Thousands of workers stream in single file, at dawn and mid-afternoon, to suit up in masks and chain gloves and put their lives on the line so you can put cheap sausage on your biscuit.
They are accustomed to living in fear – of starvation from drought in Guatemala, or death squads in El Salvador or drug cartels in Mexico. Of being hunted and caged, whether documented or not. And now, of meeting their fate over a pork chop.
“It’s genocide against the working class. It’s hard to visualize it and articulate it for what it is,” Jesse Case, the leader of Teamsters Local 238, the largest private-sector union in Iowa, told me.
Donald Trump, invoking the Defense Production Act, has ordered meatpacking plants to stay open no matter the cost. Plants won’t even close for a deep cleaning when a deadly pathogen is found. The president said he is protecting companies from liability – you know, in case somebody keels over because of someone else’s negligence.
Across America, packing plants for beef, pork, chicken and turkey have been closing as workers fall ill with Covid-19 or die. The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) has said that at least 72 of its members have died from coronavirus, and thousands more may be infected; because of the lack of tests, no one knows the true number. Despite repeated warnings in the presidential briefing books months ago, nobody instructed industry to gear up or how.
In Storm Lake, Iowa, center of the densest livestock-producing region in America, none of the roughly 2,500 pork and turkey processing workers at Tyson Foods plants have been tested for the coronavirus. Hence, Buena Vista county reports only four cases so far, while nearby red meat hub Sioux City is the hottest spot in the USA. Workers’ temperatures are checked. If they feel sick they are advised to stay home. They are told to space out and not crowd into the locker rooms. Plastic hangs between workers on the line. Tyson says it is doing all it can by staggering breaks and spacing workers.
Iowa’s governor, Kim Reynolds, a Republican, directed testing resources to Tyson’s Waterloo plant. There, workers are represented by the UFCW. The local sheriff said he wanted a boot slammed down on the slaughterhouse. But in Storm Lake, testing is limited to healthcare and nursing home workers and patients. None for the packinghouse crowd, who are overwhelmingly Latino and non-union.
Before the order they did their duty and clocked in. Nobody had to threaten them. They need the check. If you report sick with the virus, you might imagine finding yourself on the next bus to Juarez whether you have papers or not. They want to work – safely.
Tyson says that its workers are documented. But Trump and the likes of the Iowa congressman Steve King, the race-baiting Republican, have Latino workers shaking in their boots. The governor warns that if a plant reopens and you don’t show up, unemployment benefits cease. And then the president orders that the plants shall reopen come hell or a virus. The leaders of the big meatpackers are warning of spot meat shortages – plant capacity has dropped 40% in recent weeks from worker shortages. You just can’t let this Storm Lake plant shut down. But what happens if it explodes? The anxiety cuts to our quick.
Remember, too, that Smithfield Foods is owned by a Chinese conglomerate. Prestage Farms, in Eagle Grove, Iowa, has taken to sending whole hog carcasses to China for lack of further processing help amid our cornfields. This is not really an American food shortage.
The supply chain is so tight that when two plants go down – Smithfield in Sioux Falls and Tyson in Waterloo – fully 10% of national pork production is knocked out. Everyone has to eat, and they have not yet developed a taste for algae or even tofu. The world eats meat. Shoppers can clear out a grocery display in minutes, and a meat supply in a week.
Somebody has to process the hogs and birds that keep coming no matter a virus. Mike Pence called our neighbors heroes. The secretary of agriculture, Sonny Perdue, called them patriots. Trump stopped legal residency permitting for immigrants. Nobody is talking about amnesty or even hearing the refugees. In fact, Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa told Bloomberg Law nobody is talking about providing undocumented workers healthcare.
The state and federal governments did not order slower line speeds or provide protective gear for the packinghouse. Tyson asked for imposed guidance and resources, and got a promise of liability protection from worker claims. But there is this sticky thing called the 10th amendment that does not allow the president to waive corporate liabilities in state courts or workers’ compensation processes, says Storm Lake attorney Willis Hamilton, who has been advocating for food processing employees for nearly 50 years. The order was about instilling fear, Hamilton said. He says his clients are afraid of sick leave and afraid of filing for workers’ comp or unemployment.
“They have to threaten people. These ‘don’t even think about it’ orders fit into a system that marches workers to their deaths,” Case said. “Fear is turning to anger, and that’s when people organize.”
Or just pray.
Art Cullen is editor of the Storm Lake Times in north-west Iowa, where he won the Pulitzer prize for editorial writing. He is a Guardian US columnist and author of the book Storm Lake: Change, Resilience, and Hope in America’s Heartland (Penguin)