Activists Demand Worker Safety Plans as COVID-19 Surges in Meat Plants

At least 20 workers at meat processing plants have died from COVID-19, and around 5,000 have tested positive, but President Trump invoked an executive order to bar local governments from closing meat plants. We hear from meat plant workers and organizers about conditions during the pandemic and speak with Sindy Benavides, CEO of the League of United Latin American Citizens, which is supporting the workers with a virtual town hall on food worker safety with presumptive Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and calling for Meatless May Mondays.

TRANSCRIPT

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We begin today’s show looking at the coronavirus outbreak in meatpacking plants across the United States as U.S. beef, pork and poultry processing plants face a public health crisis and a growing number of infected workers.

Last week, President Trump signed an executive order barring governments from closing meat plants. The order declares meat plants as critical infrastructure. At least 20 meatpacking workers have died from COVID-19; more than 5,000 have fallen ill from the disease. That number is expected to be far higher due to a lack of testing.

In Sioux Falls, South Dakota, at least a thousand people have tested positive for the virus at one Smithfield pork plant, accounting for more than half the confirmed cases in the entire state of South Dakota. At least six workers at a JBS beef packing plant in Greeley, Colorado, have died from COVID-19. Despite this, the plant reopened last week, after a short closure, without testing all its workers.

And the Tyson Columbus Junction processing plant in Iowa reopened in late April despite the deaths of two workers from COVID-19. A meat worker from the Tyson plant spoke to Democracy Now! about conditions there during the pandemic. She’s an immigrant from Guanajuato, Mexico, and asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation.

TYSON WORKER: [translated] There was a young man that I know was still going to work even though he said he had been sick for two weeks. I don’t know why Tyson didn’t detect that, that people who were sick were still going to work. This only made things worse. Later, I realized that a lot of people at that plant were infected. A man who had worked there died, and there were a lot of people in critical condition at the hospital. I’m not sure if they’re still there, because, truthfully, I haven’t left my house or spoken to anyone recently, so I’m not sure of what the status of their health is. But I know many people were at the hospital in critical condition, and they are all people who work at Tyson.

AMY GOODMAN: President Trump’s executive order to keep meat plants running has sparked outrage over what it means for workers being forced to work in unsafe conditions. On Friday, dozens of Bell & Evans workers and activists circled the poultry company’s Lebanon County, Pennsylvania, poultry processing plant in a funeral caravan, after two COVID-19 deaths and dozens of infections connected to the plant. The protesters demanded an immediate shutdown of the plant and full pay for all workers until it can implement a plan to keep workers safe, including personal protective equipment, paid sick time and social distancing policies.

PROTESTER: Bell & Evans has gone radio silent while their workers die. That’s unacceptable. We demand Bell & Evans to tell us how many workers are infected and how many workers have died. We need to know how many other workers have been infected by the failures of this company.

AMY GOODMAN: Over the weekend, LULAC — that’s the League of United Latin American Citizens — joined a coalition of Iowa farmers, activists, workers and elected officials and community groups to announce the Meatless May Mondays campaign to draw attention to the conditions workers are facing. Today, LULAC, which has more than 60 million members countrywide, is joining with Univision to host a virtual town hall on food worker safety with Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and members of Congress.

Well, for more, we’re joined by a number of guests. In Washington, D.C., Sindy Benavides is with us, CEO of LULAC. And in Des Moines, Iowa, we’ll start with Alejandro, a local organizer whose immediate and extended family members work in meatpacking plants across Iowa, South Dakota and Nebraska, including Smithfield, Tyson and other meat plants. Alejandro has asked us to use his first name only, out of concern for retaliation against his family.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Sindy Benavides, we’re beginning with you, CEO of LULAC. I watched your news conference on Friday, where you’re joining with this coalition of groups calling for Meatless May Mondays, a kind of boycott of these meat corporations, this as President Trump has invoked the Defense Production Act, signing an executive order saying governments cannot close down these hot spots, where, in some cases — one meatpacking plant alone, there are over 700 coronavirus-positive workers. Can you talk about LULAC’s position and what you understand about the meatpacking industry in this country and who the meatpackers are?

SINDY BENAVIDES: Sure. First of all, thank you so much, Amy, for having me on.

As many of you may know, LULAC, the League of United Latin American Citizens, is the oldest and largest national Latino civil rights organization. We’re about 91 years young, 91 years strong, and still going. For 91 years, we have been protecting and defending the Latino community in the United States, in Puerto Rico, in Washington, D.C. And today, unfortunately, we find ourselves still protecting and defending our community, particular our meatpacking workers.

What we’re seeing on the ground and how we’re made up is that we have members who are volunteers for LULAC in over 37 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico. And some of those members happen to work in meatpacking plants and/or are relatives of folks that work in meatpacking plants. And this is why, over a month ago, we started receiving complaints of individuals who were hearing that, unfortunately, their colleagues were getting sick, and this was not being reported by that particular industry or facility.

And so we got involved. And over a month ago, we sent a letter to OSHA to ask for questions. To this day, we have not heard back. We have not gotten a response. We also know that our LULAC members in Iowa, our state director, Nick Salazar, and Joe Henry, who serves as a senior adviser to our national president, have been working closely with our community in Iowa and also traveling to neighboring states to understand the conditions of the workers. And just to give you an idea, in Columbus Junction, Iowa, we know that there’s already been multiple deaths there of people working.

And what we’re seeing, more than that, is that when President Trump enacted the Defense Production Act, what he is asking our community to do is to march into slaughterhouses and put their lives on the line. What he is doing is a lack of acknowledgment and completely voiding and annulling a person’s right to work in a safe place.

We know that more than 20,000 individuals have been impacted, have cases of COVID-19, and that there’s over 20 deaths that have occurred. However, we feel that these estimates are highly undercounted. We think that it’s at least double, if not triple, those numbers. And again, what we’re hearing from the workers and from their families is that, in many instances, the workers are being turned away by the clinics and hospitals in their community, and they’re having to drive over an hour and a half or two hours simply to get tested — and, on top, pay for the tests in order to know if they actually do have COVID cases.

AMY GOODMAN: Alejandro, if you could describe your family, what they face, the plants they live in — that they work in?

ALEJANDRO: Definitely. And thanks for having me, Amy.

Essentially, you know, in the surrounding area here in Iowa, there are countless meat and food processing plants, and we’re seeing that these issues are across the board. You know, this is industrywide practices, and that’s why we’re seeing this kind of pop up all over the state, essentially.

And as you mentioned, I have family working across the board, across the state and into some other states, in the industry. So, you know, it’s very scary for my family, my immediate family, my extended family. I have cousins who now have tested positive because of these plants. My sister and her husband have tested positive here just recently because of these plants. And again, just incredibly scared.

And this has just been consistent, even prior to the epidemic, that these have not been safe work conditions — very fast lines. These are workers that are standing on their feet for hours, overworked, working extended hours in a day and working, often forced, weekends.

So these are very hard workers that are very dedicated to that work to provide for their families. But the only reason that they aren’t there right now, why these companies, many of them, are a lot — I mean, have a lot less workers right now, is because they’re scared. They want to do the work. I’ve been talking to families, to workers almost every day for the last couple of weeks, and they’ve been telling me that they want to work, but they want to be able to do it safely.

So, you know, just even two weeks ago is when they finally started introducing masks, not that they’re very protective masks, but they started introducing masks just two weeks ago, even though we have known about what’s been going on for months. So it’s very clear that these companies, that they didn’t take the safety precautions. And essentially, they have a system in place that doesn’t prioritize the safety of workers, which is largely why we are seeing all of this.

AMY GOODMAN: Um —

ALEJANDRO: Again, you know, they talk — go ahead.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to read what John Tyson, the billionaire chair of the board of Tyson Foods, recently warned in a full-page ad in several newspapers, as well on the company’s website: quote, “There will be limited supply of our products available in grocery stores until we are able to reopen our facilities that are currently closed. … The food supply chain is breaking,” he said. It wasn’t days later that the president, President Trump, invoking the Defense Production Act, said that no government, you know, no governor, could shut down a plant.

But is it the coronavirus that is breaking the food supply, or is it these corporations that did not early on provide the PPE, the protective gear, that workers needed, the social distancing required? Alejandro, I wanted to put that question to you. And also, if you can talk about — right now, as we’re broadcasting, Univision is having a special, where they are bringing on different workers, like one of your colleagues, yet another daughter or son of workers in the plants. If you could talk about your organization? You speak English. You’re a kind of a translator for your families who are working and getting sick in the plants.

ALEJANDRO: Definitely. And, you know, in terms of what the Tyson’s head said there in regards to the food supply chain, I think that’s something that a lot of us are seeing. You know, of course I’m concerned about being able to feed America, and so are the workers. But if that was truly what they prioritized, if what they were prioritizing was ensuring that we have a food supply chain, essentially, then they would be making sure that the workers are able to do their jobs safely. And they’re not doing that.

And it’s kind of sad to see even other leaders blaming the workers, the immigrants, for what’s going on, when it’s very clear that it is because they didn’t take the safety precautions, because of the culture where they’re encouraging people to come in or not letting them go home when they’re sick.

It’s because of these long-existing practices that — and the structure, this dynamic between leadership and workers, where workers don’t have a voice. That largely feeds into why, as you mentioned, it’s the children of the workers. You know, I was seeing that a lot of people in my similar situation, which is my cousins, my siblings, my former classmates from high school, we were kind of just screaming out to the void. You know, we were afraid for our parents. But there really wasn’t much talk there. You know, there wasn’t any noise. So, in order to create a group where we were able to come together, the families and the community, different allies, to start bringing awareness, start addressing what’s going on, talking to workers and really identifying what they need, because, again, I’m not here to speak on behalf and tell you what they need, I’m just here to say that these workers need a voice.

And, you know, these executive orders, these different things that, say, Mitch McConnell and other leaders are touting, are essentially just finding new ways to limit that voice. These workers don’t have protections. These companies aren’t being held accountable, and they’re not even taking responsibility, so that makes it even harder to be accountable. And having a situation where workers can’t even take legal action, or the communities can’t rally around and force governments to take this seriously, and potentially, if what —

AMY GOODMAN: And we’re going to talk about that issue of corporate responsibility, the Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell holding up stimulus package for, until he can get inserted into it that corporations are not responsible for what happens during COVID. But before we do that and also speak with Rob Weissman, head of Public Citizen, let’s turn again to the Tyson processing plant worker in Columbus Junction, Iowa, who spoke to Democracy Now! but asked we not use her name because of fear of retaliation. She said this is her message to Tyson and other meat industry corporations.

TYSON WORKER: [translated] I would like it if they treated people with more respect, with more love, to be considerate of us, the people who are working there out of necessity. We’re not there for them to destroy our lives or our bodies. They need to be more conscious of taking care of people. It is because of the people that they are able to do what they do. Why not take care of people? Why not make sure we don’t get hurt? I’ve never liked this, that they don’t pay any attention to people’s well-being. They should be more humane. Don’t just think about money, but think about the workers that are helping the company make that money.

AMY GOODMAN: In an interview with BuzzFeed News, a Smithfield Foods spokesperson blamed the South Dakota plant’s, quote, “large immigrant population” for the rapid spread of the coronavirus. The spokesperson explained, quote, “Living circumstances in certain cultures are different than they are with your traditional American family.” I wanted to go back to Sindy Benavides to respond to this, the CEO of LULAC.

SINDY BENAVIDES: Thank you, Amy. And, you know, first and foremost, I can certainly understand the pain that our community is feeling and the fear. And Alejandro talked about this. There are so many in our community who have reached out to LULAC, given us only their first name or a different name, for fear of retaliation.

And we also know that many of them are being told internally that if they are not at work, they will not get paid, and/or worse, that they could get fired, even when some of these same companies are touting externally that they’re willing to pay the workers additional money or give them bonuses. So, which one is it? Is it, one, the managers internally telling the workers that they will get fired and/or not get paid if they get sick, or is it really what’s being publicized externally?

I can tell you, when we look at this particular industry, you have to really look at it from the very beginning to end. Yes, many of the workers actually commute in together to work, to the plants. Many of them also, like many Americans, have multigenerational homes, where you may have the parents, the children and/or the grandparents in the same household. And I know that this is not only true to Latinos, but it’s also true to many immigrant and American families across this country. More worrisome is the fact that some of these facilities, even more than a month ago, when they started seeing the cases pop up, did not take the urgent steps to make sure that the workers were protected, making sure that they had protection gear in place.

And I just want Americans to stop for a minute, for all of us who go to the grocery store, and for the one hour or two hours that we’re wearing that face mask, it’s so uncomfortable. Can you just imagine workers who are working for eight to 10 to 12-plus hours? We know, because there have been so many incidents of COVID cases, that our workers are being asked to work even longer shifts or work additional shifts. And we know this from different members across the country. In fact, our state director, Madaí, her father, who has worked in this industry for over 30 years, reported that he’s having to work and pick up shifts, unvoluntarily at times, to make sure that the production keeps going.

And so, what are we asking? We are asking the companies to put safety measures in place, to make sure that there are longer breaks so you don’t have a line of people waiting at the restroom close together. We’re asking them to put sneeze guards, plastics, in between workers and to make sure that they in fact are following CDC and OSHA guidelines in terms of social distancing.

And here’s one more thing. We also know that in various facilities across this country, in many facilities, there are workers who may speak more than 40 different languages. And so it’s not enough to put a poster up on a wall that says, “Please practice social distancing six feet apart,” if you don’t explain it, if you don’t have the education awareness about what social distancing is, and, in fact, even making sure that the shifts are staggered and that the breaks are staggered. Oftentimes, where people sit to eat, they’re eating elbow to elbow. Where they are working, they’re elbow to elbow, oftentimes even not having the ventilation that’s required for them to be in a safe place.

And so, as we hear of the companies, you know, and the different cases that have occurred, again, our ask is very simple: Please make sure that the workers are in a safe place, where they don’t fear like they’re walking or marching into a slaughterhouse and their life is on the line. What we’re asking is: If you had your child or your parent or your sibling working in that same line, would you not want them to have the safety conditions, so that they don’t feel afraid to walk into work and think that they will unfortunately come down with a COVID case and potentially die? We are asking for basic protections, protections at work, that help our community to keep the line flowing, to make sure that all of Americans are able to enjoy meat and pork and poultry. We stand with the workers. We want to make sure that all workers across America, but particularly our workers who are facing high cases of COVID cases due to the lack of safety, are protected.

And so, with that, Amy, I will tell you that this is a difficult situation. We understand that there’s political games at play here. We understand that there’s an election coming. But the bottom line is that the slow reaction by the federal government, the slow reaction by corporations, and the lack of action have placed people’s lives on the line, and we’ve already had multiple deaths.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you so much for being with us, and we are not leaving the story here, Sindy Benavides, CEO of LULAC, and Alejandro, an organizer in Iowa whose immediate and extended family members work in meatpacking plants.

When we come back, we’re going to speak with a guest who will talk about this demand by the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, to absolve corporations of any responsibility during the pandemic. We’ll speak with Public Citizen’s head, Rob Weissman. Stay with us.

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AMY GOODMAN: “No Discrimination” by the great Tony Allen and Africa ’70. Allen is the drummer who created the beat of Afrobeat. He died last week at the age of 79.