The Reagan-Bush years of budget-cutting and government deregulation in the 1980's in the US effectively meant that if there were to be serious workplace safety standards upheld in any particular US state, enforcement of such standards would not be coming from the federal authorities. Unfortunately, they would not be coming from the regulatory authorities in North Carolina, either, whose budget was sufficient to inspect a workplace in the state about once every couple of decades.
Added to the problem of no regulatory oversight, North Carolina had become a so-called “right to work” state – a state with laws designed to make union organizing extremely difficult if not impossible. The 25 workers who died in the fire at the Tyson Chicken plant in Hamlet, North Carolina on September 3rd, 1991 were mostly Black women. They had no union representation, and neither state nor federal authorities had ever exhibited the slightest concern for their well-being. Thus, it was left to the factory manager and his employer, the uber-capitalist Tyson Corporation, to care about their employees.
They didn't. When the badly-maintained equipment malfunctioned and a ruptured hose resulted in burning, high-speed oil being fired into the air around the workers, they were unable to escape the building because the manager had locked the emergency exit doors out of concern for employee theft. The workers were paid so badly, you see, that stealing chickens to feed their hungry families might not seem like such an outrageous idea.
This manager and his negligent, cost-cutting, profit-obsessed mega-corporation employer condemned these people to death that day. He ultimately did some time in prison. The corporation made billions.
For those many people among the leadership of both the Democratic and Republican parties today who have a sort of religious adherence to the principle that cutting regulation will “improve the economy,” remember what that means. It means corporations like Tyson make billions, and poor, underpaid, non-unionized workers burn.
Sometimes I Walk the Aisles
Sometimes I walk the aisles of the grocery store
And I think about a day some 20 years before
Where this chicken came from, south of the Mason Dixon Line
The Imperial Foods factory in Hamlet, Caroline
The third day of September, 1991
Where for so many good people was the day their race was run
Sometimes I walk the aisles and I can hear the screams
Of those blasted by hot oil when old hose ruptured at the seams
Of those blasted by hot oil when the fireball arose
While more oil fueled the fire being blasted from the hose
More oil fueled the fire, the room filled up with black smoke
When those who weren't already dead then began to choke
Sometimes I walk the aisles, I think about the padlocks
On the fire doors, barred and blocked
The owner didn't want his workers stealing chickens out the back
It's a “right to work” state – they complain, they get the sack
So Tyson saved some money and workers lost their lives
Once the fire was put out the number dead was 25
Sometimes I walk the aisles and somehow feel ashamed
11 years of operation, inspectors never came
Inspectors never came, never came to look
To see if they did anything according to the book
Sometimes I walk the aisles and I wonder to myself
How many people died to put these nuggets on the shelf
Sometimes I walk the aisles