Meatpacking Workers Forced Back to Work

By Peter Cherry

On Tuesday, US President Donald Trump used the executive order invoking the Defense Production Act to force workers in meatpacking plants back to work, marking an aggressive shift in the strategy of the ruling class to remold the economy currently in crisis.

While Trump has claimed the executive order would be used to make companies produce emergency protective equipment and testing supplies, there continues to be widespread shortages of both. The act is instead being used to force workers to toil under unsanitary conditions, with the government mobilizing all powers at its disposal to make sure workers are disciplined into doing so. This return to work protects companies like Tyson Foods, where 900 workers in a single factory in Indiana recently tested positive for the virus, as well as other meat processing companies from lawsuits on behalf of workers. Collective bargaining rights have likewise been suspended, allowing these capitalists to enforce the acceleration of work with tacit agreement from union bosses.

At least 20 meat and food processing workers have died from COVID-19, and 5,000 have been infected or quarantined. On the same day as Trump’s announcement, Smithfield Foods pork plant workers in Crete, Nebraska walked off the job after the company reversed course and announced it would not close for cleaning, even though 48 workers at the facility had already tested positive.

Already over the years there has been a drive to speed up production lines to process more meat in each facility. Faster lines require workers to stand closer together, making the capitalists directly culpable in spreading the virus. In meatpacking plants in Nebraska around 62 percent of workers reported experiencing an injury because of sped up production, and 72 percent of workers in Alabama reported a significant work-related injury or illness.

Nationally this is part of a ruling class offensive to restructure industrial production along more reactionary lines in response to the economic crisis, if production was even shut down in the first place. Companies such as construction and agricultural equipment producers Caterpillar and Deere & Co. were able to secure a “critical essential infrastructure” designation from the White House, allowing them to continue operating during the pandemic and COVID-19 cases to continue to emerge among factory workers. Aerospace company Boeing resumed production last week, even as a significant number of workers boycotted the return to work. Automobile companies Ford and General Motors have set a target date of next Monday for restarting production at their assembly plants.

When it comes to the health risk of returning to work under dangerous conditions, the slogan of “work or wages” invokes the right of workers to refuse to work and receive full wages, considering the health risk of the pandemic. If you are a worker who has been compelled to return to work under such conditions, contact to be heard and to organize!