By ADAM RITSCHER
The Smithfield pork processing plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, is a massive facility. It boasts that all by itself it processes up to 5% of the pork products consumed in the entire country. Well, now it can boast another distinction—it has become the nation’s largest single hotspot for COVID-19.
To date, over a thousand people connected to the plant are confirmed to have contracted the virus. Nearly 900 of them are plant workers and the rest are family members and other folks in the community they came into contact with. So far, four of the workers have died.
The first reported case was on March 24. In a facility where most workers work elbow to elbow, the virus spread like wildfire. The workers and their union, the United Food and Commercial Workers, began demanding back in March for increased protective gear and for the company to take the pandemic seriously. The company’s response was to offer workers a $500 bonus if they kept coming in to work.
Increasing production, and keeping costs down, was so important to the company that it didn’t even make a serious effort to communicate with its workforce about the pandemic.
The 3700 workers at the Smithfield plant come from all over the world. Forty different languages can be heard on the shop floor. Of the leading languages spoken by the workers (Spanish, Oromo, Amharic, Tigrinya, Vietnamese, Kunama, Swahili, English, Nepali, and French) only one—English—was used in publishing instructions about COVID-19. Even after workers became so sick that they could no longer work and had to be sent home, the packet they got instructing them how to keep it from spreading to their loved ones was only in English.
Finally, after pressure was brought to be bear by the community and the state, Smithfield announced it was closing its plant. But that didn’t happen until April 12, by which time a quarter of the workers were sick and it was spreading throughout the community.
In addition to COVID, meat and poultry workers experience higher illness rates in general than other manufacturing workers. A U.S. Government Accountability Office study reported nearly 160 cases per 10,000 full-time meat and poultry workers in 2013, compared to about 40 cases for manufacturing overall. And those rates are likely higher, the report said, since workers (fearing job loss) as well as their employers may underreport injuries and illnesses.
While Smithfield workers are still being buried, South Dakota’s Republican governor, Kristi Noem, and President Trump are already calling for the plant to be re-opened.
The federal government is offering to officially force the plant to re-open under the Defense Production Act, which would then make Smithfield immune from lawsuits from its workers and the community. At least 22 other meat and poultry plants in the United States that have closed down due to the virus would also be affected by the order to re-open that Trump issued on April 28.
More than 6500 meat and food-processing workers have been infected by COVID-19 at 48 plants across the country, according to a recent report by the United Food and Commercial Workers union. At least 20 workers are known to have died. And given the reckless greed of capitalism, those numbers are likely to grow. That is unless we’re able to stand up and say, “enough is enough!” We’ve seen how capitalists intend to handle this crisis. As socialists, we say that now more than ever, the time has come for the workers themselves to run things.