It was the workers and their kids who shut down Tyson’s Waterloo, Iowa meatpacking plant on April 22, 2020.
Not the governor of Iowa, Kim Reynolds, who seemed to show more concern for the hogs who weren’t being slaughtered than for the thousands of workers who were being daily exposed to COVID-19 by showing up for work. Not the score of county and state officials who pleaded with the governor and the CEO of Tyson’s to close the plant, but backed off from actually shutting it down. And, of course, not the managers and CEO of Tyson’s, who kept the plant up and running,even as TV crews and reporters were showing scores of severely ill Tyson workers, many barely able to walk into area hospitals and clinics for treatment.
The pork slaughter and processing plant, one of the largest on the continent and one of the largest workplaces in Iowa, is now running, though at a reduced capacity, since it re-opened on May 7th. The story of how the largest single COVID-19 outbreak in the United States occurred there could begin on April 1, 2020, when the Iowa Medical Society sent Governor Reynolds a letter imploring her to use her powers to close down Iowa in a ‘shelter-in-place’ status, until the pandemic could be brought under control.
Iowa had not yet been hit by the epidemic, except for isolated pockets (a party returning from an Egyptian river cruise constituted 14 out of the 16 first cases), but the pandemic’s effects were strikingly obvious in other nations and states in the U.S. since February. Reynolds, a Trump Republican, ignored the advice of the state’s doctors and an action plan from University of Iowa epidemiologists (as was shown in late May when reporters forced release of the plan), and chose to impose partial measures, rather than shut down the state. Those measures allowed 80% of the state’s workforce to continue to assemble in large groups, since they were deemed “essential”.
The first few Tyson’s workers sick with COVID-19 almost certainly showed up in Waterloo area Emergency Departments and urgent care clinics on April 1st. “I don’t know what it is, man, I just can’t get my breath,” was what emerged time and again in a dozen languages from their phones as healthcare workers began interviewing Tyson’s employees, using isolation techniques to protect themselves. Those first cases were treated, tested and told to go into voluntary quarantine for two weeks per CDC recommendations. It is almost a certainty that some of them went to the nearest drugstore, filled their prescriptions, and then went to work the next shift. Many of them continued working until they went from their job to an Emergency Department and then directly to an ICU.
Why these workers would return to work makes no sense to most people, but it makes complete sense within the alternate universe of Tyson’s and meatpacking, and within the reality of Iowa political life at the moment.
Even in normal times, Tyson’s has a punitive and convoluted sick leave policy. There is no paid sick leave. If you don’t show up you don’t get paid. Most meatpacking workers are already at the poverty line or one paycheck away. If you call in sick you accumulate a point…Ten points and you’re out on the street. Despite the existence of the new federal policies in March and April supposedly protecting those who are infected with COVID-19 and making it possible for those who are sick to stay at home with reduced pay, Tyson’s workers know that federal laws don’t actually apply within meatpacking plants.
And they are right.
When the Iowa Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) was asked to investigate the Perry, Iowa Tyson plant on April 11th, 2020 because of a complaint from a family member that workers there were not being required to maintain social distancing, they waited nine days to send a letter to the plant manager, then another eight days to receive a written response, according to an AP investigative team. Then without ever visiting the plant, OSHA ruled that Tyson’s response was “satisfactory” on April 28th, the same day that Tyson’s manager mailed the response.
By the 28th that plant was in the middle of a full blown epidemic and subsequently shut by Tyson’s.
Every day after April 8th Tyson’s Waterloo workers could see with their own eyes that an increasing number of their co-workers were becoming ill. As they mingled closely with hundreds of their co-workers during shift changes in the locker rooms, the crowded break room and on the production lines, they would have noticed that more and more people were ‘working sick’ during the epidemic. Their Human Resources Department told them that they were ‘safe’ at work, but the plant nurse posted a notice on April 7th informing workers that they would have to wear a mask (by this time, Tyson’s would have been notified by the state that they had workers who had tested positive for COVID-19, given the 7 day lag for tests then). No masks were distributed to the more than 2,000 workers. Several of the sick workers that I interviewed laughed at me when I asked if the plant nurse had given anyone information about COVID-19. “She gave me a packet of these pills”, explained one through a translator, “then I don’t know what she said, since she didn’t get an interpreter.”
We know from talking with scores of workers that Tyson’s shifted production and personnel from its Columbus Junction, Iowa plant, which was closed in mid-April due to the epidemic. A number of Waterloo workers believe that their epidemic resulted from workers being sent from that plant.
Among the over two thousand workers at Waterloo are members of the diaspora from civil wars on four continents; workers are Burmese, Congolese, Bosnian, Guatemalan, Mexican and African-American. At least some of them had recently returned from visiting in Asia and Africa.
This policy of hiring immigrant workers for food processing plants in Iowa is no accident, either at Tyson’s or hundreds of other plants across the country. Speaking English is not a requirement for ripping the guts out of a chicken a thousand times a shift, which is still a job that has to be done by hand. By having dozens of languages on a line – a Burmese immigrant might speak a language incomprehensible to another Burmese worker next to her, a Guatemalan worker might speak a language incomprehensible to a Spanish-speaking Mexican, a Lingala-speaking worker from the Congo may not be able to talk with a Swahili-speaker from Nigeria, etc., the company can reduce the likelihood of workers organizing. That, plus the continual turn-over on the line from the difficulty and danger of the work, which sees some plants have a 100% change in personnel in one year, also makes organizing more difficult.
One story might illustrate that alternate reality of the meat-packing world. When Barbara Topple first began shooting what became the Academy Award-winning documentary American Dream about the beginning of and subsequent crushing of the Local P-9 strike at the Austin, Minnesota Hormel plant, she stood before a high school auditorium filled with packing house workers. Since she could not get permission to get inside the plant (she could now be prosecuted under the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act of 2006 if she photographed or took videos within a plant without permission), she said that she would like to talk with any worker who had been injured on the job. Could they raise their hands so she could pick them out?
An uneasy laugh rang throughout the hall, then every one of the hundreds of workers present raised one or two hands.
That was in the mid-1980s (the film won the Academy Award in 1990), a short distance away from Waterloo. Those workers were over 90% native white Minnesotans. By 2008, when ICE arrested all 500 of the workers in a kosher meat-packing plant in Postville Iowa, a short distance away from Austin and Waterloo, not one of the workforce members was a local Iowan. The workers, who were subsequently held prisoner in a stadium in Waterloo enroute to serving seven month sentences and deportations, all came from Mexico and Central America.
By 2020, the workers in meatpacking plants across the Midwest were paid less and worked under worse conditions than in 1985 and this was before the COVID-19 outbreak. Uniformly they work ‘shoulder to shoulder’ and, until last month, were working without masks, Plexiglass separation or social distancing. Next to nursing homes, the meat packing plants have seen more outbreaks than any other workplaces, so many that one industry journal began an on-line map of outbreaks. Over 800 workers fell sick at a Smithfield plant in Sioux Falls, SD; and over 1,000 at the Tyson’s plant. As this piece is being written in late May, two more plants have been shut down in Iowa.
By mid-April, Governor Reynolds had instituted partial measures by closing down bars, restaurants, bowling alleys, churches and the numerous other gathering places that workers use to meet and would use to occasionally plot action. When she was asked whether she had spoken with any of the meat packing workers at the Tyson’s plants in Iowa, she replied that she had spoken with “Human Resources and their CEO”. As far as is known, Reynolds has not visited a meat packing plant during the epidemic.
Organizing in an environment where your co-worker does not speak your language (and the decibel level is close to an jet plane landing) is possible, but difficult. By mid-April, the efforts of younger family members on social media such as Facebook became critical. A Chin-speaking teenager in Waterloo, whose aunt works at Tyson’s, speaks English as well, so they can communicate on Facebook with a Spanish/English bilingual teenager whose mom works at Tyson’s. Those teenagers turned up in front of the physical plant with signs that read: “What is more important? Your family, your life or your job?!” and “Shut Tyson’s.” Community pressure turned up after front-line healthcare workers leaked information about the ‘flood of patients’ to local press and TV reporters, who were subsequently stonewalled by Tyson’s.
When too few workers turned up to run the ‘fresh kill’ side of the plant, Tyson’s announced that it was ‘choosing’ to suspend operations. We won’t know until later how many workers were too sick to work, or were afraid of becoming sick, or were acting in solidarity with their co-workers, or what combination of all these factors were that shut the plant. We do know there was a wildcat walkout at the Crete Nebraska plant on April 28th, inspired by the Tyson’s action, but either plant officials or union officials persuaded those workers to return the same day. As this article was being completed, Iowa health officials were forced to announce another outbreak at Tyson’s Storm Lake Iowa plant, where over 500 of the 2,000+ employees had tested positive on May 28th.
Despite assurances from Tyson’s and other meatpacking companies after they had closed that they had done a ‘deep clean’ and instituted new safety measures, the alternate universe of meatpacking continued. The Trump Executive Order of April 29th, invoking the Defense Production Act of 1950, mandated that meatpacking plants STAY OPEN. This not only makes walkouts such as what occurred at Waterloo and Crete illegal, but it means that no worker can refuse to come back to work or quit their job because of legitimate COVID-19 fears and then draw unemployment. As well, while the order strengthens the hand of the CEOs in running their plants without fear of a possible class action lawsuit by the workers for exposing them to COVID-19, it makes the use of new OSHA and CDC regulations voluntary. This last point will be crucial in the coming months as new outbreaks occur. As one frontline doctor in Waterloo noted, you can ‘deep clean’ steel and plastic, but you can’t ‘deep clean’ humans. And humans have been the transmitters of the virus, not sliced ham.
Put a group of workers close enough to talk – which they will inevitably do in the break room, the locker room or waiting to punch in or out – and you have the pool for a new outbreak. As one of the workers, who walked away when Tyson’s did mandatory blood testing for all of its employees, explained to me, “They weren’t even enforcing 6 feet or wearing masks in that line. Why would I let them do a test on me when they don’t even follow their own rules?”
Tyson’s may have re-opened, but the deaths and lingering illness among the workers and their families continues. The ‘official’ fifth death, Jose Ayala, occurred on May 27, 2020; his family and friends had been posting Facebook updates since his hospitalization six weeks earlier. Tyson’s declined to comment on his death or reveal the number of deaths within the plant, citing ‘patient privacy rules’. These rules and official obfuscation have led to Nebraska refusing to name specific plants’ numbers due to ‘health privacy laws’; they have grouped all numbers together in an ‘industry-wide’ statistic. Similarly, an initial report from Tyson’s and Iowa state health officials listed only 170 sick workers, creating an immediate outcry from local healthcare workers forcing them to correct that report to over 1,000 illnesses at one site. They had only counted workers tested by the state, not by local hospitals and clinics, which had been overwhelmed during the epidemic.
Most Tyson workers believe that there have been more than a dozen deaths due to the outbreak in Waterloo. That number would readily fit into the 1% mortality rate that has been commonly seen across the country. In this, as in so many other examples during the outbreak, the words of Black Hawk County’s Sheriff and head of the Emergency Management Team, Tony Thompson, rang true: “I don’t think that Tyson’s gives two shits about their employees. I really don’t.”
It is unlikely that anyone will hold a public ceremony thanking the Tyson’s workers for stopping a more widespread epidemic in Black Hawk County, which jumped to the forefront of the Iowa counties Covid-19 numbers in a matter of days. No Tyson’s employee has stepped forward to be publicly named during the epidemic, since all who have spoken to the media have done so on condition of anonymity. They fear the possibility of being fired. The frontline healthcare workers in Black Hawk County who worked through the epidemic, often with inadequate PPEs or enough testing equipment, are daily congratulated and rewarded for their work on national TV and from their patients, as well they should be. The heroes who work at Tyson’s risked their lives and jobs, yet they will go nameless and thankless.
Bill Smith, an Iowa Correspondent.
Two footnotes are necessary. Tyson’s has a five-year union contract with the UFCW beginning in 2016. I have not mentioned the UFCW local officials, stewards or national officers in this article because no Tyson’s worker ever mentioned the union in any way when I was talking with them about their jobs, life in the plant or how they were dealing with the epidemic. Granted, these were not leisurely discussions over a beer or lemonade. But I’ve talked with over a hundred Tyson’s workers in the last five years.