by Michael Yates
April 24, 2020
The largest employer in Greeley, Colorado is the food processor JBS USA Holdings Inc. It is a wholly owned subsidiary of JBS S.A., a Brazilian company and the largest processor of fresh beef and pork in the world. The plant in Greeley employs some 6,000 people, many of them immigrants. In Greeley, nearly 40 % of the population (which is about 107,000) is Hispanic, meaning that many of the workers are Hispanic as well.
Work in a meatpacking factory can best be described as laboring on a disassembly line, as animal carcasses are disassembled as the animal moves along a mechanized line. By all accounts, the work is intense and dangerous (see Roger Horowitz, “Negro and White, Unite and Fight”: A Social History of Industrial Unionism, in Meatpacking, 1930-90, along with my review in the Oct. 1998 issue of Monthly Review). Animal blood everywhere. Knives flying, cuts omnipresent, as the line moves ever faster and the boss demands more and more production.
There was once a strong and radical union of packinghouse workers, but mechanization, globalization, and business consolidation, along with red-baiting, damaged the union beyond repair. Today, the much weaker and less radical United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) represents workers in some of the US plants, including the one in Greeley. Of course, just about any union is better than none, but the old union, the United Packinghouse Workers, won wages that were among the highest in the country. It also had an ingenious structure of shop stewards, who coordinated confrontations with management across plants nationwide. Today, wages are much lower and the union much less militant.
As essential labor, the operatives at the Greeley facility continued to work during the pandemic. The company did no testing, and the workers went without adequate personal protective equipment. As could have been predicted, employees soon became infected by the virus, and then they infected family members. Or they contracted the virus outside the plant, and then infected their coworkers. Hundreds were ill, and several died. The situation went national when Trump and Pence referenced it at a daily news conference. Pence promised that tests would be quickly made available, and the company also promised testing immediately. Not surprisingly, neither promise has been kept. A report from Contact 7 in Denver on April 22 states:
“Now less than a week from the scheduled reopening of the plant, promises from the White House and JBS management have not been kept. ‘We can only assume the reason they stopped testing is they don’t want the numbers to come out, it’s bad PR,’ said Sylvia Martinez, a spokesperson for Latinos Unidos of Greeley. Multiple informed sources confirmed to Contact7 Investigates that JBS management stopped testing shortly after it started doing so on April 11 and well before its promise to test its 6,000 employees. Insiders have told Contact7 Investigates that between 40% and 80% of managers/supervisors tested positive on the initial day of testing and those results prompted JBS to end the testing program. ‘I believe when it became apparent that most of the supervisors tested positive JBS abruptly stopped the testing,’ said JBS Union President Kim Cordova.”
Sadly, the plant reopens today, April 24. The UFCW national president, Anthony Perrone, warns that it is not safe to reopen the meatpacking plants that have been closed, including the one in Greeley. Stories out of the Smithfield plant is South Dakota are heartrending, with the same management lack of concern for the largely immigrant workforce. BBC News reports:
“But according to Smithfield employees, their union representatives, and advocates for the immigrant community in Sioux Falls, the outbreak that led to the plant closure was avoidable. They allege early requests for personal protective equipment were ignored, that sick workers were incentivised to continue working, and that information regarding the spread of the virus was kept from them, even when they were at risk of exposing family and the broader public.”
Today, governors in several states have begun “opening up” their economies, and many others are itching to do so. Let what is happening at these meatpacking plants, and many other “essential” workplaces serve as a warning as to what is likely to happen if we return to business as usual. We are in the midst of a horrible pandemic. Our “leaders” are advising tactics that will only worsen things, sickening and killing more people. Yesterday, Trump suggested that we could inject disinfectants to cleanse our bodies of the virus. Maybe that will be the salvation of the packinghouse workers, and all of us. Hitler, anyone?
Michael Yates is Editorial Director of the Monthly Review Press. He was a labor educator for more than three decades. He is the author of The Great Inequality, Why Unions Matter and Can the Working Class Change the World?