Coronavirus: Meatpacker workers told: “Work and die, or we’ll starve your families”

Meat processing plant
Workers at a meat processing plant.

By Chris Fry

On Sunday, April 26, John Tyson, chairman of the $40 billion Tyson Foods Inc, had his “open letter” published in several major newspapers, including the New York Times and the Washington Post. In it, he exclaims: “The food supply chain is vulnerable.” Tyson boasts of the many safety measures that his company has put in place to protect its workers from the dreaded coronavirus.

Tyson failed to mention that his company has refused to frequently test each worker for the virus as he had promised.

Boss Trump, always ready to further enrich his fellow parasites, swung into motion. First, on April 28th, obviously under Trump’s direction, the CDC and OSHA changed their meatpacking company guidelines meant to make those factories safer for the workers from the spread of the coronavirus. Instead of firm requirements the meatpacking bosses were to be required to only show a “good faith effort” to meet those safety standards.

Then on that same day, Trump invoked the Defense Production Act (DPA) to force open the meatpacking plants that state and local officials closed as thousands of workers were stricken Covid-19 , with dozens of deaths. Trump claimed that these closures violated the now-toothless CDC guidelines, and that the “food supply chain” (and the agribusiness profit stream) was more important than worker safety:

Given the high volume of meat and poultry processed by many facilities, any unnecessary closures can quickly have a large effect on the food supply chain.  For example, closure of a single large beef processing facility can result in the loss of over 10 million individual servings of beef in a single day.  Similarly, under established supply chains, closure of a single meat or poultry processing facility can severely disrupt the supply of protein to an entire grocery store chain.

Trump’s labor department quickly followed suit. Its Occupational Safety and Health Agency (OSHA), which is supposed to protect workers in their workplaces, announced on April 28th that:

“Where a meat, pork, or poultry processing employer operating pursuant to the president’s invocation of the DPA has demonstrated good faith attempts to comply with the Joint Meat Processing Guidance and is sued for alleged workplace exposures,” said [Solicitor of Labor] O’Scannlain and [OSHA principal deputy secretary] Sweatt, “the Department of Labor will consider a request to participate in that litigation in support of the employer’s compliance program.”

Republican governors where meatpacking plants are located quickly followed Trump’s lead. Iowa’s Governor Kim Reynolds openly made the “work or starve” threat explicit to the meatpacking workers:

“If you’re an employer and you offer to bring your employee back to work and they decide not to, that’s a voluntary quit,” Reynolds said Friday, according to the Hill news website. “Therefore, they would not be eligible for the unemployment money.”

Possibly infected by VP Pence’s staff member, on May 11 Reynolds gave herself the protection of a “modified self-quarantine” that she is denying the workers.

Coronavirus exacts a terrible toll on already oppressed meatpacking workers

There are around 130,000 meatpacking workers at 115 plants scattered around 19 mostly rural, anti-union states. A May 7th report from Politico states that:

Some 44 percent of meatpackers are Latino and 25 percent are African American, according to an analysis by the Center for Economic and Policy Research. The League of United Latin American Citizens estimates 80 percent of those working in meat processing plants are undocumented or refugees.

The outbreaks have driven a spike in cases across rural areas in the Midwest and in Georgia, where state officials say the close quarters inside the plants — where hundreds of employees often work elbow-to-elbow — have exacerbated the virus’ spread.

COVID-19 at meatpacking and food processing plants.
COVID-19 infections at meatpacking and food processing plants. | Image: Food and Environment Reporting Network (click map to enlarge)

A May 6 USA Today article gives us the grim numbers for these low-paid workers:

The meatpacking industry hit a grim milestone this week when the number of coronavirus cases tied to outbreaks at its beleaguered plants passed 10,000, according to USA TODAY and Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting tracking. 

At least 170 plants in 29 states have had one or more workers test positive for the coronavirus. Some of those workers also have infected others, which is included in the count. At least 45 workers have died. 

The outbreaks have prompted at least 40 meat slaughtering and processing plant closures – lasting anywhere from one day to several weeks – since the start of the pandemic. 

The shutdowns sparked meat shortages in some parts of the country and triggered an executive order by President Donald Trump to keep plants open. But more than a week after Trump’s order, closures have continued unabated, the media outlets found.

Of course, Trump’s pro-boss minions blame the workers for their own illnesses in the most viciously racist terms:

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar blamed a rash of COVID-19 cases in meatpacking plants on workers’ personal living habits, suggesting they were contracting the disease in their communities and bringing the disease to the plant.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Patience D. Roggensack suggested that the virus outbreak did not come from “regular folks”.

And as the St. Louis Post Dispatch reported on May 8th:

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, a Republican, generated ire last month when discussing the closure of a Smithfield pork plant in Sioux Falls that infected 1,000 employees and people who came in contact with the workers, saying “99% of what’s going on today wasn’t happening inside the facility.”

The spread of the virus happened “more at home, where these employees were going home and spreading some of the virus because a lot of these folks who work at this plant live in the community, the same building, sometimes in the same apartment,” she said on Fox News.

Health experts and union leaders point out that this racist lie is totally false.

First assault of a broad attack against the workers and oppressed

Despite threats against their families’ livelihood, there has been resistance to Trump’s “back to work and die” proclamation:

In Nebraska on Tuesday [April 28], some of the 2,000 workers at a Smithfield Foods pork plant outside Lincoln briefly walked off the job to protest plans to keep open the facility, which has reported 48 COVID-19 cases.

Reporter Christina Stella at NET Nebraska spoke to a worker at the plant in Crete, who asked for anonymity for fear of losing her job.

“It’s almost like [the plant’s owners] don’t care about us,” the worker said. “Just keep production going, keep the money coming in, whatever they can do to just keep going, that’s how I feel. … And I know I’m not the only one who’s actually scared.”

Trump’s “forced march” back into the deadly meatpacking workplaces is the first shot of the right-wing “open the economy” attack wholeheartedly favored by Wall Street.  As the death toll reaches more than 80,000, Trump has made his disdain for the lives and health of the workers and oppressed quite clear:

“It’s possible there will be some [death] because you won’t be locked into an apartment or a house or whatever it is,” Trump said in an interview with ABC’s “World News Tonight” on Tuesday from Arizona, where he visited a factory making N95 masks. “But at the same time, we’re going to practice social distancing, we’re going to be washing hands, we’re going to be doing a lot of the things that we’ve learned to do over the last period of time.”

“I’m viewing our great citizens of this country to a certain extent and to a large extent as warriors. They’re warriors. We can’t keep our country closed. We have to open our country,” Trump said as he was leaving Washington. He stuck to the theme while in Arizona. “I’m not saying anything is perfect, and, yes, will some people be affected? Yes. Will some people be affected badly? Yes. But we have to get our country open and we have to get it open soon.”

Yes, to Trump and his billionaire buddies, this pandemic is a war, a war to save U.S. capitalism. It is a war, where we of the working class and oppressed are to work and risk death from this deadly disease to produce more and more profits for the barons of Wall Street, safely ensconced in their mansions.

To these parasites, any talk of a plan to protect the lives and health of the people, even if it comes from distinguished public health officials, must give way to forcing the workers back into the plants and offices, back into the dangerous workplaces where even now the “essential workers”, largely Black and Latinx, largely female; transportation workers, nursing home workers, health care workers, toil in terrible danger.

This crisis must spark a militant response by our class, a struggle to create a new social system designed to protect and benefit us. And it will.

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