Meatpackers hit for discrimination against workers of color in virus protection
A Tyson Fresh Meats plant employee leaves the plant in Logansport, Ind. | Darron Cummings/AP

WASHINGTON — The nation’s big meatpackers, notably Tyson Foods and JBS, are racially discriminating against their predominantly brown, Black, and Asian front-line labor force by not protecting rank-and-file workers against the coronavirus, a coalition of civil rights and pro-worker groups says. And the groups want to punish them by cutting off their federal cash.

Fed up with the firms, the groups contend they break the 1964 Civil Rights Act. That law, as implemented, bars federal aid to discriminators. So the groups want GOP President Donald Trump’s Agriculture Department, which regulates the meatpacking industry, to stop the subsidies. The cash totaled $155 million to the two big packers alone in the first six months of this calendar year.

Since those two firms, plus Tyson Fresh Meats, Keystone Foods, and Pilgrim’s Pride don’t follow the Centers for Disease Control guidance in protecting workers from the pandemic, the groups also want USDA to send the case to Trump’s Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division for potential prosecution.

Citing the CDC, the complaint says none of those firms’ meatpacking plants have implemented the six-foot social distancing on their production lines. Social distancing is one of the CDC’s main measures to try to cut down community spread of the coronavirus in the pandemic. They’re also not taking other measures to protect the workers against the virus, the complaint adds.

Instead, the firms “favor a processing capacity objective–the bottom line–over common-sense measures to protect workers’ health and safety.”

While the complaint says all the firms discriminate against the workers of color on the plant production lines, by denying them protection against the virus, it singles out the two biggest, Tyson Foods and JBS.

Not protecting workers from the virus “violates Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which protects individuals from racial discrimination by recipients of federal financial assistance because the (firms’) policies (1) cause a disparate impact on Black, Latino, and Asian workers; and (2) represent a pattern or practice of racial discrimination,” it explains.

The meatpackers’ policies towards their workers “reject common-sense protective measures, including a six-foot minimum of social distancing among workers critical to mitigating the risk of exposure to COVID-19. The policies discriminate on the basis of race by causing a substantial adverse effect on Black, Latino, and Asian workers. In addition, publicly available facts indicate a pattern or practice of discrimination. Existing social inequities compound this discrimination for Black and Latino and Asian workers,” it says.

The result has been a coronavirus disaster in the nation’s meatpacking plants, the groups said in both their complaint to USDA and their joint statement.

“As of July 6, the Food & Environment Reporting Network reports that there are at least 292 meatpacking processing plants with confirmed cases, with at least 40,081 meatpacking workers testing positive for, and at least 138 meatpacking workers dying from, COVID-19. As of July 7, the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting documents that Tyson and JBS have the first and second most COVID-19 cases tied to their meat processing facilities, respectively, with a combined total of at least 12,495 positive cases,” the groups said in their joint statement.

And while the front-line workers of color aren’t protected against the coronavirus, “white managers are not exposed to the same risks,” the groups’ formal complaint to USDA drily adds. It notes whites are in the majority in management in both of the big meatpackers.

“Tyson and JBS could protect the lives of food chain workers, respect worker civil rights, and continue to operate their plants if they were to do business in line with all CDC guidance,” said Brent Newell, Public Justice Food Project Senior Attorney and lead counsel for the groups.

“Instead, for the purpose of maximizing profits and processing capacity, these companies treat plant floor workers as sacrificial and reject social distancing on the processing lines in their plants.”

“Publicly available facts indicate a pattern or practice of discrimination,” the complaint to USDA says.

The joint statement also quoted Trump’s Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, as saying that after Trump’s executive order naming packing plant workers as “essential” and ordering them back on the job, the plants are now running at 95% of capacity they had reached before the pandemic hit.

The groups raising hell with USDA are the Food Chain Workers Alliance, the Rural Community Workers Alliance, the HEAL Food Alliance, Forward Latino, the American Friends Service Committee – Iowa, and the Idaho Organization of Resource Councils. They are represented by Public Justice, Nichols Kaster PLLP, and Towards Justice.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.