Meatpacking workers sacrificed

May 1, 2020

From the May-June 2020 issue of News & Letters

Chicago—Meatpackers across the Midwest have been drafted into combat in a pandemic. In late March, workers at the Smithfield packing plant in Sioux Falls, S.D., alerted the public to COVID-19 cases that the company had kept under wraps in order to maintain production targets. By the time even Trump-supporter Gov. Kristi Noem pushed the company to shut it down on April 15, the virus had infected close to 800 workers and their contacts.


UFCW Local 1473 at Patrick Cudahy in Wisconsin alerted Smithfield in March to two cases at the plant, but the company concealed infections while crowding workers together without protections until grudgingly closing three weeks later. Smithfield’s boss lashed out at the pressure to close his plats: “We have a stark choice as a nation: we are either going to produce food or not, even in the face of COVID-19,” as if worker safety interfered.

Neglect of safety and masks has allowed COVID-19 to race through other packing plants. Tyson closed one plant in Iowa, but kept its Waterloo pork plant producing.

In the 1980s, major meat suppliers in Chicago and elsewhere reacted to the appearance of non-union Iowa Beef Processors by colluding to impose a wage cut from $10.33 to $8.50 an hour on UFCW workers. The pages of News & Letters were filled with the voices of workers battling lockouts at Oscar Mayer, Swift, Patrick Cudahy and Hormel. Fighting both their company and anti-union Reagan policies, workers and their unions were weakened but survived.

Today’s workforce shares similarity with the immigrants from diverse nationalities in the Chicago Stockyards of the 1900s. Smithfield hires workers with precarious legal status from Nepal, Ethiopia and Burma at the Sioux Falls plant. The average wage, around the goal of the Fight for $15 Movement, tells us that wage would be no ticket to prosperity.


But workers are facing speed-up unlike the 1900s or even the 1980s. We are seeing what Karl Marx called capital’s “werewolf hunger for surplus labor” as packing companies try to reap the benefits of the prevailing level of automation—but substituting intensified sweated labor for the capital investment of automation. They block anything that slows down the hog or beef line in normal times, so making workers safer in a pandemic, if it slows the line or adds to expenses, is anathema.

Society now notices meatpackers and calls them, like nurses, bus drivers and store clerks, essential workers. But meatpackers are all but forced at bayonet point into jeopardy during a pandemic, safety equipment and procedures be damned.

—Bob McGuire


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