Pandemic in the Plants. The Meat Plants, That Is

A butcher chops up beef at Jones Meat & Food Services in Rigby, Idaho, May 26, 2020. (Photo: Natalie Behring / AFP via Getty Images)

Pandemic in the Plants. The Meat Plants, That Is

What we face here is not just standard corporate minginess but an evil mentality that reduces workers to inferior, disposable beings.

Until recently, few people considered the sources of their meat. Then, a coronavirus walked into one after another of Meat Inc.'s humongous rural factories, where more than 90% of U.S. bacon, hamburger, chops, wings and other animal parts are processed. Within weeks, the industry's business model--immense plants, side-by-side congestion, worker powerlessness and profit-driven executive suite carelessness--had created hotbeds of contagion. Although the toll is undoubtedly higher, 494 meat factories have acknowledged coronavirus outbreaks that have infected at least 42,534 workers and killed 203.

In counties with few doctors and often no hospitals, bodies piled up; workers were refusing to show up; plants were forced to shut down; supermarkets and restaurants across the country rationed meat sales; and -- worst of all in the corporate view--profits plummeted. What to do?

Do the old corporate shuffle, of course: Deny there's any crisis; hide the numbers of ill and dead; blame immigrants; get Trump to order workers back on the job and grant blanket legal immunity to the corporations for any resulting harm to working families; and speed up the high-speed disassembly lines, known as The Chain, that snake through the factories.

Sure enough, when workers began testing positive and dying, major meatpackers responded by not reporting data, halting worker testing and scoffing at workers' concerns. As the virus ran rampant in April and May, callous corporate bosses resorted to gimmicks. For example, JBS, the Brazilian conglomerate, tried to lure its low-wage, vulnerable workers back on The Chain with a cheap bribe: a 5-pound package of ground beef.

Worse are public officials who abet that greed. In Iowa, when county health officials demanded that Tyson test workers, the elected county attorney balked at "overstepping our bounds" and weakened the demand to an easily ignored request. Two weeks later, the state health office finally intervened to run tests: 730 people--58% of plant workers--had tested positive for the virus.

"This conspiracy of silence is killing workers, families and communities."

Similarly, a slew of North Carolina county health directors asked state officials not to embarrass Smithfield Foods by releasing plant-specific numbers of infected workers. Why? Because disclosure "may negatively impact the relationship" with corporate executives.

This conspiracy of silence is killing workers, families and communities. "Are you telling me that it doesn't matter that two workers are infected because the plant is worth more than the workers' health?" a pork plant worker emailed city officials in Missouri. Yes, that's precisely what they're saying. One city official suggested using hand sanitizer.

Ignoring science and the Common Good, and siding with meat executives, our cheeseburger-gobbling president invoked the 1950 Defense Production Act to decree that chicken nuggets, pork rinds and Slim Jims are "scarce and critical material essential to the national defense." Thus, public health officials are now prohibited from closing any plants, and slaughterhouse workers must obey private corporate orders to return to The Chain or lose their jobs and become ineligible for unemployment benefits. To mask their crime, the Trumpistas issued minimal worker-protection guidelines--but even they are voluntary, letting bosses ignore them. Unsurprisingly, just over a month after Trump's executive order, COVID-19 cases tied to slaughterhouses jumped by more than 100%.

Earlier this month, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration stepped up and issued fines to two of the largest meatpacking plants in the U.S., citing them for creating "recognized hazards that were causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm to employees" and finding that the mega-rich giants "did not develop or implement timely and effective measures to mitigate exposures" to the coronavirus.

Finally, something will be done about the unsafe conditions in meatpacking plants, right? Well ... no. Both JBS and Smithfield have said the fines are "without merit" and will be contested.

OSHA must have issued massive fines if multibillion-dollar companies are opting to fight them. Well ... again, no. Smithfield, a $14 billion conglomerate, and JBS, a $51.7 billion global powerhouse, have been fined a combined total of--get this--$29,000. "These tiny fines are nothing to (meat plant owners)," said Kim Cordova, president of the UFCW Local 7. "They give an incentive to make these workers work faster and harder in the most unsafe working conditions imaginable."

What we face here is not just standard corporate minginess but an evil mentality that reduces workers to inferior, disposable beings: It dehumanizes not only the workplace but workers themselves. It's bad enough that some elites have always held such beliefs but far worse that, in the case of the meat industry, this lethal dehumanization is now accepted as the guiding ethic of both corporate and governmental policy.

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