June 2018: ICE arrests nearly 150 meat plant workers in latest immigration raid in Ohio: Fresh Mark in Salem, Ohio, and a federal document search warrant at three other Fresh Mark locations.
August 2019: Investigators believe five poultry companies violated immigration law, search warrants say: Aug. 7 ICE raids on seven plants operated by Koch Foods, Peco Foods, PH Food, A&B and Pearl River Foods in Mississippi.
April 2020: Chase Purdy reports at Quartz, The stability of the global food system relies on immigrants:
[T]he spread of Covid-19 is revealing a vulnerable link in the food supply chain: the immigrant populations that make up a large part of the agricultural workforce. The global food system as it operates today relies on immigrant labor to run smoothly, and the pandemic is emphasizing the risk of undervaluing that work.
Immigration’s impacts on the food supply are especially pronounced in the United States, where more than 50% of the agricultural workforce is comprised of undocumented immigrants.
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Their work in meatpacking plants—where immigrant labor accounts for one-third of the workforce—is just one example. At a Smithfield Foods-owned meatpacking plant in South Dakota, employees told Buzzfeed News that many of the plant’s 3,700 workers are immigrant workers. That plant was among the 17 that have so far closed since the middle of April, including plants operated by Tyson Foods, JBS USA, and National Beef Packing. Collectively, those shuttered plants supply the US with about 25% of its meat.
If immigrant workers in meatpacking plants and on farms continue to get sick, it could lead to food shortages of goods people have always purchased with ease.
On Tuesday, President Donald Trump invoked the Defense Production Act to force meat processing plants operated by Tyson Foods and other major meat suppliers to stay open even as the coronavirus spreads among workers. Trump Orders Meatpacking Plants To Stay Open:
The president’s executive order, signed Tuesday evening, hands oversight powers to the Department of Agriculture “to determine the proper nationwide priorities and allocation of all the materials, services, and facilities necessary to ensure the continued supply of meat and poultry.”
A number of facilities that process beef, chicken and pork products have closed in recent weeks due to the hundreds of workers who have contracted COVID-19. Trump’s order stated that such closures are “undermining critical infrastructure during the national emergency.”
Unlike some other workplaces, employees at meat processing plants cannot easily observe social distancing guidelines and must stand close to one another. Earlier this month, the now-shuttered Smithfield Foods pork processing plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, had at least 600 employees who tested positive for the virus out of a workforce of 3,700.
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Trump’s mandate to keep plants open could end up taking a deadly toll on those who process meat ― a category of essential workers who tend to be people of color or immigrants working for low wages.
Under the order, all plants must still follow guidance issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, but it is unclear how that is to be done.
Worker safety advocates have been frustrated by the limited supply of personal protective equipment and the dizzying work pace at many plants. In April, the Agriculture Department granted a record number of waivers allowing poultry facilities to increase their line speeds, which can force employees to work even faster without additional staff.
The United Food and Commercial Workers union represents the majority of workers in beef and pork facilities and a sizable portion of those in poultry facilities. The union said Tuesday that if Trump wants to order plants to stay open, the White House needs to ramp up COVID-19 testing and require other safety precautions on the processing lines.
The union, which has been tracking coronavirus infections and deaths in the industry, said at least 20 meatpacking workers have died and another 5,000 have been hospitalized or shown symptoms of COVID-19 since the pandemic began. By the union’s estimates, at least 22 meatpacking plants have had to close, causing pork production to drop by 25% and beef production by 10%.
“The reality is that these workers are putting their lives on the line every day to keep our country fed during this deadly outbreak,” Marc Perrone, the union’s president, said in a statement Tuesday. “For the sake of all our families, we must prioritize the safety and security of these workers.”
So now “illegal immigrants” that Trump was hellbent on deporting are now considered “essential workers,” i.e. expendable workers in the nation’s meat processing plants. God forbid Trump has to go a day without his double cheeseburger with extra bacon.
Bloomberg News reports, Trump Orders Meat Plants to Stay Open in Move Unions Slam:
President Donald Trump signed an executive order Tuesday that compels slaughterhouses to remain open, setting up a showdown between the giant companies that produce America’s meat and the unions and activists who want to protect workers in a pandemic.
Meat processing plants around the U.S. have shut down because of the coronavirus, but Trump said in the order that “such closures threaten the continued functioning of the national meat and poultry supply chain, undermining critical infrastructure during the national emergency.”
Using the Defense Production Act, Trump is ordering plants to stay open as part of the critical infrastructure needed to keep people fed amid growing supply disruptions from the coronavirus outbreak. The government will provide additional protective gear for employees as well as guidance.
Riight. Just like the Trump administration has done for frontline medical providers. The states “are on their own,” we are “just a backup” Trump said.
The move came just days after Tyson Foods Inc., the biggest U.S. meat processor, ran paid ads in national newspapers stating that the food supply chain was “broken.”
A handful of companies account for the majority of the nation’s meat, and as workers fell sick in March, plants initially continued to run. But pressure from local health officials and unions led to voluntary closures.
Companies have been pressing to reopen. The president himself has long agitated for Americans to return to work and restore an economy crippled by social distancing measures.
Environmental Working Group called the order a potential death sentence. The United Food and Commercial Workers union said in a statement that if workers aren’t safe, the food supply won’t be either. At least 20 workers in meat and food processing have died, and 5,000 meatpacking workers have either tested positive for the virus or were forced to self-quarantine, according to UFCW.
While unions have been speaking out against unsafe plant conditions and working for boosts in pay, collective bargaining agreements often restrict them from organizing or endorsing strikes. Still, lives are stake, unions say.
“People should never be expected to put their lives at risk by going to work,” said Stuart Appelbaum, President of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. “If they can’t be assured of their safety, they have every right to make their concerns heard by their employers.”
Trump signaled the executive action at the White House on Tuesday, saying he planned to sign an order aimed at Tyson’s liability, which had become “a road block” for the company. He didn’t elaborate.
The order, though, is not be limited to Tyson, an administration official said. It will affect many processing plants supplying beef, chicken, eggs and pork.
A “license to kill” workers directly from the President. Trump is sending workers to their slaughter in America’s slaughter houses.
The White House decided to make the move amid estimates that as much as 80% of U.S. meat production capacity could shut down. But a union representing plant workers accused the administration of failing to develop meaningful safety requirements that would have helped contain the disruptions.
On Sunday, Tyson Foods Chairman John Tyson said in a blog post and paid advertisements in several newspapers that the U.S. food supply chain “is breaking,” with millions of pounds of meat set to “disappear” as plants close.
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The Defense Production Act allows the government broad power to direct industrial production in crises. Trump has previously invoked the law — or threatened to invoke it — in order to increase the supply of medical gear including ventilators, masks and swabs to test for coronavirus infection.
The White House has been discussing the order with meatpacking executives to determine what they need to operate safely and stay open, in order to prevent shortages, an administration official said.
White House General Counsel Pat Cipollone worked with private companies to design a federal mandate to keep the plants open and to provide them additional virus testing capacity as well as protective gear — and legal immunity for killing their workers.
Trump and his corporate masters failed to foresee one thing, however: frightened workers can fight back against this death sentence by refusing to show up to work. Meat plant workers to Trump: Employees aren’t going to show up:
Meat processing plant workers are concerned about President Donald Trump’s executive order that compels plants to remain open during the coronavirus pandemic. Some say they expect staff will refuse to come to work.
“All I know is, this is crazy to me, because I can’t see all these people going back into work,” said Donald, who works at Tyson’s Waterloo, Iowa, facility. “I don’t think people are going to go back in there.”
“I’m still trying to figure out: What is he going to do, force them to stay open? Force people to go to work?” he asked.
CNN Business has spoken to employees in several Tyson plants who do not want to be named for fear of losing their jobs.
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One worker who is employed at Tyson’s Waterloo, Iowa, facility held out hope regarding Trump’s order.
“All in all, it can be a good thing if done right,” the person said. “But my faith in this administration has never been strong and is nonexistent currently. I wanna know what these added ‘liability protections’ are going to be.”
Other workers are skeptical.
“I just don’t know how they’re going to do it when there are people dying and getting really sick,” said an employee of Tyson’s Independence, Iowa, plant. “Who’s to say people are even gonna show up to work?”
Maybe it is time for the unions that represent these meatpacking workers to ignore that “no strike” restriction in collective bargaining agreement, and call for a general strike to call attention to the unsafe and dangerous working conditions that exist in America’s meatpacking plants. It’s not like there is a large number of “scabs” with the necessary skills ready to step in and replace these workers as strike breakers.
Maybe it is time for muckraking journalists aspiring to be the next Upton Sinclair to write the 21st Century version of The Jungle (1906) which documented the plight of immigrant workers in the meatpacking yards of Chicago, and sent shock waves throughout the United States, leading to the Progressive Era labor and agricultural reforms.
The coronavirus pandemic could be the impetus for the next Progressive Era of reforms.