By DON HARMON
“Here was a population, low-class and mostly foreign, hanging always on the verge of starvation, and dependent for its opportunities of life upon the whim of men every bit as brutal and unscrupulous as the old-time slave drivers.” –The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair, 1906
In these pandemic times, “we are all in this together” is the laughable and false statement that we hear ad nauseum and that bears no relationship to reality, and worse, hides the truth. This is the big lie that big business, the Trump administration, and the mass media — The New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, and MSNBC — spew out. Here’s a few undisputed COVID-19 facts: the positive cases of the virus among African American, Latinx and Native American communities are far greater than their share of the population. Our nursing homes are predominantly segregated: once again, people of color are much more likely to be victimized by the pandemic than their white counterparts. The latest COVID-19 hotspots are America’s meat processing facilities and its workers — the focus of this article — are mostly Latinx, African Americans, and the nation’s newest immigrants from such countries as Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia, Congo, Nigeria, Nepal, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Bosnia.
On April 28, President Trump ordered all meatpacking plants to be exempt from any state orders to close those plants for health reasons — thus doing the bidding of the meatpacking oligarchs from JBS USA, Smithfield Foods, and Tyson Foods. On the next day, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released a statement warning “further action” against plants that don’t reopen. “Plants should resume operations as soon as they are able after implementing the CDC/OSHA guidance for the protection of workers,” Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue wrote in a letter to the multimillionaire meat bosses.
In late May, the number of coronavirus cases tied to outbreaks at the beleaguered plants passed 18,000, according to the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. At least 170 plants in 29 states have had one or more workers test positive for the coronavirus and at least 70 workers have died. The positive cases of COVID-19 are no doubt much higher than what is made public. Some of the midwestern governors, under the influence of Tyson, Smithfield, JBS, etc., are either deliberately withholding the latest ugly statistics, or are obfuscating the reality. Smithfield management has refused to answer even basic questions about the size of their outbreaks. In Kansas, state officials said there were more than 2,000 meatpacking-related cases spread across nine clusters, but they refused to name those facilities. In Nebraska, where the National Guard has helped with the mass-testing of meatpacking workers, state and local officials have often refused to provide details.
These capitalists and their officeholding cronies justify their secrecy, exclaiming that the pandemic is bad for business, bad for the economy! But what about the health crisis, with over 100,000 deaths nationwide? These capitalists’ reply: The nation’s meat supply is at risk, broken. Americans demand their freedom, specifically the right to eat hamburgers, pork chops, and sirloin steaks. “Death is death,” President Trump said callously.
And the tens of thousands of meat processing plant workers who are being forced to go to work — no unemployment pay if you can’t prove you have the virus — amidst unsafe, life-threatening conditions? And the thousands who have been infected, and the hundreds who are suffering on ventilators, intubated, and dying? The meatpacking workers demand to be tested! But at this late date only a little more than 3% of Americans have been tested, because wealthy America, with its profit-driven and de-centralized health care system, didn’t plan ahead and thus doesn’t have enough swabs, enough reagents, enough testing materials! The shame of it all.
Meanwhile, back at the plant, the meat bosses say, “Hey, no tests, no problem. We’ll take your temperature at the door.” Which is what happened to the 4,500+ workers at the JBS facility in Greeley, Colorado. At this massive operation, management was tested first; the results were 40% positive. Whoa, too high, said the Greeley bosses, time to stop the testing. So JBS has conducted no organized testing of its workers. The result is that many workers who were asymptomatic — showing no obvious symptoms, but still carriers of the virus — were going to work. This is how the virus spreads.
Working conditions and pay
The meat processing workers, predominantly Latinx, African American and new immigrants — over 40 languages are spoken at the Sioux Falls, South Dakota plant — are forced to work at a fast pace — “efficiency” is the meat bosses key word — in front of speeding conveyor belts at the rate of 30 to 40 seconds per animal. They stand shoulder-to-shoulder, wielding sharp, vibrating electric knives, in an unsanitary environment. At one midwestern plant, the pace is so unrelenting and the working conditions so medieval, that many workers wear diapers because they are not permitted a restroom break when they need one. Many ice their wrists at night and rely on a daily dose of ibuprofen to keep up with the pace. Long before the virus, meat processing workers have suffered from loss of hands and arms, back injuries, and due to the mind-numbing repetitive work, wrist injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome. At the Tyson Foods pork plant in Waterloo, Iowa, workers wore a motley assortment of bandanas, painters’ masks, and sleep masks to try to protect themselves from the virus, because their employer didn’t supply the proper N-95 masks that would give the best protection.
At the Smithfield Sioux Falls plant, with 3,600 workers, the company offered employees a “responsibility bonus” of $500 — some workers called it a bribe — if they finished all of their shifts through the end of April. Estimates of the hourly wage at the Sioux Falls plant range from $14-16 an hour, which is not a living wage in 2020 America. Many workers were happy to get the bonus, bribe or not. They have families to feed, rent to pay.
One worker at an Iowa plant is retiring this month after 38 years. His pay? $16 an hour, which was his starting pay way back in 1982, when there was a union. In his 38 years on the job, from 1982 to 2020, he has had no wage increase and during that time, witnessed the loss of his union. His co-workers, with less seniority and the victims of the union’s concession bargaining (yielding to the employer’s demands) suffer from being “second tier” or “third tier” — the insidious union contract language that relegates these “newer” workers — many of whom have been on the job for 10 years, 20 years — to less than $16/hour.
The coronavirus pandemic has exposed many of America’s obscenities. In the 21st century, we still operate our food systems — beef, pork, and chicken processing plants as well as farms where fieldworkers pick the fruits and vegetables — as if they were a 19th century plantation. The nation’s Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue, has described the unwillingness of Americans to perform dangerous and undervalued food-chain work: “These are jobs that are contributing to the American economy by doing many of the jobs that Americans just don’t want to do anymore, and this is one of them.” When Perdue says “Americans,” he means white Americans. For Perdue and his ilk, brown and black people are not real Americans, and therefore the meat supply and meat profits come first. Open America, they shout, and under their breath, the workers be damned.
South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem generated anger when discussing the temporary closure of the Smithfield pork plant in Sioux Falls, 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.” Translation: blaming the victims; the Latinx and new immigrants from Africa and Asia and how they live are the root cause of the virus spreading. A Wisconsin official declared that it’s not the “regular people” who get the virus, but “those other people.” In Iowa, Latinx make up only 6 percent of the state’s population but are nearly a third of those infected with COVID-19.
Virus spreading in the midwest
In May, due to the prompting of President Trump and his like-minded, profits-first capitalist co-thinkers, many parts of America are opening up. The rate of increase has plateaued in New York City, but COVID-19 is steadily increasing in the nation’s heartland, especially in such states as Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Minnesota, South Dakota, and Colorado. And what do these states have in common? Large meat processing centers that have two thousand, three thousand, even four thousand workers — often toiling more than 8 hours a day. Who are these hard-working humans? Brown and black people from Latin America, Africa, Asia — many of whom are the newest Americans.
Despite the efforts of the meat bosses and midwestern governors to hide the virus — it’s bad for business! they exclaim — with some research one can ferret out where the virus is happening. The viral hotspots in the nation’s heartland — with positive cases of COVID-19 of at least 1% and as high as 4% of the town’s entire population — are in the places that are home to these giant meatpacking plants.
In Iowa: Perry, Denison, Marshalltown, Storm Lake, and Waterloo. In Nebraska: Crete, Dakota City, Grand Island, Lexington, and Schuyler. In Kansas: Dodge City, Garden City, and Liberal. And, not surprisingly, all these towns have large and growing communities of Latinx and, in the last two decades, increasing immigrant communities from Somalia, Sudan, Nigeria, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos — to name only a few.
In 1986, when this author — along with hundreds of others from around the nation — travelled to Austin, Minnesota to assist the strike of the meatpacking workers of Local P9, most of the strikers were white. But in the decades since then, there has been a sea-change.
Below is a table that illustrates the interconnected relationship between the virus and the workplace.
Protection for the workers?
Despite the obvious and in-your-face safety and sanitary violations committed by the owners of the meatpacking facilities, OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) has filed no citations against the meatpacking owners. It’s not a typo: absolutely zero, zilch, nada. No demands from this toothless organism: OSHA is so weak and ineffectual that it depends on the meatpacking companies to voluntarily report workplace injuries. Under both Republican and Democratic administrations, OSHA has become a lapdog for industry, instead of fighting for the rights of the working class.
What about the union? The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) represents about 80% of the beef and pork workers, but so far, these union officials have not fought back in any meaningful way. Instead, UFCW leaders issue statements urging the Trump administration and OSHA “to immediately enact clear and enforceable safety standards that compel all meatpacking companies to provide the highest level of protective equipment through access to the federal stockpile of PPE, ensure daily testing is available for workers and their communities, enforce physical distancing at all plants, and provide full paid sick leave for any workers who are infected.”
Say what? Do you think the employers feel threatened by such a meek response? No. That’s all these union “leaders” do: issue statements that “urge” and “request.” Even the word “demand” is too strong for these labor-fakers. After all, if you demand, then you may have to act. Instead, the owners know that the national UFCW mis-leaders and most of the local union officials act as a brake on any militant response from the members.
If ever the conditions were ripe for a workers’ rebellion, the meatpacking plants are the place. (As of late May, farm laborers in the apple orchards of Washington state are currently on strike.) Under the pressure of these draconian working conditions, and with COVID-19 looming in the air, meatpacking laborers have a great opportunity to organize themselves and change their union into a fighting instrument. This fightback won’t be easy, and it may not happen soon. But the virus is not going away, and so the righteous anger of the workers is also not going away. They are going to radicalize and feel their collective power, with real demands for meaningful change in working conditions and pay.
And by extrapolation, other American workers — 40 million have applied for unemployment benefits — who are suffering in these pandemic times, may also radicalize and unite themselves into a workers’ party, one that is truly democratic and fights for the interests of workers and their natural allies among the communities of Latinx, African Americans, Native Americans and our nation’s newest citizens. Now is the time for American workers to realize that the Democratic Party is not their friend and never has been. The COVID-19 working conditions are ripe, over-ripe, for American workers to have their own organization.