COVID-19: Meat industry still closing plants as Trump urges re-openings

Tyson plant Emporia, Kan., 2007 (Charlie Riedel-AP)
Workers at the Tyson plant in Emporia, Kan., in 2007. (Charlie Riedel / AP)

By ADAM RITSCHER

Tyson Foods has announced it will be closing its meat-processing plant in Madison, Neb., indefinitely due to a COVID-19 outbreak there. Over 1200 workers are employed at the plant. The facility is one of four that the corporation has closed just in the last week. Tyson stated that their sales have dropped 15% and continue to fall as plants get shut down across the country and the meat industry’s supply chain is beginning to break down.

Tyson’s woes began back in early April when they shut their Columbus Junction, Iowa, plant after 148 workers had tested positive for COVID-19 and two of them had died. Following a public outcry, the company agreed to close their plant in Waterloo, Iowa, after 180 workers tested positive there. (The Waterloo plant is due to re-open this week.)

The Retail, Wholesale & Department Store Union (part of the UFCW), which represents the 2000 workers at Tyson’s chicken-processing factory in Camilla, Ga., announced on April 17 that four workers there had died of COVID-19. The union went on to denounce the company’s slow response to the pandemic, and its failure to get adequate protective gear to their workers.

Nevertheless, company executives initially pushed back against calls that they should be testing all of their workers. This shocking resistance to basic preventative measures has led to an outcry by concerned citizens and local officials in many of the communities that Tyson has plants. All the while, workers continued to get sick and even die.

Begrudgingly, the company announced that it was closing its plant in Center, Texas—a community that because of Tyson has a COVID-19 infection rate four times higher than the rest of the state. On April 23, after a worker had died and 90 had tested positive for the virus, the company agreed to close their Wallula, Wash., plant.

Similarly, the Tyson plant in Dakota, Neb., closed on April 27, but not until at least 608 people had tested positive for the virus, and a worker had died. Dakota has a population of 20,000 people, but now has an infection rate 20 times higher than Omaha.

Overall, the meat industry has been hit very hard by the pandemic. At least 167 meatpacking and processing plants in the country have workers who have tested positive for COVID-19, according to tracking by USA Today. Over 9400 workers in the industry have been infected, and at least 45 have died. And at least 38 meatpacking plants have ceased operations at some point since the start of the COVID crisis.

The hesitancy of Tyson to issue proper PPE and to take other preventive measures to limit the transmission of the virus is not unique. Tyson’s facilities, along with Smithfield’s, have been getting a lot of press coverage, in part because of the size of their plants and the large percentage of the meat market that they control. But their penny-pinching practices seem to very much be the norm throughout the whole industry. National Beef, JBS USA, Hormel, Foster Farms, Empire Kosher, Wayne Farms, Allen Harim, Bell & Evans, Conagra, American Foods, OSI, and Cargill have all reported high infection rates.

It’s a travesty that the health and safety of this industry’s workers has been treated so cavalierly up until now. But their suffering is not likely to end any time soon. As a result of all of these plant closings, the country’s meat supply is beginning to drop. For example, there has seen a 50% drop in the slaughtering of hogs. Many farmers no longer have anywhere to sell their livestock. Some grocery store chains, like Kroger and Costco, have already announced that they are limiting how much meat customers can buy in some stores because of the drop in supply.

Washington and Wall Street have responded to this supply problem by urging the big meat companies to re-open closed facilities. And this has already begun to happen. Tyson recently began re-opening their plant in Logansport, Ind., despite the fact that 900 workers tested positive for COVID-19 there. And Smithfield is in the process of re-opening their Sioux Falls, S.D., plant even after over 1000 workers were infected.

The Trump administration issued an executive order on April 28 saying it would do everything possible to get shuttered plants to re-open. But so far they seem more concerned about corporate profits and liability issues than worker safety. The guidelines of Trump’s order state merely that plants have to make “good faith” efforts to keep workers safe. The administration has offered to re-open some of the plants under the Defense Production Act, which would then make Tyson, Smithfield, and others immune from being sued by their workers or the communities that these plants are located in.

Unions representing meat industry workers are calling instead for far more aggressive measures to be taken to provide for social distancing, proper PPE to be made available, and for schedules and breaks to be arranged in a way that doesn’t force workers to congregate in large numbers.

As socialists, we support these union demands. However, we call for an even bigger national response. We believe that what is called for is for these plants to be nationalized and put under workers’ control. Who would run them more safely than those whose lives are on the line?

Similarly, non-essential production needs to be nationalized and retooled to make the kind of medical equipment, PPE, and virus tests that are needed by everybody, but especially by front-line workers like those in the food processing industries. We also call for these workers to be given 200% hazard pay, along with free medical care, housing, and food for the length of the pandemic.

We’ve already seen how the capitalists handle the crisis. It’s time to turn things around and put working people in control of things!

 

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