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Trump’s Plan for Meat Plants May Lead to Shortages In the End
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President Donald Trump’s plan to keep U.S. meat plants running was an attempt at preserving the nation’s food supply. He might actually end up doing the opposite, labor unions warned.
More workers may be exposed to the coronavirus pandemic as a result of Trump’s executive order requiring plants to remain open, leaving the industry short-handed and struggling to run at full capacity. That only stands to raise the odds that America’s meat supplies will get squeezed, the unions said.
“It’s a bad idea,” said Kooper Caraway, president of Sioux Falls AFL-CIO, which represents 3,700 workers at Smithfield Foods Inc.’s South Dakota pork plant. “If the intention is to make sure that the production is not slowed down too much, this is a short-sighted measure that will end up slowing production more than it would have.”
The nation’s food-supply chain has fallen apart as a wave of outbreaks shutters slaughterhouses across the U.S., heightening the prospect that pork, beef and chicken may go missing from the shelves at grocery stores. About a dozen slaughterhouses have shut this month because of infections among employees jammed together on processing lines. The closures have prompted farmers to start culling hogs that have nowhere to go for pork processing.
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Twenty workers from meatpacking and food-processing plants have died, and at least 6,500 have been directly affected by the coronavirus, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, the largest private sector union.
Trump said Wednesday that his administration is preparing a report on how to protect workers.
Smithfield’s South Dakota plant may be forced to reopen soon, putting people to work in a facility that hasn’t made enough changes to protect staff, Caraway of the AFL-CIO said.
The plant was a hot spot for the virus, and the company hasn’t provided data to the Centers for Disease Control on demographics of workers and models for standing further apart on production lines, he said.
About 1,000 staff and close contacts have tested positive for the virus at the plant, and two have died, according to the union. Caraway declined to comment on whether a strike or protest looms, though “everything is on the table,” he said.
“They just don’t have the workforce to operate the plant at full capacity right now,” Caraway said. “Unless the president is going to use the military to help operate the plant, I really don’t know what he expects the plant to do.”
Covid-19 is “now ubiquitous across our country,” and virtually every major plant is dealing with positive cases, including Sioux Falls, Smithfield said in a statement. South Dakota officials have said that community spread of the virus started before the first case at Smithfield emerged.
“The spread was likely mainly occurring in communities, not in the plant,” the company said. Hong Kong-based WH Group Ltd. owns Smithfield.
Smithfield said it’s cooperating with the CDC and is in the process of sharing demographic information and models for production lines.
“The president’s executive order will only ensure that more workers get sick, jeopardizing lives, family income, communities, and, of course, the country’s food supply chain,” Kim Cordova, president of Local 7 of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents 3,000 workers at the JBS SA beef plant in Greeley, Colorado, said in a statement.
While unions have been speaking out against unsafe plant conditions and advocating for higher pay, collective-bargaining agreements often prohibit strikes.
The League of United Latin American Citizens is proposing a meat boycott on Mondays through the month of May. The group has 60 million members.
“This is not the Middle Ages, and workers are not serfs toiling at the whim of the management lords of the manor,” Cordova of Local 7 said. “Employers are entitled to make a fair profit, but not at the possible expense of their employees’ lives, liberty and safety.”
JBS, the world’s biggest meat producer, is based in Sao Paulo.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture said Wednesday it will ask meat processors to submit written plans to operate packing plants safely.
— With assistance by Lydia Mulvany, Vincent Del Giudice, Mike Dorning, Justin Sink, and Michael Hirtzer