Ranchers, labor union call for stronger Covid-19 protections for meatpacking workers

As COVID-19 spreads in meatpacking plants across the country, a number of groups representing ranchers and farmers have joined with a key labor union to call for stronger protections for meatpacking workers. The alliance comes as the tally of meat industry workers who have contracted the disease approaches 25,000, even as companies restrict information about outbreaks at their facilities.

The coalition includes farmers and ranchers from Dakota Rural Action, the Northern Plains Resource Council, the Western Colorado Alliance, and the Western Organization of Resource Councils, and represents more than 15,000 members. The groups are working with the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union, which represents a large swath of the country’s meatpacking workers. They issued a joint statement in late May calling for increased testing and more access to protective equipment for meatpacking workers, and mandatory social distancing within meatpacking plants, among other safety provisions.

“When meatpacking plants struggle to contain this virus, it’s not just the workers inside like me who are at risk. Family farmers and ranchers are, too,” said John Massalley, a worker at Smithfield’s Sioux Falls, South Dakota, plant, in the statement. As of early May, 853 workers at that plant had contracted COVID-19 and two had died.

Kathryn Bedell, a Colorado rancher and state agricultural commissioner, says ranchers and workers are “being exploited by a system that doesn’t work for us. I see us as natural allies. … By using our voices together, we can advocate for change.”

While some meat companies have implemented wide-scale testing and provided adequate protective gear, workers at some plants say the reforms have come too late. Social distancing can be impossible where workers stand shoulder to shoulder and work at breakneck speed.

Meatpackers have been reluctant to release information about how many workers have contracted COVID-19 in their facilities, leaving workers in the dark. In some states, officials have restricted public information about outbreaks at meatpacking plants to assuage the industry’s privacy concerns. Health officials in Kansas were reportedly instructed to keep information about outbreaks at major meatpacking plants confidential. In Iowa and Nebraska, state officials have limited public disclosure of COVID-19 cases at meatpacking plants.

Ranchers have also criticized the major meatpackers’ management of the coronavirus, accusing them of using the pandemic as a cover for collusion to boost their profits. The accusations recently prompted the departments of Justice and Agriculture to begin an investigation into potential price fixing in the beef sector. Ranchers have said that even as retail meat prices have risen, the price they receive for livestock has fallen.

The farmers and ranchers in the union alliance stand in contrast with major meat industry groups, which so far have not directly addressed many workers’ concerns. On June 5, more than 65 international livestock organizations signed a letter addressing the industry’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Signatories included U.S. lobbying groups like the North American Meat Institute (NAMI), whose members include Tyson Foods, JBS, Cargill, and Smithfield Foods, the U.S. Poultry & Egg Association, and United Egg Producers.

The letter primarily defended the industry against the claim that the domestic livestock industry was the source of the COVID-19 pandemic and called on the government to support the industry against those claims. It did not discuss the spread of COVID-19 at meatpacking plants, stating simply that companies are “taking every precaution possible to keep employees as safe as possible.”

When asked about calls for the meat industry to better protect its workers, Sarah Little, vice president of communications for NAMI, said in an email that “the health and safety of the men and women who work in meat and poultry facilities is our members’ first priority. Companies are continuing to follow CDC/OSHA guidelines and are working with USDA, CDC, and state and local authorities to ensure employees are safe.”

As of June 8, nearly 25,000 meatpacking workers have contracted COVID-19 and more than 90 have died, according to FERN’s database.

Meatpackers are also supporting proposed legislation in Iowa that would shield them from coronavirus-related employee lawsuits. Workers have already sued one meatpacker to enhance worker safety, though the suit was dismissed.

Ranchers and labor groups have worked together before on meat industry issues. The UFCW opposed the Trump administration’s weakened version of Obama-era rulemaking that would have strengthened antitrust protections for meat producers. The labor group has also supported country of origin labeling, a major issue for domestic ranchers who want to differentiate their products from imported meat.

Bedell says that the meat industry is unlikely to “rock the boat” given that the status quo of meat production benefits them financially. “That’s why it’s important for ranchers to step in,” she says. “We’re the ones not making it financially.”

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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