Friday, June 24, 2016

Labour & Pop Culture: Hamlet Chicken Plant Disaster

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is “Hamlet Chicken Plant Disaster” by Mojo Nixon and Jello Biafra. The backstory is that a chicken processing plant in Hamlet, North Carolina caught fire in 1991, killing 25 workers and injuring 55 (or 54 or 49—depending on the source) more. There were 90 employees in the plant that day so basically everyone was injured. Many of the injured later died prematurely as a result of their injuries.

The high number of injuries and deaths reflected that many factory doors were locked from the outside by management (contrary to fire regulations). There were no sprinklers and no fire alarm system. The factory had never received an OHS inspection, although there had been previous fires. Workers didn’t complain because of fear of losing their jobs.

Similar issues were subsequently found at another plant owned by the company in Georgia. This harkens back to the Triangle Shirt Waist factory fire in New York at the turn of the 20th century—a fire that helped spark national fire regulations (including don’t lock the fire exits).

The owner (Emmett Roe) received a 19-year sentence (less than one year for each death) but was paroled after four years. Insurance companies and businesses then lobbied to limit damages to injured workers and relatives of the deceased.

What the Hamlet chicken plant deaths reveal is collusion between employers (who broke the rules) and the state (which failed to enforce rudimentary safety rules). While there was no explicit conspiracy in evidence, governments have a long history of looking the other way about employer’s bad behaviour. In Canada, the Westray Mine explosion is a prime example.

Down in Hamlet, North Carolina
They had a chicken plant sure did explode
Them tar heels trapped like burnin' rats
Cuz the boss man chained the door closed

My mama was born in
A town called Hamlet
Sleepy little place on the Seaboard line
My papa worked on the railroad
And my granny went out her mind

One day the railroad
It went busted
Like Richmond County ain't broke enough
So this Yankee carpetbagger
Figured to make a little money on Hamlet's bad luck

Built a brand new chicken fixin' plant
And they paid that minimum wage
But the boss man said no unions
Or he'd move his plant far away

Merele Etta Johnson
She was late for work
Heard a thunderin' roar out on the highway
Musta been NASCAR over at Rockingham
Or just Merle Etta's judgment day

8:15 in the mornin'
Chicken plant burst into flames
People trampled, squashed and burned up
Just to keep the profit margin
One iota higher

Everybody gotta work in this world
Some folks lucky-some folks ain't
But that bastard that chained the doors shut
I'm gonna rip him through p!

When I was a little boy
With a buzzsaw hair cut
Go down to Hamlet, watch the trains
Now the tourists stop on the highway
Get a little look at the chicken plant workers' remains

-- Bob Barnetson

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