take some people long to realize that standing on a soggy concrete floor for eight hours a day with their hands buried in ice-cold buckets of chicken wasn’t for them. The promise of a Christmas dinner and $60 holiday bonus wouldn’t get the smell of grease out of their hair or the taste of raw chicken out of their mouths, so they quit. For others, it was the nagging pains. Shorter workers strained their shoulders reaching up all day, while taller ones wrenched their backs bend- ing down. For others, it was the relentless pace of the line. They couldn’t keep up with the chicken pieces zipping along the conveyor belts, so they quit. Still others couldn’t take the constant haranguing from the foremen and supervisors and the endless warnings of write-ups for infractions of company rules. “They had a real attitude problem,” one woman thought of management. “They treated the workers like children.” 13

Some hated the constant surveillance, especially the monitoring of bathroom trips with stopwatches. Others didn’t like the threats. If you talked back, you would be fired. If you missed a couple of days, even if it was to take care of a sick child or an ailing parent, you could be fired.

Gingerly navigating the slick tile floors wasn’t easy either, especially with a foreman telling you that if you fell three times you would be fired. Some suspected that this rule was in place because the company wanted to find a cheaper worker’s compensation provider, and reporting injuries would make it harder to qualify for the lower rate. Sometimes Imperial reimbursed employees for hospital visits and the money spent on splints and Ace bandages as a way to deal with repetitive motion injuries and to discourage workers from filing insurance claims.14

Others just couldn’t handle the logistics of the job, getting a ride to the plant before daybreak every day, and finding someone to watch the children and get them home from school. As one manager commented, trying to explain why Imperial experienced so much turnover, “The attendance policy being too tough on them, transportation, baby-sitting, another job closer to home; reasons like that.”

Others just couldn’t see working so hard and putting up with the freezing cold and sour smells for only a little more than minimum wage, even if it ranked among the best paying jobs around. Once they left Imperial, some got another low-wage, low-skill job, while others signed up for public assistance and food stamps.15

Even though the first shift meant more supervisors, more rules, and less downtime because the rickety conveyor belt and sputtering fryer got fixed faster, Quick liked working during the daytime better than in the evening. It put her more on her daughter’s schedule. Plus, she had more in common with her co-workers on this shift. Most were single mothers or women with underemployed husbands. A
number of them were older and, like Gail Campbell, didn’t drink, smoke, or swear. On Sundays, they put on flowery dresses and matching hats and headed off to church. On the job, they sang gospel hymns and chatted about Bible passages.16

Over many months and years, first-shift workers transformed the songs and conversations into an alternative social security system. “Everyone looked out for everyone else,” Quick said. They shared tips on how to stay warm and deal with the foremen, Brad Roe, and, to a lesser extent, Emmett Roe. They lent each other hairnets, gloves, Tylenol, and sometimes small amounts of money. On payday, Quick and a few of her friends raced down Bridges Street during their lunch break to a local grill and treated themselves, she remembered with a smile, to bags filled with hot hamburgers wrapped in grease-stained paper. On most mornings, she carpooled with other women to save on gas.
 After a while,” Quick explained, “it was like a family.” 17

The warmth and trust between workers didn’t change the fact that Quick, like Ada Blanchard, “didn’t like how we were treated by management.” 18 “They didn’t care anything about how you felt, who you were,” Mary Bryant remembered, voicing a complaint common to Imperial workers. “All they wanted was for you to run the chicken.” 19

A number of Imperial workers associated the relentless, chicken-first mind-set with Brad Roe. After finishing his studies at the University of Scranton, a Jesuit school near Moosic, Roe, then in his early twenties, moved to North Carolina to manage the Imperial plant. This was about the same time that Georgia Quick started to work there. As tall and thin as his dad was thick and pudgy, Brad had shaggy
hair and a full mustache. He was chattier than his father. He could be quick with a joke and even quicker with a sports report, skills that he would put to good use after the fire when he made a living as a bartender. Like his father, though, he worked hard and put in long hours. While some of the line ladies and maintenance crew liked Brad and thought he played fair and by the rules, others resented him and bristled at his sometimes hot-tempered managerial style. A few saw him as a spoiled child or as a kid who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, stand up to his domineering father. They remember him answering just about any question that involved personnel or money by saying, “Let me ask my dad.” 20

Georgia Quick saw him as a young man—a young white man—without a wrinkle on his face or a gray hair on his head telling women, most of whom were African American and who had worked at the plant since he was a teenager, what to do, and not always doing so in a kind or polite way.

Quick and her co-workers also thought Brad Roe, or maybe his father, had ordered the supervisors to rule the shop floor, especially in the second half of 1991, with an “iron fist.” “Don’t be lenient,” they reportedly instructed. “Show no mercy.” 21

“Sometimes he would be friendly; sometimes he wasn’t,” Quick remarked about Brad. He had a nice side, but he had another side, she recalled, that was “nasty,” “mean,” and “obnoxious.” He would yell at workers to stop goofing off and get back to the job. He yelled if any- one raised a question about faulty equipment or a concern about rancid chicken, reminding them of their disposability. “If you don’t
like the job,” Quick recalled him hollering, “leave, and don’t let the door hit you on the way out.” He pushed the maintenance men to hurry up and fix machines as quickly as possible to get the line back up and running before anyone had time to take an unscheduled break. All he cared about, one of Quick’s male co-workers concluded, “was the product, getting it out.” 22

But for Quick and the other first-shift women, liking the job or liking Brad Roe was never really the issue. They needed a job, one that didn’t require a lot of training, education, or experience. They needed to make money for their families, and they would absorb the pain, abuse, and petty rules because to complain was to risk getting fired, and then there was nothing.

That was Georgia Quick’s story. With her husband gone much of the time now that his work at the cotton gin wasn’t as predictable as it used to be, Quick needed a steady paycheck. For someone living in a small town with a high school education and a resume filled with a string of low-wage jobs, there weren’t a lot of options available.

Kate Nicholson worked alongside Georgia Quick on the first shift, and they had followed similar paths to get there. In 1991, Nicholson was a thirty-eight-year-old mother of two with a tenth-grade education. When her husband lost his job at a Richmond County textile mill, she went to work at Imperial. “I needed a job,” she explained to a reporter after the fire without elaborating, because there was nothing else to say.23

Bryant Simons is a professor of history at Temple University in Philadelphia. He became interested in the Hamlet Fire when he was attending university in North Carolina. This book is available from www.thenewpress.com

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