by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Labor

Sep 22 2020

Corporate capture in action: e-mails illustrate the meat industry’s role in keeping plants open despite Covid-19

I’ve written previously (see this one, for example) about the meat industry’s role in keeping plants open despite worker illnesses, but much about the industry’s pressures on government has been based on conjecture.  No more.

In another example of the value of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), two groups have obtained e-mails documenting these pressures.

FROM PRO PUBLICA, September 14, 2020: “Emails Show the Meatpacking Industry Drafted an Executive Order to Keep Plants Open: Hundreds of emails offer a rare look at the meat industry’s influence and access to the highest levels of government. The draft was submitted a week before Trump’s executive order, which bore striking similarities.”

The e-mails indicate that the North American Meat Institute (NAMI), the trade association for the meat industry, essentially wrote President Trump’s executive order invoking the Defense Production Act, which forced plants to stay open and workers to continue working under unsafe and highly virus-transmissable conditions.

For example (and look on the site for #6, which does a longer and even more compelling comparison):

FROM PUBLIC CITIZEN, September 15, 2020: “The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the meatpacking industry worked together to downplay and disregard risks to worker health during the pandemic, as shown in documents uncovered by Public Citizen and American Oversight through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.”

The documents show that:

  • The executive order signed by President Donald Trump regarding meatpacking plants, ostensibly invoking the Defense Production Act, was the result of lobbying by the North American Meat Institute, a meat-packing trade association, which prepared what appears to be the first draft of what would become the executive order;
  • The North American Meat Institute repeatedly requested that USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue discourage workers who were afraid to return to work from staying home;
  • Meatpacking plants asked the USDA to intervene on multiple occasions when state and local governments either shut them down over health and safety concerns or sought to impose worker health and safety standards; and
  • Smithfield Foods repeatedly requested that the USDA “order” it to reopen its meat processing plant in Sioux Falls, S.D. – despite no legal basis for such an order.

WHAT’S AT STAKE HERE?

Check out Leah Douglas’s ongoing count of Covid-19 cases among meatpacking workers.  Her figures as of September 18, include at least:

  • 804 meatpacking and food processing plants (496 meatpacking and 308 food processing) and 106 farms and production facilities have had confirmed cases of Covid-19.
  • 59,430 workers (42,606 meatpacking workers, 9,571 food processing workers, and 7,253 farmworkers) have tested positive for Covid-19.
  • 254 workers (203 meatpacking workers, 35 food processing workers, and 16 farmworkers) have died.

To state the obvious: corporate capture of government agencies and the presidency is not good for public health or American democracy.

Aug 26 2020

Fox guarding chickens: OSHA’s worker-safety partnership with the meat industry

The Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has formed an alliance with the North American Meat Institute (NAMI) to

provide NAMI’s members, workplace safety and health professionals, the meatpacking and processing workforce, and the public with information, guidance, and access to training resources that will help them protect workers by reducing and preventing exposure to Coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19), and understand the rights of workers and the responsibilities of employers under the Occupational Safety and Health Act.

NAMI’s motto is “One unified voice for meat and poultry companies, large and small.”  Its members are listed here.

OSHA’s stated mission

With the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, Congress created the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to ensure safe and healthful working conditions for working men and women by setting and enforcing standards and by providing training, outreach, education and assistance.

  • Do we see a potential conflict of interest here?  Indeed, we do.

Basically, the Alliance aims to

  • Share information…regarding potential exposure to COVID-19 and the challenges for exposure control in meat packing and processing facilities.
  • Develop information on the recognition of COVID-19 transmission risks and best practices.
  • Conduct outreach through joint forums, roundtable discussions, stakeholder meetings, webinars, or other formats on OSHA guidance and NAMI’s good practices.
  • Speak, exhibit, or appear at OSHA and NAMI conferences…regarding good practices.
  • Encourage NAMI members…to utilize OSHA’s On-Site Consultation Program to improve health and safety and prevent COVID-19 transmission.

This looks like meat industry propaganda to me.

As quoted by Food Dive, Marc Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, called the deal “an outrage.” His statement:

Throughout the pandemic, employers have continued to keep workers and the general public in the dark about illness in the plants while trying to shield themselves from any liability for the role they played in the loss of life. It is shocking that the Department of Labor is now giving the meat industry even more power to police itself on worker safety.

He’s not kidding.  The Food and Environment Reporting Network is tracking cases.  As of August 17, its figures show confirmed cases of Covid-19 in

  • 474 meatpacking plants among 40,708 meatpacking work (189 deaths)
  • 269 food processing plants among 8658 food processing workers (34 deaths)

No surprisae, workers have filed thousands of complaints with OSHA.

What has OSHA done for them?  It co-issued (with CDC) guidance on what companies ought to be doing about distancing and masking. 

Are companies following this guidelines?  Not with much conviction.

That is why workers have had to resort to filing lawsuits against Smithfield Foods and Tyson Foods—and OSHA—as summarized by ProPublica.

According to Politico (behind a paywall, unfortunately), the lawsuits reveal that OSHA admits that it is unable to police its own safety guidelines.

Although an inspector from OSHA’s Wilkes-Barre Area Office witnessed employees working “2 to 3 feet” apart without physical barriers — which goes against the Centers for Disease Control and OSHA’s safety recommendations — the agency concluded there was no “imminent danger” at the plant, the inspector testified during a July 31 hearing.

As always, it’s hard to make up stuff like this.

May 11 2020

Tone deaf food ad of the week: Kraft Heinz, this time

Thanks to a reader, Tony Vassallo, for sending this Kraft ad: “We Got You America

Given the demographics of who gets hit hardest by this virus, and increasing evidence that crowded food production facilities staffed by low-income workers who often lack sick leave and health care benefits, this unmasked cheerleading seems, well, tone deaf.

May 6 2020

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.

Organize!

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.

May 5 2020

More on the crisis in meatpacking

Who knew that meatpacking plants would become the flash point for everything that’s wrong with our food system.  An alarming 18% of packinghouse workers are infected with Covid-19—the ones known.

Public health authorities insisted that the plants be closed, and Food Dive lists the ones that did.

Because the plants closed, farmers have nowhere to send their ready-for-slaughter animals.  But, says Civil Eats , don’t blame them for having to cull their animals.  It’s not their fault; it’s the fault of the big companies that own the animals.

Farmers under contract don’t own the animals they are raising, and therefore cannot simply find a new market for them…The reality is that farmers don’t have to option sell the animals anywhere else. If the company tells them to euthanize an entire flock of the bird it owns on the spot, farmers have no choice but to comply—even as consumers clamber over empty shelves in the supermarkets, farmers are forced to depopulate.

What happens to the dead animals?  There really are no good options.

Burning, burying, or composting up to 70,000 hog carcasses a day—or even grinding them into dust—could have serious consequences for our air and drinking water.

What happens to the workers, now forced by presidential order to go back to the plants?

In interviews with poultry workers in Georgia, Arkansas and Mississippi a similar pattern of alleged negligence, secrecy and mismanagement emerged at facilities operated by some of the largest food manufacturers in America…For more than a century, the meatpacking industry has been a symbol of how corporations are able to exploit workers in the name of efficiency. The Covid-19 outbreak has opened another chapter.

Trump, says The Guardian,  is marching meatpacking workers off to their deaths.

With his executive order on Tuesday night, the president is in effect overruling safety-minded governors and mayors who have pressured numerous meat, pork and poultry plants into shutting temporarily after they had become hotspots that were spreading Covid-19 through their surrounding communities. With such a move, Trump is – let’s not mince words here – is showing contempt for both workers’ health and public health.

What is this really all about?  Read this analysis in Dissent.

Why has the pandemic thrived in meat factories? It was a perfect storm caused by a whole raft of dysfunctionalities, from the rise of giant agribusiness companies to the hollowing out of the nation’s regulatory state, and the hyper-exploitation of a vulnerable, largely immigrant working class which staffs the lines. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) inspections have long been laughable at these plants. Fines, when leveled, tend to be a few thousand dollars, a pittance for billion-dollar corporations. The low-wage workers who staff the plants live in cramped quarters, sometimes with more than one family sharing the same dwelling—so if one person gets sick, the disease can spread quickly…By intervening so directly in the food-chain crisis, the Trump administration has thoroughly politicized the conditions under which food is produced.

I suppose we must thank the Covid-19 pandemic for so clearly exposing deep structural problems and inequities in our food system.

Will a new labor movement arise?  See tomorrow’s post.

Addition

State Attorneys General have written a letter expressing anti-trust concerns about how consolidation in the meat industry has led to this crisis.

Given the concentrated market structure of the beef industry, it may be particularly susceptible to market manipulation, particularly during
times of food insecurity, such as the current COVID-19 crisis. During an economic downturn, such as that caused by the current pandemic, firms’ ability to harm American consumers through market manipulation and coordinated behavior exacts a greater toll, providing an additional reason for conducting a careful inquiry into this industry.

Sep 2 2019

Have a happy, thoughtful, appreciative Labor Day

I particularly like this poster celebrating Labor Day in 2014.

Let’s honor, protect, and pay the people who harvest our vegetables, slaughter our meat, and prepare our food.

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Aug 28 2019

Eric Schlosser on the meat industry’s hypocrisy about immigrants

Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation, explains in The Atlantic Why It’s Immigrants Who Pack Your Meat.

You really should read the whole thing.  It’s a powerful indictment.  Here are a few excerpts. 

  • The immigration raid last week at seven poultry plants in rural Mississippi was a perfect symbol of the Trump administration’s racism, lies, hypocrisy, and contempt for the poor. It was also a case study in how an industry with a long history of defying the law has managed to shift the blame and punishment onto workers.
  • What Trump has described as an immigrant “invasion” was actually a corporate recruitment drive for poor, vulnerable, undocumented, often desperate workers.
  • The immigrant workers arrested in Mississippi the other day were earning about $12.50 an hour. Adjusted for inflation, during the late 1970s, the wages of meatpacking workers in Iowa and Colorado were about $50 an hour.
  • Over the years, I’ve spent time with countless farmworkers and meatpacking workers who entered the United States without proper documentation. Almost all of them were hardworking and deeply religious. They had taken enormous risks and suffered great hardships on behalf of their families. Today workers like them are the bedrock of our food system. And they are now being scapegoated, hunted down, and terrorized at the direction of a president who inherited about $400 million from his father, watches television all day, and employs undocumented immigrants at his golf resorts.
Apr 15 2015

Tax Day 2015: Protesting low wages and taxpayer subsidies of low-wage work

Today is the day your taxes are due (in case you hadn’t noticed) and I’ve been collecting items on how tax dollars are used to subsidize businesses that rely on low-wage workers.

1.  Fight for $15 is mobilizing fast-food and other low-wage workers to walk off their jobs today in what the group says is the most widespread mobilization ever by U.S. workers seeking higher pay.  It expects protests in “more than 100 cities, in 35 countries, on six continents, from Sao Paolo to Tokyo.”  USA Today has the story on it.

2.  The New York Times featured people who are working, but still need public assistance to get buy (and they qualify for it).

Yet these same people also are on public assistance — relying on food stamps, Medicaid or other stretches of the safety net to help cover basic expenses when their paychecks come up short.

And they are not alone. Nearly three-quarters of the people helped by programs geared to the poor are members of a family headed by a worker, according to a new study by the Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education at the University of California. As a result, taxpayers are providing not only support to the poor but also, in effect, a huge subsidy for employers of low-wage workers, from giants like McDonald’s and Walmart to mom-and-pop businesses.

3.  The Washington Post also covered this story, which comes from a report by  from the University of California at Berkeley’s Center for Labor Research and Education.

Families in which at least one member is working now make up the vast majority of those enrolled in major public-assistance programs like Medicaid and food stamps, according to a new study. It’s a “hidden cost” of low-wage work, researchers say, and it costs taxpayers about $153 billion a year.

4.  The Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) just released a report, Picking up the NRA’s Tab: The Public Cost of Low Wages in the Restaurant Industry.

The report’s key findings:

  • Nearly half of the families of full-service restaurant workers are enrolled in one or more public-assistance programs.
  • The cost of public assistance to families of workers in the full-service restaurant industry is $9,434,067,497 per year.
  • Tipped restaurant workers live in poverty at 2.5 times the rate of the overall workforce.
  • Restaurant workers as a whole experience poverty at a rate over twice that of the overall workforce – 20.9%.
  • Large full-service restaurant companies like Darden and DineEquity pay their workers so little that many of the employees of these companies rely on taxpayer-funded programs.
  • The taxpayer cost of a single Olive Garden is $196,970 annually.

ROC United is spearheading ‘One Fair Wage,’ a multi-state and national campaign to raise the lower, tipped minimum wage–currently $2.13 per hour–to 100% of the regular minimum wage.

Now, how about setting the minimum wage at $15 per hour….