Where are unions when we need them?
If Covid-19 does anything useful, it will be to expose how badly treated are low-wage farm, slaughterhouse, and grocery workers, suddenly deemed essential. It also exposes the bad treatment of restaurant workers, now unemployed, and many paid so poorly that they do not even qualify for unemployment insurance.
Where are labor unions when we need them? The union that organizes slaughterhouse workers explains why it is so weak.
Today, workers have lost power at the bargaining table. Giant meatpacking and food companies are more determined than ever to keep labor costs as low as possible and production as high as possible. This means hiring cheap labor, maintaining intolerably high line speeds, demanding cuts in wages and benefits from unionized facilities…Other companies actively exploit our broken immigration system, purposely recruiting and hiring undocumented immigrants to create a disposable workforce. These immigrants often don’t speak English and aren’t aware of labor laws or their rights on the job. It’s a vulnerable, easily-intimidated workforce too afraid to speak out…This has resulted in an industry where workers have less bargaining power, where it’s becoming harder and harder to earn enough to support families, and where it’s becoming less safe to work.
The good news: signs of a newly emergent worker movement in recent strikes. These are listed here.
The impact of the Coronavirus pandemic is a good reason to support this movement.
Addition: This article, just out, has a good summary of the history of meatpacking unions.
For several decades after World War II, conditions in meatpacking plants steadily improved as a result of pressure from workers themselves. Starting in 1943, the United Packinghouse Workers of America, a labor union, organized meatpacking employees in major cities. At the height of its influence, this union secured “master agreements” with the largest firms, such as Armour and Swift, ensuring standard wages and working conditions across the industry. One source of the UPWA’s influence was its ability to build interracial alliances.