Appelbaum: Poultry plant workers ‘are not expendable’ in coronavirus pandemic
Workers at Tyson plant work all day shoulder to shoulder. | Tyson foods

CAMILLA, Ga.—The nation’s big poultry producers “are getting it wrong” with slow and tardy responses to worker demands for protection from the spreading coronavirus pandemic, says the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which represents more than 10,000 of them in plants throughout the country.

As a result, workers are sickening and dying from “community spread” of the virus as they debone chickens while still standing shoulder to shoulder in plant production lines, and often without personal protective equipment (PPE), union Southeast Council President Edgar Fields said on April 17.

The workers “are not expendable,” adds an angry union President Stuart Appelbaum.

An upset Fields spoke out after the Tyson poultry plant in the small town of Camilla, Ga., lost its third member of RWDSU Local 938, Annie Grant, on April 7. Preceding her in death from the coronavirus were the local’s secretary, 13-year member Elose Wills, on April 1 and 27-year member Mary Holt on April 6. Wills was a 35-year RWDSU member.

Tyson’s plant employs 2,000 workers, most of them African Americans, the union notes. Dozens are now quarantined, but only after the deaths occurred. And only now is Tyson starting to distribute face masks. Meanwhile, “upper management, largely white and clad in protective equipment, oversees production,” the union adds.

But Tyson isn’t the only malefactor, the union, a sector of the United Food and Commercial Workers, says. It’s the most prominent, though, says Applebaum.

“Over the past month, the RWDSU has been calling on poultry industry employers to implement critical standards to protect workers’ safety and to secure the food supply chain. The industry’s response, for the most part, has only been recent, sporadic and limited to a few locations, leaving most workers unprotected – despite months-long demands from the RWDSU. Poultry workers at their plants have been dying,” he said.

“Generation after generation of our members are hidden from public view in small-town America’s poultry plants,” Fields said in a statement the union released. “They often work for corporations who feel they have the right to continue to treat them without the dignity, respect and wages that they more than deserve.”

“Let me be clear, RWDSU members are not expendable, they are critical to putting food on America’s dinner tables, and above all else, they are hard-working people who didn’t sign up to die on the front lines of a pandemic in this country, and they shouldn’t be dying needlessly. The truth is our members have been terrified to go to work for weeks.”

RWDSU raised hell with Tyson even before Wills died, but the corporation has been slow and negligent to respond, Fields explained. Its workers, at plants around the South, still debone the chickens on production lines where they stand shoulder to shoulder – not the six feet that federal anti-coronavirus guidelines advocate. And they debone chickens at a rate of 80 per minute.

The union reminded Tyson both its contract and federal law require bosses to provide a safe and healthy work environment, and they aren’t. It has standing demands – which the firm has yet to meet – to shut down areas where a worker tests positive for the coronavirus, for 72 hours for cleaning and disinfecting.

And while Tyson has sent workers home with pay for quarantining, it’s not giving RWDSU a list of who was working with the person who tested positive, and the names and dates of workers on that shift, so they too can be tested for coronavirus exposure.

The industry as a whole is lagging behind, too, the union says. That includes not just Tyson, but Pilgrim’s Pride, Equity Foods, Koch Foods, and Wayne Farms.

Besides demanding the 72-hour shutdowns and payments to quarantined workers, the agribusinesses must also  “provide proper PPE for all employees including but not limited to gloves, masks, face shields, smocks, and other appropriate PPE in order to prevent any transmission of the COVID-19 virus, install Plexiglass shielding between workstations, especially on the deboning lines” and set up staggered work schedules to enforce the six-foot distancing and minimize community spread, the union says.

And while front-line workers nationwide who are most exposed to the coronavirus demand hazardous duty pay – and many congressional Democrats support that – Tyson managers offered workers a $500 bonus tied to attendance, and payable in July.

“This is inexcusable for America’s largest meat producer, which makes $40 billion in annual revenue. Yet, Tyson is just one example of an industry that is acting too late to protect a generation of workers that is feeding America during this crisis,” Appelbaum said.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.