Workers’ lives before meatpacker profits

Workers at Tyson’s Camilla, Georgia, poultry processing plant.

Donald Trump celebrated Workers’ Memorial Day on April 28 by ordering dangerously unsafe meatpacking and poultry plants to remain open.

Twenty workers in the industry have already died and nearly 5,000 have tested positive for the coronavirus, according to the Center for Disease Control. The 115 infected facilities with 130,000 workers were in 19 states. 

Even 100 U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors have caught the virus. 

Working in these slaughterhouses was always risky. Between 2015 and 2017, an average of two workers a week had one of their limbs amputated.

Workers having their hands or fingers cut off didn’t bother the bleach promoter in the White House. Trump invoked the Defense Production Act in order to shield monopolies like Tyson Foods, with annual sales of $42 billion, from lawsuits.   

“We’re going to sign an executive order today, I believe, and that’ll solve any liability problems,” said Trump.

Green Bay, Wis., Mayor Eric Genrich said Trump’s order gave a legal blank check to “meat packing conglomerates.” Five hundred workers in the nearby JBS meatpacking plant contracted COVID-19.

Meatpacking executives were “thrilled,” according to the president, after he called them. “They’re so happy. They’re all gung-ho, and we solved their problems” 

There’s no mention of Trump talking to any elected union officials representing workers that use “dangerous equipment,” work on “slippery floors,” and suffer from “high noise levels” and “musculoskeletal disorders,” according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Workers aren’t too “gung-ho” about being exposed to animal blood and feces, either.

Sacrificing workers for profit  

Trump’s executive order came two days after John H. Tyson, chairman of the board of Tyson Foods, placed newspaper ads claiming “the food supply chain is vulnerable.”

Who’s really vulnerable are workers like Tara Williams, who’s employed at the Tyson poultry plant in Camilla, Ga. Her friend and co-worker, Eloise Willis, died of COVID-19 on April 1. It took management two weeks to put up a picture of Willis and tell workers she had died.

Eloise Willis worked a 10-hour shift at Tyson for 35 years. She and her fellow union members handled 100,000 chickens per shift.

Big-hearted John Tyson is now offering workers a $500 bonus in May and again in July if they havegood” attendance. The blood money shouldn’t take too much out of Tyson’s $2 billion fortune.

Work or starve 

No one should have to work in dangerous conditions. If the entire U.S. workforce were exposed to COVID-19 at the same rate as meatpacking and poultry workers are, over 5 million would have tested positive.

Because of the meat monopolies’ drive for profits, employees are often placed close together on a production line. This virtually guarantees a high infection rate.

Despite the pandemic, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds is telling workers to go back to work or lose unemployment benefits. Iowa Workforce Development said that any worker refusing to go back to work because they fear catching the coronavirus would be considered a “voluntary quit” ― and denied benefits.

Reynolds went ahead with loosening social-distancing restrictions in the Hawkeye State even though seven epidemiology and biostatistics professors from the University of Iowa advised the governor not to do so. 

The entire labor and peoples’ movements have to organize against workers being forced to go back to unsafe companies. No worker should have to choose between losing benefits or getting sick and possibly dying on the job.

During World War II, a largely Black force of sailors loaded munitions at Port Chicago, Calif., 48 miles from San Francisco. Unsafe conditions led to a July 17, 1944, explosion in which 320 sailors were killed. 

Their families were originally supposed to get a $5,000 benefit. This was reduced to $3,000 after Mississippi Congressman John Rankin realized most of the victims were African American.

When many surviving Black sailors refused to go back to work under the same conditions, they were labeled “cowards” by the corporate newspapers. Fifty sailors were charged with mutiny, a death penalty offense.

Future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall led the defense campaign that won the sailors’ release in 1946.

Trump and the capitalist class are trying to force workers back to dangerous conditions just like the Navy brass ordered Black sailors back to loading explosives at Port Chicago. But human life is more important than meat profits.