May 1, 2020

The Green Bay Packers are America’s most famous football team. They got their name from the Indian Packing Company, a local meat processing firm that sponsored their first set of jerseys. Outside of Wisconsin, not many Americans know that story. This week, however, Green Bay is in the news for reasons other than its football team. It’s now a Coronavirus hotspot and the explanation is again rooted in the city’s meatpacking industry.

While Americans everywhere are eager to pretend that the virus is under control, the situation in Wisconsin is getting precarious. According to the state’s Department of Health Services, a total of 920 people in Brown County — where Green Bay is located — have tested positive for Covid-19, up 603 from a week ago. The infection rate in the county is 3.54 cases per 1,000 residents — the highest in the state. By point of comparison, in Dane County, where the capital city of Madison is located, the rate is just .79 per 1,000.

The explanation for that disparity is simple: Dane County is, for the most part, a middle-class region.  Residents work predominantly for the state government, its legal apparatus, the huge University of Wisconsin and the technology sector. Brown County, in contrast, is working class, with the meat packing industry a big employer. As we’ve already seen (if we’ve been paying attention) this virus is particularly cruel to the working class.

Americans are huge consumers of meat. They eat 124 kilos per person per year, which puts them near the top of the league table of carnivores. Among major countries, only Denmark and New Zealand consume more.  Americans aren’t about to let a pandemic get in the way of their meat consumption — especially not with the barbecue season heating up. That demand for meat has placed a great strain on the processing industry — and particularly its workers.

Earlier this month, one of the largest pork-producing plants in the US — Tyson Foods of Sioux Falls, South Dakota — closed indefinitely because nearly 300 of its employees had tested positive for Coronavirus. That was the first real hint of worrisome trend. Last week Smithfields, a huge pork processor, temporarily closed two plants because of the virus. At one plant, which employs nearly 4,000 largely Hispanic workers, almost 900 people were infected.

The spike in Brown County has been linked to JBS Packerland, a meat industry plant in Green Bay. Infectious disease experts have found that meat processing plants have become hot spots because employees have to work in close quarters, making social distancing impossible. Wet animal carcasses are passed from person to person along the production line, acting as conduits for the disease. The workforce at these plants is made up largely of recently arrived Hispanic immigrants who live in crowded housing. Throw in the language barrier, and it’s easy to see why controlling the spread of the virus within the packing industry is extremely difficult.

So far, 22 packing plants in the US have closed. Some 3,300 workers have been diagnosed with the virus, and 20 have died, but those figures are rising with every passing day. Plant closures were motivated by the need to protect the lives of workers, a noble principle. But the consequence has been a severe drop in the supply of meat — up to one quarter in the case of pork. There’s talk of having to euthanise millions of animals because of the lack of processing capacity in the industry at the moment.

Last Sunday, John Tyson, chairman of Tyson Foods, took out full-page ads in the Washington Post and New York Times warning that “as pork, beef and chicken plants are being forced to close … millions of pounds of meat will disappear from the supply chain”. In an intentionally apocalyptic tone, Tyson warned: “the nation’s food supply is breaking”. That’s not strictly true, since, for the moment, it’s mainly the meat industry that’s in peril, not the entire food supply. But, given the American fondness for meat, Tyson’s scaremongering hit home.

Tyson is a long-time friend of Sonny Perdue, Trump’s Agriculture Secretary. Both made their fortunes in the chicken industry. Tyson and Perdue appear to have had a word in Donald Trump’s ear. On Tuesday, the President invoked the Defense Production Act (DPA) mandating that meat is a vital commodity and ruling that packing plants must remain open.

According to the executive order, closures “threaten the continued functioning of the national meat and poultry supply chain, undermining critical infrastructure during the national emergency”. The order designates that meatpacking plants are part of the critical infrastructure of the nation. Cynics might notice how quickly Trump invoked the DPA with respect to the meat supply, compared with his much slower response in the case of test kits, PPE and ventilators.

Along with that executive order came a “hold harmless” decree which stipulates that the plants cannot be held liable for the spread of the illness among employees. Occupational Safety and Health Administration guidelines designed to protect the worker in these factories have been temporarily relaxed in order to address the threat of meat shortages. Nowhere has there been mention, by the President or his assistants, that now might be a good time to cut back on consumption.

The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW), the largest US meatpacking union, has demanded that the Trump administration compel meat companies to provide proper protective equipment and frequent coronavirus testing for slaughterhouse workers. That demand, however, is likely to fall on deaf ears. The unions, already weak in the US, are powerless against a determined President who loves his hamburgers, and who seems to take delight in using this crisis to assert his power. It’s easy for him to argue that desperate times require desperate measures.

The workers in those packing plants are the innocent lambs led helplessly to slaughter. They’re faced with a stark choice: they can go back to work and risk their health, or they can protect their health and lose their jobs. With unemployment approaching 20%, the employers hold all the cards. Finding replacement workers at the slaughterhouses shouldn’t prove too difficult, even if the job has suddenly become deadly.

In 1906, Upton Sinclair published The Jungle, his novel about the harsh conditions of immigrant workers in America’s meatpacking industry. Ironically, most middle-class readers of the book ended up more concerned about the insanitary processing of meat than about the welfare of those workers. “I aimed at the public’s heart,” wrote Sinclair, “and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”

Things haven’t really changed much since that book was published. Americans have always been more concerned about the meat they consume than about the unfortunate people who process it. No one really wants to think about what goes on in a slaughterhouse.

America has been hit in the stomach again. What we’re seeing is a particularly stark example of a phenomenon that will become painfully apparent in the weeks to come. And let us not pretend that this is an exclusively American story. Powerful people desperately want a return to normal. Normality, however, will be restored by the underclass – the low-paid, powerless workers who face the choice of protecting their health or protecting their livelihood.

In truth, it’s not a choice at all; those workers have no alternative but to become martyrs in this battle for meat. Middle-class habits will always trump working-class well-being.