Keeping processing lines running at workers’ expense is not only a sign of our pandemic times. The meat and poultry processing industry has long treated workers as disposable.
“They just keep running the line,” Southern Black women workers told historian LaGuana Gray (2014) about the twentieth century poultry industry’s processes of exploitation—exploitation that broke their bodies as Americans’ skyrocketing appetite for chicken lined the pockets of plant owners and investors. My work with Black and Latinx immigrant poultry workers in the twenty-first century reveals the same: regardless of the racial, ethnic, gender, or citizenship background of the people slaughtering and processing the meat we eat, this industry has kept its lines running throughout history no matter the cost to those doing the heavy labor (Stuesse 2016). The time of the COVID-19 pandemic has proven no different.
When the Food & Environment Reporting Network (FERN) and others first sounded the alarm in spring 2020 that meat processing workers were being infected and killed by the novel coronavirus at alarmingly high rates—twice the national average in some rural communities—the industry had already begun backroom conversations with the Trump administration to ensure continuity of production and profit. Within the span of a few days, industry leader Tyson Foods put a full-page ad in several national papers warning of supply shortages, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued new guidance for the industry, and President Trump told Florida Governor Ron DeSantis that he intended to sign an executive order to address “liability problems” in the food supply.
Invoking the Cold War era Defense Production Act and declaring that processing plants “promote the national defense” of the United States, the order compelled (gave license to) poultry and meat processors to remain open during the pandemic. By signaling limits to workers’ abilities to sue their employers for COVID-related disability and death, this executive action ensured the multinational giants in the meat and poultry industry that they could keep running their processing lines.
More than six months later, the human toll of this decision is palpable. By mid-November, FERN’s reporters had confirmed outbreaks in 1,211 meatpacking, poultry, and food processing plants, documenting at least 73,619 infected workers and 336 deaths. Because the industry has strategically located plants where workers have few economic alternatives, Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and immigrant communities in the rural South, Midwest, and Plains states have been among those hardest hit.
But keeping the processing lines running at workers’ expense is what the poultry and meatpacking giants have always done. It’s the business model for an industry that determined decades ago that vertical integration, mass production, and labor control are the keys to shareholder profit (Striffler 2005; Stull, Broadway, and Griffith 1995). Toiling elbow to elbow on the processing lines in extreme temperatures as birds reel past them, with scarce access to bathroom breaks or protection of their other most basic rights, workers make the same cutting, pulling, or packaging movement up to 60,000 times per shift. And over the course of nearly 20 years studying its labor practices, I’ve seen poultry and meat processers treat workers as expendable and subhuman time and again.
Even national disasters rarely stop the lines. On September 11, 2001, as New York City’s Twin Towers collapsed, US airspace went on lockdown, and the nation was upended, lines in chicken, beef, and pork plants kept running. One debone worker in Mississippi, a recent immigrant from Argentina, entered the break room that morning to find groups of supervisors huddled around a TV. “There was black smoke pouring out of a building, but that’s all I could see,” she recalled. “When our break ended they sent us back in to keep working. No one explained anything. It wasn’t until I got home that night and was able to watch the [Spanish language] news that I began to understand the gravity of what was taking place.”
Four years later, when I was working with the Mississippi Poultry Workers’ Center, Hurricane Katrina hit Mississippi’s gulf coast. As it moved north, it tore industrial chicken houses from the ground. In the subsequent days, as New Orleans flooded and millions of chickens perished, electricity was restored and Mississippi’s chicken processors got back to work. Though many rural workers remained without power, and gas to fuel the sometimes-long drive to work was difficult to come by, the processing lines continued through the chaos.
Then, in 2019, the Trump administration conducted a coordinated immigration raid on chicken plants across Mississippi. In what became known as the country’s largest-ever single-state immigration raid, nearly 700 workers were detained by federal agents and children were left without parents to go home to. The lives of workers, their families, and entire rural communities were turned upside down, but the lines were back up and running within hours. Before the week was out the poultry plants were recruiting and hiring new workers to replace those they had lost.
Indeed, looking back even further, we see that the industry’s aggressive recruitment of Latin American immigrant workers from Florida and Texas in the 1990s served the same purpose. This recruitment wasn’t merely to fuel the expansion of the processing lines at a time when Americans’ appetite for chicken was growing; it was a tactic plant executives used to disempower Black workers who, growing frustrated with low pay and mistreatment, had begun to organize unions to fight for better wages and working conditions. The new stream of immigrant workers ensured that poor local workers would think twice before walking off a job that might not be waiting for them when they returned.
The people on the processing lines, regardless of race, gender, national origin, or citizenship status, grapple with the effects of being structurally expendable on a daily basis. Their employers, through professional associations like the North American Meat Institute and the National Chicken Council, push regulators to limit health and safety protections that impinge on profit. And while for years the United States Department of Agriculture resisted the industry’s requests for higher caps on the speed of the processing line, in August 2020 the Trump administration proposed to permanently increase the speed to 175 birds per minute, up from 140. Superhuman line speeds have long been identified as a main cause of processing plants’ high injury rates—carpal tunnel, for example, occurs at seven times the national average.
But beyond pre-pandemic occupational illness and injury rates more than five times higher than those of other workers across the country, this industry also has a long history of obstructing injured and ailing workers’ access to medical care and compensation benefits, often going to great lengths to ensure that workers receive as little medical treatment and compensation for their injuries as possible (Stuesse 2018). Through the Mississippi Poultry Workers’ Center’s Workplace Injury Project, I regularly witnessed workers’ attempts to reassert their humanity as their bodies failed them.
Adrián landed on his tailbone after stepping into a drainage channel that was missing its protective grate. The “plant doctor” took X-rays, said Adrián was fine, and sent him back to work. After a month of excruciating pain, and repeatedly advocating for himself with no response from his employer, he went to see a specialist. Using the original X-rays, he was diagnosed with multiple vertebrae fractures. Years after receiving spinal surgery, he still lived in constant pain and was unable to work.
When Salvador’s hand was mangled in the polyester cord strapping machine he operated to bundle boxes of processed chicken, the plant’s preferred doctor improperly set his bones. A month later his bones were re-broken by a hand surgeon, and he endured multiple surgeries to repair the damage. Stories of medical mismanagement like these are all too frequent.
When Moisés injured his left hand in a workplace accident, the plant allowed him to continue working—with just one hand. A repetitive motion injury eventually crippled his other arm and Moisés was fired. In the months that followed, he struggled to gain access to basic medical care and workers’ compensation benefits. “As long as we can work 100 percent, everything’s fine,” Moisés condemned, speaking out at a press conference for the release of the Human Rights Watch report on labor exploitation in the industry, Blood, Sweat, and Fear (2004). “But if we ask for medical attention, they get rid of us. They should treat us like human beings, not like machines.”
Years later, President Trump’s invocation of the Defense Production Act reinscribes expendability on the bodies of essential workers in the food chain. Mostly ineligible for pandemic-driven unemployment benefits and stimulus dividends, denied paid sick leave, and unable to easily find another job, most people working low-wage meat and poultry jobs feel compelled to show up no matter the human cost. Though medical research has shown that the virus can be transmitted by asymptomatic individuals, the revised CDC/OSHA guidelines tell their employers that as long as they’re not feeling ill they can continue to work, despite exposures. Meanwhile, with a nationwide testing shortage, few workers are being screened. And as of October, companies—long loathe to report COVID-19 cases in their plants—are no longer required to share infection data with OSHA. With no transparency on behalf of the industry and few other options, until they test positive, workers will keep going to work. Until they can’t.
In the 2000s, Celso Mendoza organized a work stoppage to protest unjust pay and working conditions that ultimately led to union representation at his chicken plant in Mississippi. Fifteen years later, in April 2020, he started feeling sick. On May 2, after an agonizing week in the hospital, he became one of the first meat and poultry workers to pass from COVID-19. I wrote an op-ed sharing a few of my memories of him, which thankfully helped to raise over $26,000 to repatriate his remains and support his child’s medical treatment for advanced kidney failure.
His employer, too, wrote a tribute and placed it in the break room at the chicken plant. “Ariel Perales… was one of the ideal employees who always came to work with the most positive attitude and the willingness to work where ever he was needed. He was so caring and never hesitated to assist and help anyone without even being asked to do so. …Fly high Ariel and continue to watch over us all.” Ironically, the tribute referred to Celso using his “work name,” Ariel Perales, rather than his real name. Even in death, the legal exclusions that regulated his life by criminalizing undocumented work continue to underscore the structural precarity that ultimately led to his death.
Meat and poultry workers have been clear since the earliest reports of COVID-19 outbreaks in their plants—they need paid sick leave, proper personal protective equipment, and hazard pay. The failure to offer these basic protections has dramatically exacerbated the virus’s spread. We desperately need government leaders to regulate this industry—not give them a free pass to slaughter workers at will. And until effective federal regulations are put in place, meat and poultry processors will just keep running the line.
The new Biden administration has an overwhelming amount of pressing work to do come January 20; ensuring protections and rights for the most vulnerable among us must be among the highest issues on their agenda. This includes sending a clear message—using the tools of regulation, policy, and resource allocation—that their administration stands with our nation’s food chain workers, as well as with their families and communities.
Trump and his industry supporters may have viewed these human losses as a small price to pay to continue providing the rest of us with hamburgers and chicken nuggets for a profit, but Celso Mendoza, the tens of thousands of other essential workers like him who have succumbed to the coronavirus, and those we have yet to lose are not expendable. They are irreplaceable.
May they all rest in power.
Angela Stuesse is an associate professor of anthropology and global studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and author of Scratching Out a Living: Latinos, Race, and Work in the Deep South (2016). Follow her on Twitter @astuesse.
Cite as: Stuesse, Angela. 2021. “Killing the Workers Who Feed Us.” Anthropology News website, January 8, 2021. https://doi.org/10.14506/AN.1566