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Cash Cows

Meatpacking and the specter of Coronapolitics

In early April, the meat-processing company Smithfield Foods announced a $500 “responsibility bonus” for employees who completed every shift that month at their plants across the country. A short video announced the measure with an appearance by the company’s CEO and cartoons of loyal (and happy) workers as superheroes. The decision was intended to keep Smithfield’s plants running; by reframing labor shortages and worker anger connected to the coronavirus pandemic around the notion of “responsibility,” it placed the burden of handling the crisis on employees.

It would have been an HR-department masterstroke, if not for the crushing reality of the pandemic. By then, hundreds of workers at Smithfield plants had already been infected, and more and more were getting sick. Several, like sixty-four-year-old Agustin Rodriguez, had kept working at its facility in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, despite experiencing early symptoms of coronavirus. Rodriguez and his wife, who immigrated from El Salvador together two decades ago, were living in a trailer but hoping to save up for a home. He was hospitalized on April 4. On April 12, facing a growing outbreak, Smithfield announced it was shuttering its Sioux Falls facility. Rodriguez would die from coronavirus complications a few days later. As of May 1, according to the Center for Disease Control, there are more than five thousand coronavirus cases in 115 meatpacking facilities across the United States, and twenty deaths. USA Today has calculated that roughly a third of the country’s meatpacking plants are in counties with high rates of coronavirus infection.

Coronavirus places the risk of reopening the economy on the most vulnerable workers while tacitly defending the luxury of those who can afford to stay at home.

That slaughterhouses have emerged as coronavirus “hot spots” is not a coincidence. The very forces that define modern meatpacking are those that drive the pandemic. The slaughterhouse relies on poorly paid workers in cramped conditions, who have limited power inside the workplace or out. Many of these workers are also undocumented, giving them poor access to government services and few options for alternate employment. Just as social distancing starves the coronavirus beast, those forced to work, whether because they are essential, or because staying home means financial ruin, feed the virus.

After shuttering its Sioux Falls plant, Smithfield distributed a press release warning that the country was “perilously close” to a meat shortage. Panicked news reports appeared across the country; photos of empty meat aisles appeared in major newspapers. With a few notable exceptions, what should have been a conversation about worker safety became one about consumers. “We’re going to have positive Covid cases,” Smithfield’s CEO Kenneth Sullivan told the Wall Street Journal. “The question is what do you do in the face of that—do you stop the harvest, or continue, because it’s essential to life? There’s only one option there.”

The collective conversation is emblematic of an emerging “Coronapolitics.” It is similar to biopolitics in that it protects the health of one group (those who can afford it) while consigning to illness the other (those who cannot). When leaders call for reopening the economy, arguing that the country cannot sustain this kind of damage, they are endorsing Coronapolitics. They are placing the risk of the pandemic on the most vulnerable workers while tacitly defending the luxury of those who can afford to stay at home and decide if and when they will “return to normal.”

Coronapolitics is predicated on a world in which even the vulnerable desperately want to work—some are even angry that they cannot—because decades of erosion to the collective safety net leaves them with few other options. It exploits an economy that functions like a slaughterhouse, in which profits come from overworking laborers who have no choice but to take on more and more risk for diminishing returns. As this dynamic is playing out across the economy, a closer look at meatpacking might reveal things still to come.

The modern slaughterhouse is an impressive if brutal sight. Teams of workers, in choreographed unison, dismantle carcass after carcass with relentless efficiency. Seeing sides of beef dismantled in Chicago made such an impression on Henry Ford that he wrote in his memoirs that it inspired his assembly line dreams.

To take the example of beef, a traditional butcher might process a couple carcasses a day. In the earliest industrial slaughterhouses of the late nineteenth century, a team of roughly two hundred people could process just over a hundred carcasses an hour. Per worker, this was nearly an order of magnitude higher daily output than a highly trained traditional butcher. And this process has only accelerated over the past hundred years. Facilities today can process more than a thousand carcasses an hour, even as they remain resistant to automation. (Animal carcasses and anatomy vary in size and shape; it is work well suited to the flexibility of human hands.) Speeds are now limited only by federal worker safety and sanitation guidelines, many of which are presently being rolled back.

This system is productive, but it relies on a large pool of replacement labor. Meat processing work is so difficult, stressful, and dangerous that it has extremely high turnover. To address the problem, the context outside the slaughterhouse is as important as what happens inside: employers need people desperate enough to accept such grueling and dangerous work. If workers could organize effectively or if bosses ran out of fresh labor, the whole system would collapse.

Central to meatpacking is a brutally efficient system of labor organization paired with social forces that keep people disempowered and coming to work.

Unions have long struggled to change these dynamics. In the first two thirds of the twentieth century, those like the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and the United Packinghouse Workers of America did manage to turn meatpacking into a difficult but reliable route into the middle class. But in the last quarter of the twentieth century, as processors moved their facilities to anti-union states and as both national parties betrayed the working class, meatpacking unions have been severely weakened. It’s true that the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) has reclaimed ground over recent years with hard-fought victories. But the underlying dynamics remain unchanged overall. “In every state they’ve been deemed essential,” UFCW President Marc Perrone has said of packing plant employees. “But they haven’t been given essential protections that they so desperately need.”

To get a sense of the difficulties these workers face, it might be useful to examine how a packing plant employee might face the coronavirus pandemic. For workers in any essential industry or those who have no choice but to leave home and go to work, this will be a painfully familiar story.

Imagine you wake up with a fever. You could stay at home, but you don’t want to develop a reputation for unreliability, and you need the money. You might be splitting rent with friends to send money home. You might have elderly parents or kids to support. You, your spouse, your cousins, and your friends all face the same problem: none of you can do your job from home, and none of you can afford to stay there. So all of you go to work.

At the plant you are trying to stay away from your coworkers. But you are all squeezed together, and everything is happening so fast. Somehow, you make it through the day. But eventually it just is not possible to return for another shift. Where you need to go is the doctor, but you don’t have insurance. Maybe you have not been working long enough at the plant, or the plant moved into town a few years ago to escape a union contract that included health benefits.

So you stay at home. Over time you might recover. But you now probably have thousands of dollars of new medical debt. Meanwhile, there is no job to return to, and the unemployment system in your state is overwhelmed following years of cuts. You might have poor access to social services; maybe you are worried about an ICE raid. Now the plant is shut, but all you can think about is getting back to work. You need the money more than ever.

A version of this story is playing out across the American economy. Central to meatpacking is a brutally efficient system of labor organization paired with social forces that keep people disempowered and coming to work. Coronavirus feeds on this model which is increasingly at the core of the American economy. For instance, the gig economy runs on “consultants” desperate to survive on what advertisements excitedly describe as a “side hustle.” Likewise with Amazon or one of its contractors. Delivery or warehouse work is grueling and risky, but Amazon is one of the only companies hiring, so it might be the best option, even if you do not get health benefits.

Those of us at home “rely” on these workers. They deliver our meals and our packages. But they might be inside too, if not for the risk of financial ruin.

On Sunday, April 26, Tyson Foods took out a full-page advertisement in the New York Times and Washington Post titled “A Delicate Balance: Feeding the Nation and Keeping Our Employees Healthy.” It highlighted the importance of the company’s “essential” work providing the country with “safe, sustainable, quality and affordable food.” The advertisement laid out the measures Tyson has taken to protect their employees, but it also raised the specter of meat shortage, warning “the food supply chain is vulnerable.”

As with Smithfield, there are good reasons to be suspicious of Tyson’s commitment to this “delicate balance.” Time and again, the company has chosen profits over employee welfare. In 2015, Oxfam published a report exposing the poor pay, elevated injury risk, and general “climate of fear” at Tyson processing plants. A year later, another Oxfam report chronicled in excruciating detail how workers in Tyson facilities were being denied bathroom breaks. Some employees resorted to wearing diapers. Little has changed since then; a 2019 Human Rights Watch report detailed similar conditions across the industry.

It is clear that McConnell is more invested in the “courage” of business than the fears of workers.

When it comes to the risk of coronavirus, workers are starting to fight back. On April 24, a Smithfield employee announced in the pages of the Washington Post that they were suing the company. The author explained that meat processing “was a dangerous, hard job every day before the coronoravirus. But managers never blatantly asked me to risk my life just by showing up—until this pandemic.” The argument traces all of the risks of coronavirus in the slaughterhouse—worker crowding, punishing line speeds, and pressure to keep working. This was not the case of one particularly bad facility; similar concerns have been raised across the country. One worker at a JBS beef facility in Colorado reported that when he started to feel sick he had hoped to leave the line, but his supervisor told him he was needed. The man ultimately ended up on a ventilator.

Nevertheless, elected officials have made it clear that they want to keep plants humming. It is easy to understand why: the meat supply is a major political issue. Shortages would personalize the pandemic—bare meat aisles drive home the reality of the crisis and spark public outrage. Consequently, politicians have started to take aggressive measures to keep plants open and protect their owners. In an April 27 appearance on Fox News Radio, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell raised the alarm about employee lawsuits:

We need these litigation protections—some of which was done previously, but not nearly broad enough, to protect both the first responders and the businesses that have courage to go on open up knowing full well they may get sued by somebody who claims that because they violated CDC recommendations they’re responsible for somebody’s illness.

It is clear that McConnell is more invested in the “courage” of business than the fears of workers.

A day later, on April 28, President Trump issued an executive order invoking the Defense Production Act to keep meat processors operating. The order expressed frustration that state and local health authorities have forced facilities to close, arguing that these measures “[undermine] critical infrastructure during the national emergency.” It was an unambiguous  message to producers that the federal government has their back. “We just worked with the meat processors,” Trump gloated at a press conference the next day. “We have tremendous product, we have ample supply, but there was a bottleneck caused by this whole pandemic . . . We unblocked some of the bottleneck.” Regarding workers, the order did allude to recent CDC and OSHA guidelines on coronavirus mitigation, but these are not actually binding. The President has made it clear that when it comes to the delicate balance, there’s a thumb on the scale.

Casting meat production as “critical infrastructure” is a political decision. People understandably want their meat, but starvation is not at hand. President Trump’s executive order risks worker lives to keep consumers (especially voting ones) happy and meat-producers in business. This is Coronapolitics at its core: health and security for those who can afford it, and illness for those keeping the system running. Many workers will accept this burden because they cannot afford any other option.