WCP: “People Ain’t Gonna Come to Work if They Don’t Feel Safe”

J2N908 Workers on the line at Triumph Foods pork processing facility April 28, 2017 in St. Joseph, Missouri.

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For many essential workers, the coronavirus pandemic presents an impossible choice: earn a living by risking your life or stay healthy but lose your income. In this week’s Working-Class Perspectives (new window), Christopher R. Martin shares the view from Iowa, where meatpacking plants have high rates of infection. As a union rep explains, workers “don’t care about being fired. They care about their lives and their family’s lives.”

If you live in Iowa, you get to see a little bit of how the sausage is made, so to speak, especially if it’s pork. It’s a common occurrence to see long semi-truck trailers on the highways, with round pink hog noses poking out through the metal slots, three levels of about 175 hogs. You can smell the truck before you see it.

In northeast Iowa, the full trucks are all en route to the Tyson plant in Waterloo. Tyson has six pork plants (in addition to beef and chicken facilities) in the U.S. Collectively, they process 461,000 hogs per week. That’s nearly 24 million hogs a year.

In Black Hawk County, Iowa, Tyson is the second leading employer (after John Deere), with about 2,800 jobs. The plant has long drawn Latino, Bosnian, Congolese, Burmese, and Pacific Islander immigrant workers, making Waterloo (along with other meatpacking towns) one of the most diverse cities in the Midwest. Students in Waterloo schools speak 45 different languages.

The work is hard. Meat cutters often work shoulder to shoulder cutting and packaging meat, on their feet the entire time. A current job description notes “heavy/detailed knife work, stunning, and/or saw operation. May require climbing stairs/ladders. Must be able to lift up to 150 lbs (2 people) and push/pull up to 280 lbs.” — all while working in rooms that can be wet and slippery, with temperatures in some rooms as low as 35-40 degrees or over 90 degrees in others. The average hourly rate is $14.96. Shifts can run 10-12 hours, six days a week.

Large institutions with thousands of people in close quarters are perfect places to spread coronavirus. When COVID-19 hit Iowa in mid-March, I was sent home from my university to teach my classes online. On the other side of the county, Tyson workers carried on, in person at the factory. The situation mirrors the COVID-19 class divisions across the country: many middle-class people get to work from the safety of their own homes, while working-class “essential” workers risk coronavirus exposure daily as a condition of their labor.

The work of meatpacking is rarely in the news nationally, or even locally in the Midwest. Although the top four meatpacking companies employ nearly a half million people, in an industry that generates over $231 billion a year, but their difficult work is nearly invisible, off of the radar of the middle-class-targeted news audience. Stories like the Department of Agriculture’s speed-up of pork processing lines last fall are covered as policy debates and rarely include workers’ voices.

The coronavirus has changed that.

A quick review illustrates how the number of stories about meatpacking has skyrocketed. I searched the Nexis News database for the first four months of this year, using the search terms “meatpacker” and “worker.” There were 718 news stories, and the monthly count grew exponentially during the first part of the year, almost like the virus itself:

Jan. 2020:        14 stories
Feb. 2020:       33 stories
Mar. 2020:      59 stories
April 2020:     612 stories

The framing of the stories has changed, too, as a deep concern about workers and communities spread.

The story of coronavirus in Iowa meatpacking plants blew up in the second week of April, as Tyson suspended production at its Columbus Junction, Iowa facility, with at least two dozen workers infected with COVID-19. Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds said Tyson would make the decision on when the plant would reopen, and that “they are doing everything they can, not just to protect the employees but to continue a really critical part of our food supply chain.” Meanwhile, in Black Hawk County, at Tyson’s largest pork processing operation, workers who have no paid sick days written into their UFCW union contract began a sickout in mid-April, refusing to work in an environment they called dangerous.

On April 18, fearing an enormous outbreak at the Waterloo plant, 20 elected officials from the area pleaded with Tyson to close the plant until all mitigation efforts could be completed. Tyson did not respond, and Reynolds refused to close the plant, lamenting that shutting down the factory might result in hogs being euthanized.
Finally, on April 22, after worker sickouts, community criticism, and more than 180 Waterloo worker COVID-19 cases and one worker death, Tyson closed the plant. That week, Iowa won the ignominious honor of having the fastest virus spread of any state in the U.S.

Hopes to get ahead of the virus lasted only a few days. On April 26, Reynolds announced her first steps to reopen businesses across the state, dismissing a report by University of Iowa researchers that “a second wave of infections is likely” if prevention measures weren’t kept in place until at least mid-May.

This isn’t just a political story. Local news media across the state are bringing workers’ voices into the mix. Like most news organizations across the country, the Waterloo Courier doesn’t have a regular workplace beat reporter. But Courier multimedia reporter Amie Rivers listened to what people were saying in the community and broke the story of the sickout at Tyson in Waterloo. Iowa AP correspondent Ryan Foley wrote moving stories about people who worked at Tyson plants and died from COVID-19. IowaStartingLine, an online publication, interviewed young Latinos and Latinas deeply worried about their parents who worked in meatpacking plants. Local TV stations and Iowa Public Radio featured stories of workers and meatpacking, too, as did CBS, CNN, NBC, and MSNBC. The New York Times podcast “The Daily” featured a heartbreaking half-hour interview with Achut Deng, a single mother, UFCW member, and Sudanese refugee who contracted COVID-19 at the Smithfield factory in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

Iowa’s meatpacking plants are only part of the story. Mike Elk, a labor reporter and founder of Payday Report, has literally connected the dots by mapping all of the instances of worker resistance. On his COVID-19 Strike Wave Interactive Map, he has recorded 184 wildcat strikes that happened since the beginning of March. The actions, all pandemic related, include Amazon fulfillment workers walking out in Tracy, California; fast food workers striking at 50 stores in Central Florida; and Richmond, Virginia bus drivers conducting a sickout.

On May 5, Reynolds finally released data showing almost 1,400 coronavirus cases at three Tyson plants: 221 in Columbus Junction, 444 in Waterloo, and 730 in Perry, the latest outbreak. The local newspaper headline in Perry read “Jaw-dropping 58% of Perry Tyson workers test positive.” Two days later, the Tyson pork plant in Waterloo reopened with plastic shields spacing workers six feet apart. The day after reopening, Black Hawk County health officials reported that 1,031 Waterloo Tyson plant workers had COVID-19, more than 2.3 times the number of the state’s undercount.

I talked with Samuel Stokes, the UFCW Local 431 union representative/organizer in Waterloo, about how the workers felt about going back. “People ain’t gonna come to work if they don’t feel safe. They don’t care about being fired. They care about their lives and their family’s lives.” He said about half of the workers want to return, and about half don’t. “They just pray that Tyson has their back. If they go back and Tyson is not safe, it will be the same thing all over again. They will voice their opinions.”

It is hard to believe that it has been only about two months since the WHO called COVID-19 a global pandemic. Workers face the double threat of a deadly virus and long-term unemployment that increasingly rivals the Great Depression. There is no magical cure (sorry hydroxychloroquine, UV rays, and bleach), so we may well see more examples of workers and citizens forming a mutual solidarity for their own and their community’s survival for months or years to come.

Christopher R. Martin, University of Northern Iowa

Read this post in its entirety and other Working-Class Perspectives on our website.
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The Working-Class Perspectives blog is brought to you by our Visiting Scholar for the 2015-20 academic years, John Russo, and English Professor and Director of the American Studies Program at Georgetown University, Sherry Linkon. It features several regular and guest contributors. Last year, the blog published 43 posts that were read over 94,000 times by readers in 176 countries. The blog is cited by journalists from around the world, and discussed in courses in high schools and colleges worldwide.