The Working Life of the Meat Packer in the Time of the Plague

End of the day, factory whistle cries,
Men walk through these gates with death in their eyes.
And you just better believe, boy,
somebody’s gonna get hurt tonight,
It’s the working, the working, just the working life

— Bruce Springsteen, “Factory” (1978)

President Trump, responding to meatpacking plant closures occasioned by COVID-19 has ordered the plants to stay open for national security purposes. No matter that over 20 U.S. meatpacking workers in the U.S. have died so far of the virus.

On April 7 Tyson Foods announced it was closing a pork processing plant in Iowa after  25 of its employees contracted the virus. In Pennsylvania, JBS, Empire Kosher and Olymel also cut production due to infection. Smithfield in South Dakota closed down a pork processing plant April 21 due to a virus outbreak.

But then Tyson’s CEO published on April 27 a New York Times op-ed pointing out how the closure of plants, demanded by workers and imposed by governors, was devastating farmers and jeopardizing the “national food supply chain.” (Expect to hear this term a lot; like “Homeland” it has warm reverential connotations.) The president responded with an executive order mandating their continued operation. How could the White House operate without the Big Macs and Kentucky Fried Chicken?

Lest workers refuse to go back to work under the circumstances, some governors now state that if they refuse they will be denied unemployment benefits. To maintain the profits of Tyson in Iowa, workers are in effect being ordered to their deaths by Gov. Kim Reynolds. While resisting University of Iowa researchers’ warning not to prematurely open the state’s economy,  she announced last week: “I you’re an employer and you offer to bring your employee back to work and they decide not to, that’s a voluntary quit. Therefore, they would not be eligible for the unemployment money.”

In other words, if you don’t trust Reynolds’ judgment, and Trump’s, and if you’re too cowardly to go back to work to make America great again, you are free starve in your apartment. Or once evicted, free to perish out on the street trying to maintain social distance while you beg. You have the right  to work, while scientists recommend that you don’t–not at least until there’s a lot more more testing. You have the freedom to choose, while scientists tell you the better choice before the vaccine is to stay at home. The liberty to return to normalcy, while scientists caution you it’s not safe until there’s a two-week period of daily infection decline (which is not happening).

Marx called the modern wage-worker “free.” More specifically, “free in the double sense, that as a free man he can dispose of his labour power as his own commodity, and that on the other hand he has no other commodity for sale.” The worker having no means of production themselves must exchange their labor power for wages; they have no choice but to “freely” bargain with potential employers over the specific terms of their exploitation.

What Marx often called “wage-slavery” has been oppressive enough since it became widespread in Europe in the sixteenth century. How much more so in times of plague, when a public health crisis exacerbates economic oppression. Here in Trump’s “reopening” of America we see capitalism exploiting the worker’s need to pay for rent and groceries (to sustain basic life) to force people back to work. It simultaneously risks–while expecting the worker to risk–death at an acceptable level so as to justify the reopening.

If you make ham-canning a national food supply chain priority, the assembly-line worker becomes a kind of soldier; why not expect each one to fatalistically accept the (low) possibility of death? For the country!

A key campaign in the history of the movement against wage-slavery was the movement in Britain and elsewhere for the Eight Hour Day. “Freedom” means in part free time, time to enjoy life between labor hours and sleep. In Capital, while discussing the history of workers’ movements to limit the workday, Marx makes his only reference to the Black Plague of the fourteenth century. He notes how peasants were able to use it to bargain for better labor conditions and a shorter workday. That is, a pandemic coincidently weakened the foundations of feudalism and, in England particularly, paved the way for the disappearance of serfdom.

Today’s pandemic has forced world rulers to order their workers to shelter in place, to preserve their lives and capacity to work in future. Now the issue is the timing of the return to some kind of normalcy, with some leaders (notably Trump) chomping at the bit to declare victory over the virus and lift social distancing. For workers the issue is the right to stay home, safe and supported, until they can return to jobs. (And beyond that, one should insist on the right of employment, along with the right to universal healthcare.)

One hopes that factory workers in this country including meatpackers will use this moment to demand maximal concessions from management on safety issues, health care, and even company ownership, etc.

MSNBC now reports a JBS plant in Greeley, Colorado is back to work, but workers deeply worried about the fact the there were five virus deaths thus far of workers at the facility. And that asymptomatic people may be spreading the disease. You just better believe somebody’s gonna get hurt. It’s the work, it’s the work, it’s the working life.

Gary Leupp is a Professor of History at Tufts University, and author of numerous works on Japanese history. He can be reached at: Read other articles by Gary.