Coronavirus cuts 'deep scars' through meatpacking cities (copy)

In this Friday, May 1, 2020, photo, a worker leaves the Tyson Foods plant in Waterloo, Iowa. The coronavirus is devastating the nation’s meatpacking communities — places like Waterloo and Sioux City in Iowa, Grand Island, Neb., and Worthington, Minn. Within weeks, the outbreaks around slaughterhouses have turned into full-scale disasters. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Wisconsin farmers take pride in our work and in our product. We need reliable markets in which to sell our products, and to have our livestock harvested in a timely manner. However, we are unwilling to support a mandate to keep meatpacking plants open at the expense and endangerment of plant workers. Even with the possibility of a shortage of meat during this pandemic, the lives and care for workers is more important than meeting the demand for consumption of protein.

Upon ordering the enactment of the Defense Production Act to require packing plants to remain operating in the face of this pandemic, the Trump administration announced it would eliminate liability risk for the packers. This represents the administration’s most conscious objective to protect corporations, not the safety of workers and local communities.

In Wisconsin, the health risk for workers at these plants would not have been acknowledged had some of those workers not dared to come forth and inform the public. The packing companies have simply failed to protect the safety of their most important asset by refusing to provide necessary personal protective equipment, withholding information from workers about the spread of illness, not requiring temperature checks or providing testing for all employees, and by ignoring social distancing measures such as slowing line speeds or reducing production. Plants have reportedly forced employees to continue working even when they are sick and failed to provide sick pay when workers fall ill or self-quarantine after exposure. Instead they have opted to temporarily pay higher wages and a bonus for those who consistently report to work despite the risk to their lives and safety.

Minority communities are disproportionately harmed by the executive order to keep meatpacking plants open. Nearly 30% of meatpacking workers are immigrants, and two-thirds are Latino (35%), black (20%) or Asian (8%). They are working in both a high-risk and intense laborious occupation, in jobs that most white Americans would never take. And now they are being forced to go to work every day with no meaningful protection against a dangerous and deadly virus.

The COVID-19 pandemic presents us with an opportunity to question the U.S. food production system. We need to question the continued overproduction of agricultural commodities, the increasing concentration of the agribusiness industry, the consolidation of food production where many smaller farmers are being pushed out of business, the growing dependence on an oligopoly of food processors, the inequitable sharing of profits throughout the supply chain, and the failure of national and state authorities to protect the health of those most vulnerable in our society.

For our fellow farmers, we advise that you be patient in your sales of livestock for slaughter, market your livestock on different days, in different markets, and to different buyers. For many packing plants, if operating, they are only functioning at partial capacity and cannot be expected to return to capacity for at least another 30 days. We should be prudent in planning our herd size now, given the inability to project future market demand and circumstances forcing restrained production. We must all do our part to adapt to these challenges while maintaining the health and safety of everyone involved in food production as the top priority.

Michael Slattery is a diversified grain farmer from Maribel. He is a member of Wisconsin Farmers Union.

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