How Sioux Falls Became a Hot Spot

Listen to this episode

S1: Before Sioux Falls, South Dakota, became a coveted 19 hot spot before calls started coming in about unsafe working conditions at the local meat processing plant. Cooper Caraway, who leads the regional chapter of the AFL CIO, he was taking other kinds of calls. Calls that, looking back, feel like a kind of early warning.

S2: A lot of workers in Sioux Falls are particularly lot of union members are immigrants and refugees. And they use our big union hall, our primary union hall in Sioux Falls called the Sioux Falls Labor Temple, and they use a labor temple as a meeting place. They have weddings there. They’ve all kinds of events there. Usually the labor temple is booked up every single weekend. So the first calls we were getting were people, you know, worker after worker after worker coming in and saying, hey, we were expecting a gathering of 100 people, 150, 200 people. We don’t think it’s safe.

Advertisement

S3: They were canceling over concerns about the Corona virus. This was six weeks ago.

S2: You know, I’m hearing calls, you know, from my family, they’re telling me, you know, it’s better to to cancel or to postpone factory workers and heard from friends and relatives back home.

S1: You don’t want to get sick with this virus.

S2: Yeah. It was like a wave.

S1: The largest union employer in Cooper’s region is called Smithfield Foods. Three thousand seven hundred people work at this pork processing plant. And it wasn’t long before workers started worrying not just about getting infected at the Union Hall. They were worried about getting infected on the job.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S2: So a lot of the concerns that were flowing were, hey, we don’t want to get our family’s sake. We’re asking for protection. They just gave us kind of a hairnet to wear instead of a mask, hairnet to wear over our face. Does this work? Does this hairnet that they gave us over our face, is that going to help us? And unfortunately, you know, all the union reps are in a position where they have to tell him, like, no, that hairnet over your face is not going to help you.

S1: Well, not just no, but like no. And now you have to make your decision about whether you go in or not. Yeah. You might have heard about this Smithfield plant now more than 15 percent of its workforce has tested positive for covered how eventually it became the source of the largest cluster of coronavirus cases in the country. Seven hundred and counting coronavirus virus has infected hundreds of workers at meat processing plants in five states and counting now meatpacking plants across the country, especially in the Midwest, are struggling to contain the Corona virus. We could see similar outbreaks in similar facilities.

Advertisement

S3: So today on the show, if what happened in Sioux Falls was kind of early warning. What can Cooper Carraway is fight for worker safety? Tell you about why the meat industry is uniquely vulnerable right now. Why do his workers feel like they’re the ones being led to the slaughter? I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next. Stick with us.

S1: Cooper Caraway got elected president of the Central Labor Council in Sioux Falls a couple years back. That’s when he started getting to know the Smithfield pork processing plant. You’ve been there, right?

Advertisement
Advertisement

S2: Oh, yeah, I’ve been there. The first thing I did after I got elected president was going to tour there. And it took me a while to be able to get in. Management didn’t want the union to be able to give me a tour.

Advertisement

S1: What do you think they didn’t want you to see?

S2: I don’t know. You know, I didn’t pass a background check because I’ve been I’ve been arrested on the picket line. You know, probably half a dozen times or so. But I don’t know what they were hesitant about. But Smithfield has always been pretty private. I’ll say they’ve not wanted to have the doors open to the public much. They’ve not liked people filming at or near their location. They’ve just always been a pretty private company. And if you ask them, they’ll probably say, oh, that’s to protect their trademarks in the process. You know, from their competitors, they’ll give you like the Willy Wonka explanation. You know, they don’t want the competing pork producers to see how they’re doing things.

Advertisement

S1: I love that. The Willy Wonka explanation. So what did it look like when you went in? Like, how closely were the workers working with each other?

S2: Oh, they’re very close. They’re shoulder to shoulder. It’s very crowded. The hallways are narrow. The staircases are narrow. It’s a large plant. But, you know, it’s it’s ode to old architecture. You know, plants like the Smithfield plant are are the kind of plants that Upton Sinclair was talking about in the jungle. Folks are working shoulder to shoulder the whole time. You know, they’re changing clothes shoulder to shoulder in the locker room. You know, they’re eating shoulder to shoulder at the in the lunchroom. Folks are working really close together.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: And they’re slicing up and processing meat as they do that, right?

S2: Yes. So it’s it’s full. It’s a full production facility. So at the bottom of the plant, the the how are the hogs are coming in. And at the at the other end, all the hogs are going out as packaged as package product.

S1: It seems like it would have safety issues even if there wasn’t a highly infectious virus floating around.

S2: Yeah, there’s always been issues. That’s why you know, that’s why they were very quick to unionize. They unionized in the 1930s, as has always been ongoing issues before the pandemic. The union was filing half a dozen or a dozen grievances every week. Every week. Yeah, and that’s that’s common. Like what? Oh, you know, from from middle things to big things, you know, accusations of a worker being disciplined without just cause, you know, then the union needs to file a grievance and get that form of discipline off of their record and and some kind of rectification to a worker maybe being terminated without just cause. Then the union’s got to go and help get that worker back to work and receiving back pay and to, you know, workers working in different positions and not being paid the correct rate. And, you know, you have to file a grievance and having to get them back pay and their pay adjusted and things like that.

S1: You know, you say that the plant unionized back in the 1930s. And listening to you, it’s clear how vulnerable these workers could be. Can you talk a little bit about how that worker population has changed since the plant first unionized almost 100 years ago?

S2: Yeah. So, I mean, I knew when the plant first unionized, it was primarily native born South Dakotans. Today, though, the workforce is primarily immigrant and refugee. The immigrants are coming from central South America and Mexico and the refugees are coming from parts of Asia, parts of Eastern Europe that a majority are coming from, from the African continent, from eastern and western Africa.

S1: Yeah, I saw this quote that there 80 plus languages spoken at the plant.

Advertisement

S2: Yeah, probably 80 languages and in maybe two 300 different dialects. And so they were kind of in a unique position to be able to identify identify the plant as a potential hotspot because they have friends and family calling them, contacting them, messaging them and kind of letting them know about the effects of the pandemic. And they’re in their countries.

S1: It was like the Smithfield workers had scouts all over the world telling them, hey, this thing is real and it’s coming to your community. A few weeks ago, Cooper says Smithfield workers started asking management for new workplace policies. They didn’t want to close the plant. They wanted to minimize the risk of a covert 19 outbreak there. If the workers kind of knew that this threat was coming, why did they keep working at the plant even though they were canceling their events and weddings and things like that?

Advertisement

S2: Partially because they feel is their obligation to continue working. And secondly, they felt that, you know, if they were to not show up, they would be disciplined for that. Smith, who has a very strict attendance policy, a point based system where, you know, if you go over a certain amount of points, you’re automatically terminated. And so, you know, the workers never, you know, especially at the beginning, you know, when they came, there was the concern wasn’t, hey, you know, there’s a pandemic. I don’t want to go to work. The concern was, hey, the pandemic is serious. The plant is vulnerable. Let’s talk about some ways that we can prevent the plant from becoming a hotspot. Their concerns were not taken seriously soon enough. Eventually, all of their requests were implemented by management, but by then, dozens of folks had already tested positive.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: Yeah, I read that Smithfield offered a five hundred dollar bonus to people who kept showing up to.

S2: Yeah. So I mean, some could say that they did the opposite of what we requested. What do you mean by that? Well, the things we were requesting, temperature checks at the door, secondary screening, staggered scheduling, a social distancing on the assembly line and things like that. Those things are meant to act out of an abundance of caution and protect workers. Management heard what we said and in response offered a $500 so-called responsibility bonus to anyone that would show up to us. You know, that’s the opposite. That’s putting production over over the health and safety of the workers.

S1: Do we know when the people who ran Smithfield realize that Corona virus could be a problem for them?

S2: I don’t know when the realization happened, but I can tell you that it was after about 80 workers had tested positive at the plant, that they began acting and began putting some of these stronger workplace protection policies in place.

S1: The mayor of Sioux Falls wanted Smithfield to go further with their workplace protections. By early April, there were more than 200 covered cases linked to Smithfield. Were you part of conversations with the Sioux Falls mayor and the state to get Smithfield to shut down?

S2: Yeah. So the mayor has actually been really responsive. I had been on the phone with the mayor. You know, every day, every other day. What were those phone calls like? Well, in South Dakota, it takes the mayor’s office several days before they’re getting accurate information on positive tests in the city and where those positive tests are. For example, for workers at Smithfield tests positive at a hospital, that hospital lets the employer know and then they let the state health department know. And then that state Health Department usually takes several days before they record it and then they send it back to the municipality. So the mayor’s a few days removed from when the positive test actually happens. But the union knows it almost immediately. So sort of the first conversations were mainly the mayor kind of checking up, keeping track of the number of positive cases at the plant.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: So the mayor needed you for data collection?

S2: That’s right. Yeah. And, you know, we’re happy to provide that.

S1: At first, the mayor and the union asked for a temporary shut down at Smithfield. Three days, they said, closed the plant for three days and do a deep clean. Then we can reassess. Smithfield said, sure.

S2: So they agreed maybe on a Wednesday and then they were gonna be shut down on Saturday, Sunday and Monday. And then we found out shortly after that from checking in with workers and whatnot. We found out that the plant wasn’t actually going to be shut down for the next three days. The plant was gonna be about 60 to 65 percent operational. They had told the media, they had told the union, they had told the mayor’s office and the governor’s office that they were doing a total shutdown. That must’ve pissed you off. It did. Yeah, it did. It pissed me off. Everybody who heard about it, it made them pretty angry. What like why would you. Wyatt, why would you behave this way? I don’t understand.

S1: Officials asked the company to extend the shutdown to two weeks while providing full pay and benefits to employees. South Dakota’s governor issued the official request on Saturday, April 11th. By Sunday, Smithfield had announced it would close the Sioux Falls plant indefinitely. How long has the plant been closed? Now it’s been closed almost a week now. I wonder, given all the back and forth, to just get the plant to shut down in the first place. What are you hearing from your union members while they’re away? About this time and how they’re feeling?

S2: There is definitely a level of relief for this particular union members at Smithfield. They want to do the right thing. They want to support their family. They want to be good workers and go in and do their job well. They take a lot of pride in that, but they also don’t want to be the ones to to put their friends and family at risk.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: I read something in the paper about how big gains in worker rights don’t tend to happen without a crisis. And it made me think of you because this moment just seems complicated for labor. Like I can imagine that for very in-demand laborers, people like your union members at Smithfield, where their bosses are making a lot of noise about the fact that, you know, the supply chain for meat is going to shudder to a stop if we don’t get these places open again. There’s power in in being essential in this way. But then there are also people where a union won’t really be able to help them, like the the economy’s dropped out and their jobs aren’t as, quote unquote, essential. I wonder if you think about that answer to the power of a union right now.

S2: Yeah, I definitely think about it in a few different ways. So, number one, I think, you know, we we heap praise on CEOs. We heap praise on billionaires. You know, being so-called job creators. And but it really exposes who is the most valuable in the economic system, who who, who are the wheels, who are the gears of the economic system, who’s really keeping the economy going and running and its rank and file, blue collar, regular working class people that are really keeping the whole thing running.

S1: I mean, there’s this saying, I think was Rahm Emanuel who said it, that, you know, don’t let a crisis go to waste. It sounds like that’s top of mind for you right now, making sure that in this crisis, people are thinking about how to use it and push ideas forward despite everything that’s happening.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S2: Yeah. And I’ve most of the time that I’ve heard that that phrase thrown around, it’s been in kind of a cynical way. But the way I look at it is, you know, the reason the reason you don’t let a crisis go to waste is because a crisis will always expose weaknesses and vulnerabilities in in in your system. A crisis will also expose, you know, we’ll show who you what what sections of society are vulnerable and things like that. And so it gives you an opportunity to strengthen those parts of your system that are weak and vulnerable and empower those groups of people that are rendered powerless by by one crisis or another.

S4: Cooper Tearaway, I’m so grateful for you joining me. Thank you. Thank you for having me. Cooper Caraway is in his third year as president of the Sioux Falls AFLCIO. CDC officials toured the Smithfield plant last week. South Dakota Governor Christie Ñome says they’ve written up a report and recommend equipping workers with face shields and personal protective gear. When the plant opens backup. So far, two employees have died from COVA, 19.

S5: And that’s the show.

S4: What next? Is produced by Mary Wilson. Jason de Leon. Daniel Hewitt and Maura Silvers. I’m Mary Harris. I will catch you back here tomorrow.