UFCW: Tyson rivals Smithfield in its disregard for workers
Workers leave the Tyson Foods pork processing plant in Logansport, Ind. | Michael Conroy Associated Press

LOGANSPORT, Ind.—The now-infamous Smithfield pork production plant in South Dakota apparently has a “rival” of sorts among food processing factories that have become coronavirus pandemic hotspots.

Welcome to the Tyson Foods pork processing plant in Logansport, Ind., which had to shut for two weeks, from April 23-May 7, for complete cleaning and other measures after 900 of its 2,000 workers tested positive for the virus.

So says worker Dennis Medbourne, one of three workers his union, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), assembled for a June 25 conference call marking day one hundred of the pandemic. As of 3 p.m. that day, the coronavirus sickened 2,404,781 people in the U.S., including 43,655 in Indiana, and killed 122,320 nationwide, among them 2,586 Indianans.

It also includes 4,978 ill meat and poultry processing plant workers and 93-100 who have died, says UFCW President Marc Perrone. And that’s just the ones the union has been able to track, since companies, union and non-union, have been extremely close-mouthed.

That Indiana figure includes 1,632 ill people and ten who have died in Cass County, whose county seat is Logansport. Despite that, Medbourne says, after Tyson cleaned up the plant, it still won’t tell workers how many there are sick – or alert those who toil near them in its close confines. “They’re being very hush-hush,” he says of plant managers.

And after Tyson cut production from 16,000 hogs a day, and reopened with half of that, “now we’re almost back to full speed,” he says. But 200 workers haven’t come back, he adds. They’re either sick or scared to do so.

At least, Medbourne noted, Tyson, under pressure “has put up plexiglass” partitions to separate workers on the production line, and in the company cafeteria to enforce six-foot social distancing, he admits. It also tests every worker before he or she enters the plant, with a temperature scanner. If they run a fever, they’re sent to a mobile clinic outside the factory.

Perrone says that without a new, temporary emergency standard from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, plus strong OSHA enforcement other food and poultry production plants and supermarkets won’t even do that. UFCW is also lobbying for including mandated public reporting of the number of coronavirus cases and deaths, firm by firm.

“There are some companies that aren’t pressing the issue” in either spacing workers away from each other at food processing plants or spacing shoppers away from each other – and workers – at supermarkets, adds Perrone, whose 1.3-million-member UFCW represents both big groups, among others.

He singled out three big firms as malefactors. Two, Amazon and Walmart, are notoriously anti-union and have illegally fired workers who lead protests about unsafe working conditions due to the coronavirus peril. The other, Perrone said, is the Kroger grocery chain.

GOP President Donald Trump’s OSHA, however, has issued only non-enforceable “guidance” to the tens of millions of U.S. businesses it is supposed to cover. But it’s cited only one for coronavirus violations – and that was because the firm failed paperwork standards. It’s had more than 5,000 complaints from workers.

As a result, UFCW turned elsewhere for help, Perrone and Mark Lauritsen, the union’s VP for meat and poultry plant workers, says. That includes state, county, and local governments, and Capitol Hill. Virginia is on the verge of imposing its own strong anti-coronavirus safety and health standards.

And the $3 trillion House-passed Heroes Act, the latest economic stimulus bill, orders OSHA to mandate businesses develop and implement protections for workers against airborne viruses, a key cause of National Nurses United, UFCW, the Mine Workers, and other unions. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., refuses to let it even come up, however. He calls it “a Democratic wish list.”

Perrone and Lauritsen also have discussed the viral pandemic threat with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, since tens of thousands of meat and poultry plant workers are Spanish-speakers. The CHC has been receptive, they said.

Trump and packing plant bosses have not. “The status quo is no longer acceptable,” he declared. “We must provide these essential workers” – as Trump dubbed them in an executive order – “with the protections they deserve….Our food supply is at risk.”


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.