How Meat Processing Workers Are Fighting Back

A recent bill authored by Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Cal.) seeks to address the enormous power gap in the meat sector and make processing plants safer for workers. The bill has earned support amongst worker advocates and organizers, who see it as a good first step in improving industry conditions for meat processing workers.

“The Protecting America’s Meatpacking Workers Act would provide much needed protections for meatpacking workers… It is clear that our food system is not safe for most farm and food chain workers including meatpacking workers that, due to the power and influence of large multinational corporations, have been forced to risk their lives, crowded into meatpacking plants that became hotbeds for COVID-19 outbreaks”, stated the legislation sponsors in a press release.

The meat industry is highly consolidated. Meat conglomerates have used their market share power to exploit workers, increase consumer prices, underpay farmers and generate enormous profits. Pandemic-era net income surged by 500% while stock buybacks and dividends topped $4 billion. Processors prioritized productivity and profitability over worker safety. Smithfield stoked fears of a meat shortage while exports to China surged. And the CEO of Tyson argued in an op-ed that meat production was essential as healthcare and meat plants needed to stay open no matter what. The Trump Administration subsequently increased line speeds amidst crowded conditions, with workers performing up to 24,000 knife cuts and lifting 15 tons of meat per day.

An October 2021 US House Select Subcommittee report found that at least 59,000 workers at the 5 biggest meat packers, including JBS, Tyson, Smithfield and Cargill, were sickened by Covid-19 and at least 269 died. Outbreaks in the plants caused huge viral clusters in these communities, with over 44% of workers testing positive for the virus and untold numbers of friends, family and community members sickened or killed by the spread. With over 500,000 employed in meat processing, researchers estimate that an additional 5,000 Covid-19 deaths and 250,000 cases could be attributed to the rapid spread in meat facilities.

The Protecting America’s Meatpacking Workers Act is the first step in addressing these injustices. Some of the bill’s key provisions include:

· preventing the U.S. Department of Agriculture from issuing any line speed waivers unless meat and poultry plants show that an increase in line speeds will not adversely impact worker safety

· strengthening health and safety standards and communication

· expanded safety inspections of plants, with attention to line speeds, work site temperatures and bathroom breaks

· strengthening protections from retaliation over safety concerns

· new pandemic safety reporting to require plants to report the number of employees who become ill

· restore country of origin labeling so that consumers know their food came from well-regulated domestic facilities

The bill also directs OSHA to establish an industrywide protocol for protecting workers from repetitive stress injuries, with worker participation in the process, as well as a mandate to enforce safety conditions in plants. Meat packing plants consistently report the highest rates of injuries, including amputations, and more than a third of meatpacking workers have carpal tunnel syndrome along with other debilitating conditions. The bill would also stop employers from preventing bathroom breaks; 80% of workers aren’t able to use bathrooms when needed.

The meatpacking workforce is largely immigrant and people of color. Over 42% of meat plant workers are Latin/Hispanic. The average meatpacking wage is $19 an hour, with many thousands paid much less than a livable wage. About 1 in 5 meat plant workers is eligible for SNAP, double the rate of 20 years ago. The unionization rates in meatpacking have shrunk from 90%, among mostly white workers in the 1950’s, to 18% in 2020. And meat sales continue to increase at retail, cresting $82 billion in 2021, or around 7% of overall grocery and mass market sales. Grocers depend on meat sales to increase customer transaction volumes (aka “basket size”) and have yet to see meaningful meat competition from plant-based analogues, which have leveled out at $1.4 billion in 2021 sales. Regulating the meat industry in the near term is a much higher priority for worker advocates and organizers than pinning hopes on tech-savvy replacements.

According to leaders of HEAL Food Alliance and Food Chain Workers Alliance, meat and poultry processing workers have been organizing for safe working conditions for many years and were on the front lines demanding COVID protections.

“Weak existing laws have failed to protect workers in the meat processing industry both before and during the COVID pandemic. Now we have an opportunity to improve these working conditions and prevent the deterioration of workers’ health through passing and implementing new laws and policies. I urge Congress to listen to workers’ needs and act swiftly to pass this bill,” according to Axel Fuentes, Executive Director of the Rural Community Workers Alliance, who organizes meat processing workers in Missouri and across the South.

Suzanne Adely, Co-director, of the Food Chain Workers Alliance stated, “Meat processing workers have been organizing for safe working conditions and for a voice in their workplace for years, and the COVID pandemic showed us just how much these workers are at risk. While there is still much more to do to protect workers and support worker organizing in meat processing plants, we think the provisions in this Bill are a critically important step.”

And Magaly Licolli, Executive Director of the workers’ center Venceremos in Rogers, Arkansas, gave input on the bill’s contents. Licolli recently told The Checkout Podcast, “These companies treat workers as expendable. They don’t see any value of these workers. Workers must be part of the solutions, part of creating those solutions and be part of monitoring those solutions.”