On May 28, the UFCW, along with a group of American farmers and ranchers, called on meatpacking companies and elected officials to protect meatpacking workers and our food supply from the deadly COVID-19 virus.
The broad coalition, which includes Dakota Rural Action (DRA), Northern Plains Resource Council, Western Colorado Alliance, and the Western Organization of Resource Councils (WORC), has asked meatpacking companies, the Trump Administration, as well as state and local governments, to take the following steps that include but are not limited to: (1) increased worker testing at meatpacking plants, (2) priority access to PPE for all meatpacking workers, (3) halting line speed waivers, (4) mandating social distancing inside meatpacking plants, and (5) isolating workers with symptoms or who test positive for COVID-19.
“The best way to protect our food supply is to protect the people who work within it,” said UFCW International President Marc Perrone. “From frontline food processing workers to farmers and ranchers, we are all critical to keeping American families fed during this crisis. Enacting strong worker safety standards inside meatpacking plants will help people outside of them as well and ensure every link in our food supply chain is secure.”
“Safe food starts with safe workers,” said UFCW Local 304A member John Massalley, who works at Smithfield in Sioux Falls, S.D. “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. Regular testing is critical to stopping future outbreaks, keeping workers safe and protecting our food supply.”
The need to take these immediate safety steps reflects the significant threat still facing America’s meatpacking workers. According to the UFCW’s internal estimates, there have already been at least 44 meatpacking worker deaths due to COVID-19 and over 3,000 meatpacking workers have tested positive. Because of the continuing spread of the virus, at least 30 meatpacking plants have closed at some point since March 2020 – with closures impacting over 45,000 workers and contributing to a 40 percent reduction in pork slaughter capacity, as well as a 25 percent reduction in beef slaughter capacity.
“Too many workers are being sent back into meatpacking plants without adequate protections in place, reigniting more outbreaks in the plants and our communities,” said Nick Nemec, a farmer, cattle producer and DRA member from Holabird, S.D. “Leadership at all levels has shown a lack of support and concern for the workers and the farmers. A safe food system starts with the safety and respect of those doing the work to produce and process the food. Our current system fails because it treats farmers and workers with little respect and little regard for our safety.”
“We support the workers’ call for mandatory worker protections,” said Kathryn Bedell, a rancher and Western Colorado Alliance member from Fruita, Colo. “If they don’t get protective equipment and safe working conditions, the food system will remain vulnerable and we all lose – producer, workers and consumers. For too long, the government agencies have stepped back and allowed global meatpacking companies to voluntarily comply with antitrust laws. We know from firsthand experience that this is a failed approach because it has allowed the meatpacking cartels to manipulate prices paid to livestock producers to the detriment to our livelihoods, and to the detriment of our rural communities who depend on the cattle business.”
“This pandemic didn’t create the crisis for workers and producers in the meat industry, but it has made a horrific situation even worse,” said Steve Charter, a Shepherd, Mont., rancher and Northern Plains Resource Council board member. “The consequences of this rigged system are now threatening the lives of meatpacking workers at the same time they’re killing the livelihoods of family ranchers. If leaders want to address this crisis, they need to start with enforcing antitrust laws, instead of abusing emergency authority to force workers to endanger their health. We must use this opportunity to create decentralized, local and regional food systems that are better for producers, consumers, and workers. Now, more than ever, we need policies that help folks who wear boots to work each day instead of shining the shoes of executives in board rooms.”
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