On March 31, the UFCW and Public Citizen announced a major victory for pork industry workers after a federal district court in Minneapolis ruled that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) acted unlawfully when it eliminated limits on the speeds at which plants run their slaughter lines without considering the increased risk of injury to plant workers. The federal lawsuit was led by UFCW International and Public Citizen, along with UFCW Locals 2, 440 and 663.
The decision was issued in United Food and Commercial Workers Union, Local No. 663 v. U.S. Department of Agriculture. The court held that the USDA acted arbitrarily and capriciously when it refused to consider the impact of eliminating line speeds on worker health and safety in a rule it issued creating the “New Swine Inspection System” (NSIS) in October 2019. The court also rejected the meatpacking industry’s arguments that increased line speeds do not put workers at increased risk of harm, citing mounds of evidence showing a relationship between high speeds and musculoskeletal injuries, lacerations, and amputations.
The court vacated the provision of the NSIS that eliminates line speed limits, but placed its order on hold for 90 days to allow the USDA time to develop a plan with respect to those plants that have converted to the NSIS.
“America’s essential workers in pork plants across the country have put their health and safety at risk every day during this pandemic to help families put food on the table,” said UFCW International President Marc Perrone in a statement. “Today’s ruling is a victory for all of these brave men and women, finally ending the dangerous Trump USDA policy that allowed pork plants to push workers to the breaking point with unsafe line speeds that increase the risk of injury and put the safety of our food supply in jeopardy. With the success of this lawsuit, our country’s essential workers have sent a powerful message that the safety of America’s food and workers is not for sale and that these companies will finally be forced to stop these dangerous practices.”
“The court’s decision recognized that Trump’s USDA violated basic principles of administrative law when it refused to consider the impact of its actions on plant workers and claimed, contrary to its longstanding practice, that it was not allowed to do so,” said Public Citizen attorney Adam Pulver, the lead counsel on the case. “An agency can’t put its hands over its ears and refuse to consider facts that cut against its policy preferences, as the USDA did here in ignoring workers and public health advocates, and blindly following industry’s wishes.”
UFCW Local 663 helped lead the lawsuit, and this past week President Matt Utecht called this “a powerful victory for the health and safety for all pork processing workers in Minnesota who have been on the frontlines of COVID-19 helping our families put food on the table this past year.”
When the federal lawsuit was filed in October 2019, UFCW Locals 2 and 440 also joined the effort and highlighted the urgent need for change.
UFCW Local 2 President Martin Rosas in Kansas said, “Our members have worked in the industry for years and know firsthand the line speed rule made both the food they make and the plants they work in less safe.”
UFCW Local 440 President Leo Kanne in Iowa said, “We have a lot of pride in the products our members produce,” and added that defeating this USDA policy was essential because the rule erodes “the quality and safety of the food we make and feed to our own families.”