As of Friday, more than eleven thousand cases of coronavirus had been confirmed with links to the US meat packaging industry. At least forty-nine meat packaging workers died from COVID-19. The deceased workers worked in twenty-seven different factories in eighteen states.
The virus is so widespread in the meat processing industry that forty factories have closed, either because they were ordered by public health officials, or because so many workers were sick that production ordinary was impossible.
The closings have threatened to cause meat shortages, prompting Donald Trump to pass an executive order invoking the Defense Production Act ordering them to remain open. Due to the severity of the current health crisis, plant closures continued in violation of Trump’s decree, which prompted the Department of Agriculture to warn that “further action” would be taken against businesses if they didn’t reopen the factories as soon as possible. .
Meat shortages will not cause hunger, but they will waste money for meat suppliers and cause frustration among meat consumers who are also, often enough, voters. To avoid these results, the Trump administration is working to preserve the integrity of the meat supply chain.
One strategy has been to shift responsibility for cases of coronaviruses in the packaging of meat to the workers themselves. Trump’s Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar said on Thursday that the illness and death of meat packaging workers, family members and others in their communities was more related to the aspects “Domestic and social” of the life of meat packers than in factory conditions. . He even made a threatening suggestion to send law enforcement to the neighborhoods where the meat workers live to reinforce social distancing.
But while Azar played stupidly, the meat packaging companies themselves recognized that there were specific problems inside their facilities that made them vulnerable to contagion. Smithfield Foods, one of the largest meat processors in the United States, released a statement saying, “There are compelling realities in our industry. . . Meat processing facilities, characterized by labor-intensive assembly line production, are not designed for social distancing. There is no doubt that conditions in factories are indeed responsible for the spread of the virus.
It is no coincidence that workers get sick from the factory in factories across the country. One of the main reasons why meat processing workers have become hotbeds of coronavirus is the labor-intensive nature of the work itself. Assembling geometric and standardized parts of an automobile is a more user-friendly task for machines than dismantling organic materials such as meat. While advances in automation have already changed the industry and continue to do so, many stages of production still require human hands, and therefore many humans.
But even if the packaging of meat is more manual than some other manufacturing sectors, it is still subject to all the efficiency-oriented changes in the manufacturing sector in general, aimed at increasing the speed and volume of the production of workers and therefore profits. As a result, meat packing plants often have workers lined up in rows, where they stay together for long periods without interruption.
In addition, the working environment in a meat processing plant must be refrigerated, which is expensive in a large area. For this reason, meat packaging companies, even more than other manufacturers, are trying to minimize the amount of space they use, which increases the proximity of workers to each other. And if that weren’t enough, lower temperatures often make people more vulnerable to communicable diseases, as we see every year when the flu spreads in the winter months.
Finally, Azar’s point on living conditions in the home, no matter how it was handled, is not entirely out of place. Whether we’re talking about black workers at a Tyson Foods factory in Georgia or Mexican immigrants at a JBS factory in Colorado, it’s true that meat packaging workers may not have the space to practice perfect social distancing when they leave the factory. But like overcrowded workplaces, dense living conditions are also intimately linked to the profit seeking of their bosses. At an hourly rate below $ 12 an hour, meat workers cannot afford spacious living conditions, which means they are likely to spread the virus they acquire at work to their families, to their neighbors and, possibly, to everyone.
Over a century ago, Upton Sinclair The jungle highlighted the difficult working and living conditions of meat packers. Living representations of the 1906 novel about the lives of immigrants in and around the Chicago abattoirs and meat processing plants alarmed and shocked the rest of the country, creating immense public pressure that led to reforms in the industry.
Sinclair was a socialist who had started on the path of The jungle writing articles on the Chicago meat industry. The jungle was serialized in the socialist magazine Call to reason before its publication in one volume. As a result, Sinclair’s writings focused heavily on the exploitation of labor in the meat packaging industry, filled with passages like these:
It was just theft, for a poor man. The wealthy not only had all the money, they were likely to have more; they had all the knowledge and power, and therefore the poor man was on the ground, and he had to stay on the ground. . .
All day long, this man toiled like this, his whole goal being to earn twenty-three instead of twenty-two and a half cents an hour; and then his product would be counted by the census taker, and the jubilant captains of the industry would boast about it in their banquet halls, telling how our workers are almost twice as efficient as those of any other country. If we are the largest nation on which the sun has ever shone, it would seem that it is mainly because we have managed to push our employees to this level of frenzy.
But while these work-centric passages certainly inspired the socialists and class-conscious workers who encountered them, the novel inevitably became more famous for passages like these:
There were cattle that had been fed “whiskey-malt”, brewery garbage, and had become what men called “steerly” – which means covered in boils. It was a dirty job to kill them, because when you put your knife in it, they would explode and throw you foul smells on your face; and when a man’s sleeves were stained with blood and his hands were soaked in it, how could he wipe his face or brighten his eyes so he could see? . . .
There would be meat stored in large piles in the rooms; and the water from the leaking roofs flowed over it, and thousands of rats rushed into it. It was too dark in these storage places to see well, but a man could run his hand over these heaps of meat and sweep handfuls of dried rat manure. These rats were a nuisance and the packers put poisoned bread on them; they would die, then the rats, the bread and the meat would go together into the hoppers. It’s not a fairy tale or a joke; the meat was shoveled in carts, and the man who shoveled would not mind lifting a rat even when he saw one – there were things that went into the sausage compared to what a poisoned rat was a treat .
Sinclair later said, “I was targeting the audience, and I accidentally punched him in the stomach. “
However, when the public was outraged by the exposure to horribly unsanitary conditions in meat packing plants, Sinclair readily seized the opportunity to publicly frustrate the meat industry, which he called “Beef Trust”.
President Theodore Roosevelt received so many scandalized letters that he requested a hearing with Sinclair. Sinclair lobbied Roosevelt to establish a commission of inquiry into the meat packaging industry. And although Sinclair may have been targeting the economic freedom of meat packaging workers and the working class in general, he was nonetheless satisfied when Roosevelt enacted the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, both focused on prohibiting the production and sale of adulterated food.
Sinclair continued to fight for socialism. Class-conscious meat workers didn’t stop after The jungle and the reforms that followed, either. In fact, organized meat packers peaked in the mid-twentieth century, several decades after the first round of meat industry reforms. “For several decades after World War II,” wrote Michael Haedicke to The conversation, “The conditions in the meat plants have steadily improved under pressure from the workers themselves.”
In the early 1940s, the United Packinghouse Workers of America (UPWA), openly on the left, had phenomenal success in organizing meat packaging workers across racial lines. It had always been the biggest headache – the meat factories were multiracial, multilingual and, many assumed, just too diverse to organize. The UPWA has decided to solve this problem by tackling discrimination head-on, both in the workplace and in society in general. The union was actively engaged in civil rights struggles in the 1950s and 1960s.
At the bargaining table, the union has been militant and effective, in large part because of its united multiracial workforce. At its height in the mid-twentieth century, the UPWA was so powerful that it was able to enter into sectoral negotiations on behalf of the entire industry, not just its own members. The history of UPWA is one of the most encouraging examples of social movement unionism in American history, demonstrating that a strong political conscience and a broad commitment to equality are a boon for the workers’ organization, not a distraction.
For several decades, thanks to this high degree of worker organization, the do not one of the most dangerous, difficult and low-paid jobs in the United States.
But ultimately, the meat packer unions were dismantled along with the rest of the labor movement. Changes in manufacturing methods have shattered the power of skilled meat packers. New companies have sprung up and replaced the old unions, lowering their labor costs. These new companies have started to move their factories from traditional, densely unionized meat packing cities – Chicago, Memphis, Kansas City – to more difficult to organize rural areas. Immigrant workers have been hired in these new factories in places like Iowa and Nebraska for lower wages, and our country’s brutal immigration system has kept them online for fear of organizing with their workers born in the country or resist dictatorships from above.
And that brings us to our days. Right now, immigrant meat packers report to work in what they know to be unsafe pandemic conditions, as they fear that failing to show will result in loss of employment, which could result in non-employment. only loss of income and benefits, but also potentially detention and deportation. The same goes for black meat packing workers in the South who, living in Jim Crow’s long economic shadow, know that they will be punished for insubordination to total poverty, which their state governments anxious to austerity won’t do much to mitigate. The feeling of strength by the solidarity of the workforce has largely evaporated.
The Trump administration is doing everything in its power to ensure that American meat packers, immigrant and native-born, continue to work during the coronavirus pandemic, which poses considerable risk to themselves, their families and the general public. “This is genocide against the working class,” said the leader of Teamsters Local 238, which represents Iowa pork butchers. Guardian. And while the unions that continue to represent these workers are shrinking, their current power is the shadow of what it was fifty years ago.
As a result, workers crowd the refrigerated facilities as a deadly virus enters the dismantling line – all to keep grocery store shelves stored for consumers and voters, and the Beef Trust will remain in the dark. Modern meat packaging may not be the unhealthy industry The jungle, but in the absence of a strong workers’ organization, the nauseating disregard for human well-being remains.