Tuesday, July 14, 2020

New Yorker magazine writer takes a look at the poultry processing industry, and one company in particular

President Trump is helping poultry-processing companies like Mountaire Farms put the squeeze on their workers, even during the pandemic, Jane Mayer reports for The New Yorker magazine.

"Unlike meatpackers, two-thirds of whom belong to unions, only about a third of poultry workers are represented by organized labor—and those who are unionized face mounting pressure," Mayer writes. The industry, which is dominated by large multinational corporations such as Mountaire, has grown increasingly concentrated, expanding its political influence while replacing unionized employees with contract hires, often immigrants or refugees. These vulnerable workers are technically hired by temp agencies, relieving poultry plants of accountability if documentation is lacking. Trump has weakened federal oversight of the industry while accepting millions of dollars in political donations from some of its most powerful figures, including Ronald Cameron, Mountaire’s reclusive owner. In 2016, Cameron gave nearly three million dollars to organizations supporting Trump’s candidacy."

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Mayer's story begins in Selbyville, Delaware, where the National Labor Relations Board ordered an election among Mountaire workers on a petition to decertify the United Food and Commercial Workers as their bargaining agent. (The election is being held by mail, and ballots are due today.) "When the union protested that this would violate the customary bar on overturning contracts before three years, the NLRB decided to broaden the case, reëxamining the entire concept of barring challenges to settled union contracts," Mayer reports. "The move has shocked labor-law experts. By statute, the NLRB has five members and is bipartisan, but the Trump Administration has filled only three seats, all with Republicans."

Meanwhile, "On April 28, 48 hours after Tyson Foods, the world’s second-largest meat company, ran a full-page ad in several newspapers warning that 'the food supply chain is breaking,' Trump issued an executive order defining slaughterhouse workers as essential. The White House had appointed Cameron to an advisory board on the pandemic’s economic impact. The executive order commanded meat-processing facilities to 'continue operations uninterrupted to the extent possible.' The Labor Department released an accompanying statement that all but indemnified companies for exposing workers to covid-19. It assured employers in essential industries that the agency wouldn’t hold them responsible if they failed to follow the CDC’s health guidelines, as long as they made a 'good faith' effort. Meat and poultry workers had to keep working and risk infection—or lose their jobs. By July 7, OSHA had received more than six thousand coronavirus-related workplace complaints but had issued only one citation, to a nursing home in Georgia."

Mayer's 8,565-word story has a lot more about Mountaire and the poultry-processing industry.

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