Trump orders workers back into dangerous meat plants
As worker deaths from the coronavirus continue to rise Trump has issued an order to force workers back into dangerous plants. | Evan Vucci/AP

WASHINGTON—The union that represents huge numbers of the nation’s beef, poultry and pork processing plant workers is demanding that the GOP Trump administration ensure those workers are protected from the coronavirus pandemic threat as it forces them back to their jobs.

In an April 29 statement, which followed a letter the week before to Vice President Mike Pence, United Food and Commercial Workers President Marc Perrone says those workers lack adequate safeguards, including N95 masks and respirators, other protective gear, and measures to ensure safe social distancing, all needed to prevent the spread of the virus.

Perrone’s letter comes as dozens of packing plants have shut down nationwide due to the virus threat and as 5,000 workers have tested positive for the coronavirus and been ordered to self-quarantine or have had to be hospitalized. Twenty have died nationwide, so far including two at the most notorious of the affected plants, the Smithfield pork plant in Sioux Falls, S.D.

Overall, more than 1 million people have caught the coronavirus and almost 60,000 nationwide have died.

Perrone made it clear to Trump and Pence that he’s speaking not just for his union’s one million-plus members – including its 250,000 in packing plants — but for non-union workers, too. All suffer from the same conditions, including being packed closely together, lack of protective personal equipment, safety inspections turned over to plant supervisors rather than the U.S. Agriculture Department, and increased line speeds.

Many meat plant workers, though Perrone did not say so, are also afraid to speak up and report dangers – including the threat of the coronavirus – because the workers are undocumented. That lets exploitative bosses threaten to call Trump Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents to raid plants and rid them of “troublemakers.”

“To protect America’s food supply, America’s meatpacking workers must be protected,” Perrone said. “These workers are putting their lives on the line every day to keep our country fed during this deadly outbreak.” After reciting the numbers, he added: “For the sake of all our families, we must prioritize the safety and security of these workers. “

“While we share the concern over the food supply, today’s executive order to force meatpacking plants to stay open must put the safety of our country’s meatpacking workers first. Simply put, we cannot have a secure food supply without the safety of these workers.”

“We urge the administration 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. Additionally, to protect the food supply and ensure these safety standards for workers are enforced, these plants must be constantly monitored by federal inspectors and workers must have access to representation to ensure their rights are not violated,” Perrone said.

Sending workers back to work in unprotected plants also threatens the communities in which they are located. Meat plants are located in 150 different rural counties. The coronavirus infection rate in those counties is already higher than it is in 75 percent of the remaining counties in the U.S.

These rural locations, like Sioux Falls, S.D., the home of the Smithfield plant that employs 6,700 workers, do not have stay-at-home orders in place and have experienced high rates of infection originating from the plants.

Trump’s order can well cause additional outbreaks in those communities.

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CONTRIBUTOR

Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.

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