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The Meat Diaries

And I Don’t Know What’ll Happen To Those Folks.

Brett Rawson

HANDWRITTEN: It seems like a reoccurring issue was machines breaking down. But also, interruption. Was this a regular part of life?

BUTLER: That’s something I never never anticipated. It was crazy. We would work twenty minutes and then be broken for an hour. I think honestly, if you could’ve worked four or five hours in a row without something breaking, that was pretty amazing.

It seems like that was pretty much impossible: to get through the day without something breaking. That was a big part of our community on this floor, which was called Rigid: 95% of that floor was meatpackers — people packing lunch meat — and the other 5% were mechanics, who would float around the room and were always fixing something. Those were always fun interactions for me because everyone was always kinda confused as to why I was working there. They knew that I had gone to college and they just couldn’t figure out why anyone who had gone to college could possibly end up at this meat packing plant. The mechanics were great about that. They harassed me, good-natured, all the time about my college degree.

HANDWRITTEN: Did people always see you as "the college kid?" And did you see yourself that way?   

BUTLER: I wouldn’t want to over-blow it. It wasn’t talked about a lot. But it was known by the people I worked with that I had a college degree. A lot of people, to their credit, could’ve treated me worse with the knowledge that I wasn’t going to be there forever.

I never disparaged the work there. I consider my coworkers my friends, and as terrible as it was to work there, it was fun, too. I mean, people weren’t talking about it, but I remember people joking about it: like, why did you go to college for four years if you’re just going to end up here? Some of the people didn’t have a high school education. There was one woman named Laura I remember. She’s mentioned in the notebook. She had a college degree, too. And then our supervisor was in a Master’s Program at University of Wisconsin Madison, and I remember feeling that was so weird: that we would’ve been on the campus at the same time.  

HANDWRITTEN: What're things looking like for Oscar Meyer today? And more broadly, what has the facility meant to the town?

BUTLER: If I have all my facts straight, the plant closed in March 2017 after being consistently in production for well over 100 years [NTD: UPDATE]

Madison is one of those city’s where you have cab driver’s with PhD’s in Physics, people working at the co-op with Masters' in Public Policy and stuff like that. There doesn't seem to be a lot of jobs like production, blue-collar, lunch-pail jobs like this anymore. A lot of that has moved away. But the thing about the Oscar Meyer plant is that it had acted as kind of an economic and industrial anchor for the east side of Madison. Whole neighborhoods had risen up around it. You could clearly see that, and I had lived in that neighborhood when I was working there. It was really nice — not big — but blue-collar houses, well-taken care of, and people in the neighborhood would have at one point or another worked at Oscar Meyer or known someone who did.

The other thing that's been interesting to look through these notebooks is that people who worked there were from all walks of life. It was split fifty-fifty, men and women. There were a lot of black folks and latinos. What I worry about is how it affects the east side of Madison: how are you going to get those jobs back? The answer is you’re not gonna get the jobs back. And I don’t know what’ll happen to those folks. I worry the identity of Madison has totally changed. What is going to happen to this giant corporate complex now on the east side? I don’t know.

HANDWRITTEN: It's also such a household name. It conjures up the school cafeteria. I wonder if there is a symbolic impact as well.

BUTLER: Definitely. I mean, it’s a little thing, but the Oscar Meyer mobile — that crazy Weiner-shaped car — was always parked in front of the plant when it wasn’t traveling around the country.

It sounds like the jobs and plant are moving down to Illinois. It’s just sad. The Oscar Meyer company was a family-owned company in the 60s and 70s, which I think changed in the 80s. I have a friend who worked for corporate Oscar Meyer in that building and his family used to walk around the plant, and knew all the workers' names. So you know, you’re not just seeing these jobs affecting thousands of workers, but this beloved American brand. I don’t know, it’s not going away, but it’s changing its identity.

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