Costas (Gus) Deaskalakias, chief cook and meat buyer at Blackie's House of Beef in Washington, used to need seven butchers to carve steaks and roasts from the beef carcasses he ordered.
Nowadays there are only two butchers working at Blackie's. The beef Deaskalakias buys has been precut in a cattle slaughterhouse 1,800 miles away.
The slaughter company, Monfort of Colorado, Inc., in Greeley Colo., prepares the ribs, loins, chucks, rounds and sirloins, cavuum packs them in plastic bags and ships them to retail stores and restaurants in boxes.
At Monfort, steers enter the plant as half-ton live animals and exit in small cartons ready for the fresh meat trade.
The entry of the major slaughter firms into the meat cutting business in a big way is revamping the nation's $36-billion-a-year packing industry.
The speed of these changes can be seen in a single example: Iowa Beef Processors, Inc., founded in 1961, is now the world's largest beef packing firm, with annual sales of over $2 billion and a weekly cattle kill of 80,000 animals - about 10 per cent of the national total and more than the older firms of Swift, Armour, Wilson, Morrell and Cudahy combined.
Boxed beef has been a major part of this phenomenal growth. About two-thirds of Iowa Beef's sales volume consists of these cartons of meat precut at the slaughtering plant. And Iowa Beef's share of this trade nationwide is substantial.
About 25 per cent of the money people spend on food goes for meat.
And about half of the meat purchases are beef. So changes of this magnitude in the beef economy are important to consumers.
The meat industry says that boxed beef has saved consumers money. It costs less to ship boxes of high-quality boned beef cuts than it does to transport whole carcasses, and the system reduces the middlemen's fees and markups, they argue.
But the Amalgamated Meat Cutters Union claims the real savings of companies such as Iowa Beef comes from their fighting the unions and underpaying workers in the new high-speed plants.
The butchers union claims that those tactics pose a greater threat than the introduction of boxed beef.
"We are not opposed to boxed beef," says Jesse Prosten, vice president in charge of the union's packing division. The union's argument is that beef carcasses have to be cut up somewhere, and it doesn't make that much difference where.
Prosten says that there hasn't been a massive loss of jobs of retail butchers in the big cities because of the new boxed beef. Supermarket chains which buy boxed beef still need butchers to trim it for the display counter.
However, checks in several cities don't seem to bear out Prosten. Wholesaler Stanley Rosen, who distributes beef in New York City, says that in 1970 he had 16 butchers carving up carcasses shipped to New York City from the Midwest.
Today, Rosen is mainly in the distributing business. He has gotten rid of the butchers and now needs only a small crew of warehousemen to handle the boxes of precut meat as they come in from the Midwest.
Moreover, beef in boxes has been at the heart of labor-management fights in the packing industry since the late 1960s.
Butcher unions in Chicago and St. Louis have been alarmed enough about the influx of the precut products to have written restrictions on the use of them into labor agreements with retail stores. (The General Accounting Office in Washington is investigating the possible impact of these restrictions on food and cattle prices.)
Iowa Beef first cracked the New York City market with the precut products in 1969 - but only after a bruising fight with labor unions that tarnished its reputation.
That year, the company settled a strike with the Amalgamated Meat Cutters at the Dakota City, Neb., plant. Iowa Beef brought in strike-breakers during the bitter strike. Some of the houses of these workers were subsequently dynamited.
The company's annual report just issued noted that the firm was only able to ship boxed beef to New York City after it agreed to withdraw a $4 million suit against three New York locals for an allegedly illegal secondary boycott of Iowa Beef's meat during the strike.
Later, it was revealed that there had been other sides to Iowa Beef's entry into the New York City boxed market.
In 1974, a New York State court convicted the company and its co-chairman, Currier J. Holman, of conspiring with a crime figure to bribe union and supermarket officials. The judge, who fined the firm $7,000, said the scheme had been aimed at buying "instant labor peace" that would remove butchers union restrictions against boxed beef.
The meetings with union officials were arranged by Moe Steinman, who in 1971, set up a company that entered into an exclusive arrangement with Iowa Beef to distribute the company's products. The company, C.P. Sales Co. of Paramus, N.J., still receives commissions from Iowa Beef for meat sold in New York City, according to an Iowa Beef spokesman.
Steinman's son-in-law, Walter Bodenstein, runs C.P. Sales Bodenstein was brought to Dakota City last fall to be a group vice president of Iowa following unfavorable newspaper pub-Beef, but he resigned after 10 days licity in the Midwest.
According to Iowa Beef spokesman Cornelius Bodine, Bodenstein's only problem is that "he has an unfortunate father-in-law."
The union struck Iowa Beef's huge, high-speed Dakota City plant for eight months in 1973 and 1974, and both company and unions are braced for a possible new impasse in the next two weeks. On Jan. 22, the company's contract with the butchers union expired, and the two sides agreed to extend it for two weeks.
The bottom wage at Dakota is $5.57 an hour. Prosten said that the rest of the packing industry pays $6.42 an hour minimum. Iowa Beef's competitors also claim that the Nebraska-based company's wage scale has given it a competitive edge.
The company says Prosten, is out to break the butchers union, but Bodine responds, "We don't go around breaking unions."
The meatcutters have suffered a series of setbacks since Iowa Beef began its phenomenal growth, though. Efforts to organize workers at IBP's non-union Emporia, Kan., plant have been unsuccessful so far. When the company opened a new box beef plant in Amarillo, Tex., in 1974, a handful of construction workers petitioned for Teamsters union representation and won quick recognition from the company.
About 100 workers unaffiliated with the Amalgamated Meat Cutters Union have been on the job inside Iowa Beef's Dakota City facility since Dec. 6. They are affiliated with a union called the United Industrial Packing and Allied Workers, which Prosten calls "phony." The UIPAW represents the employees of another business, Farm Products Co., which leases space in the plant from Iowa Beef.
In a telephone interview last week, Iowa Beef spokesman Bodine denied there was any plan to use the UIPAW people to operate the Iowa Beef plant in the event of a strike by the butchers union.
Nevertheless, the situation suggests the tensions at work in an industry that has earned its reputation for tough dealing and cutthroat competition.
In January, 1975, the beef industry was rocked by the financial collapse of one of the fastest growing of the major slaughter operations, American Beef Packers, Inc., of Omaha.The company filed for a limited bankruptcy, leaving several hundred cattlemen holding worthless company checks for beef animals they had sold just before the collapse.
Congress subsequently ordered a tightening of financial rules for packers.
Within the beef packing industry, Iowa Beef is both feared and respected. Competitors say the company delivers enormous volumes of high quality meat at all over the country at great speed.
"Iowa Beef is not afraid to use its muscle, and it has plenty of it," said an executive of a competing company. "We try not to have large unsold quantities of any product that Iowa Beef is also trying to sell. They can raise hell with any market."
Next: The hamburger society.