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Workplace Massacre in Alabama: Did Endless Downsizing and Slashed Benefits Cause the Rampage?

If you keep squeezing workers to fatten filthy-rich executives' already-obscene bonuses, there can be very violent consequences.

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But let's go back to Pilgrim's Pride, the company that the Alabama investigator first named as the possible motive for the massacre. You might have heard of Pilgrim's Pride before, not only because you've bought their chicken, but because of the notorious undercover video shot in one of the company's chicken slaughterhouses in 2004.

When you look back at that video, and you place future-rampage-killer McLendon and his mother in that environment, the gory, sadistic details take on new meaning:

PETA says its investigator witnessed workers "ripping birds' beaks off, spray painting their faces, twisting their heads off, spitting tobacco into their mouths and eyes, and breaking them in half -- all while the birds are still alive." In one shot, workers jump on live chickens with their entire body weight, sending blood and innards splashing on the lens of the hidden camera.

Mostly, the workers appear to have been acting either out of sheer boredom with their jobs or out of anger with management, sometimes for making them work too many hours. One sequence filmed on 6 April this year [2004], shows workers amusing themselves by throwing 114 birds against a wall, their stunned bodies collecting beneath it. At one point, a supervisor walks past and shouts "Hold your fire" so he can safely pass. Once out of the way, he tells the workers to "carry on."

So this is the vicious world that McLendon spent some two years working in, and his mother far longer. The way the company treats its chickens is a good metaphor for how Pilgrim's Pride treats its workers, shareholders and American taxpayers. 

In 2006, Pilgrim's Pride, then the second-largest chicken processor in the world, made a huge gamble that will seem familiar to anyone who's been following the financial crash: the company borrowed hundreds of millions of dollars, leveraging itself well beyond its means, in order to acquire a rival company and become the nation's No. 1 chicken processor, slaughtering 45 million chickens per week.

That might have given the executives a nice, big hard-on, but it also meant they would have to come up with more money to pay for all that debt. So the company did do what every post-Reagan company has done and gotten away with: They made the workforce pay for the executives' mistakes. That meant squeezing them for more work for less pay, or in Pilgrim's case, more work for no pay: In August 2007, the U.S. Department of Labor filed a lawsuit against Pilgrim's Pride accusing them of grossly undercompensating their employees. That same year, 10,000 Pilgrim's Pride employees launched a class-action lawsuit demanding compensation for their work.

And this is where McLendon comes in: In 2006, the year of the acquisition, McLendon and his mother filed lawsuits and claims against the Pilgrim's Pride plant in Enterprise, Ala., charging the company with illegally denying them pay for the time it takes for workers to get suited up for the dangerous factory lines, and the time to take the protective gear off. Pilgrim's Pride had decided to stop classifying that time at the job as "work," now that they had a bunch of Wall Street bondholders to pay off. Other lawsuits also allege that the company forced workers to work overtime but only paid them regular hourly wages. 

While all of this "cost-cutting" was ravaging thousands of workers at the bottom of Pilgrim's wage pyramid, at the very top, things were very different for chairman Lonnie "Bo" Pilgrim and his little pack of plundering wolves.

Despite the chairman's disastrous acquisition, which eventually brought the company to bankruptcy in December 2008, and despite slashing the workforce's already-low pay, Pilgrim rewarded himself handsomely for a job well done: in 2007, Bo Pilgrim paid himself $3.2 million and $2.1 million in 2008 for his work as "senior chairman" of the board. Pilgrim's Pride also paid Bo $1.01 million for a contract with another firm he owns, meaning he signed on both dotted lines of the contract -- a clear conflict of interest that is now the subject of a shareholder-fraud lawsuit.

 
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