Democracy & Government

Unsanitized: Populist Moment Reappears Amid Tyson Gambling Scandal

Unsanitized: Populist Moment Reappears Amid Tyson Gambling Scandal

A shopper examines packages of Tyson brand chicken products in the refrigerator section of an Associated Supermarket in New York City on Monday, November 14, 2005. Tyson Foods Inc., is the world largest meat processor. (Photo by Ramin Talaie/Corbis via Getty Images)

This article is adapted from Unsanitized: The Election Daily Report put out by The American Prospect. You can find the original publication here.

First Response

The past couple presidential transitions have featured some sort of outrage against workers, which the president-elect must answer to. For Barack Obama it was the sit-down strike at Republic Windows and Doors, which went bankrupt in December 2008. Obama endorsed the strike and the workers reached a settlement with creditors for a $1.75 million compensation fund. (Eventually they created a worker-owned cooperative to manufacture windows.) For Donald Trump it was a deal he made with Carrier, which during the campaign was the subject of a viral video of an executive telling plant workers in Indianapolis that their jobs would be shipped to Mexico. Like so much else with Trump, the reality of that deal was less than the boast about it; the plant shut down and workers lost their jobs.

Now Joe Biden has his chance at a populist, pro-worker statement during his transition. The news broke November 18 about a wrongful death lawsuit against Tyson Foods, one of the nation’s biggest meatpacking companies. Meat processing plants have been some of the worst hotspots during the pandemic, as workers are in close proximity in poorly-ventilated facilities. Outbreaks have raced through these work sites; PPE is scarce and the safety measures like plastic dividers (which don’t go all the way to the top of the plant) aren’t very useful. While at one point, workers were allowed to take time off without fear of losing their jobs, that has been suspended, essentially compelling a low-wage, mostly immigrant workforce to risk their lives so Americans can have a pork chop for dinner.

But the lawsuit takes things to a whole other level. Isidro Fernandez caught the virus at the Tyson plant in Waterloo, Iowa, the company’s largest pork processing facility in the U.S., and died in April. According to the wrongful death case brought by Fernandez’ family, Tyson ordered employees to work at the plant in the early months of the pandemic, even if they showed symptoms of COVID-19 (one manager called it the “glorified flu”), without providing PPE or safety measures. Tyson also paid out $500 “thank you bonuses” to those with perfect attendance records in the spring, essentially pushing workers to continue to expose themselves.

Most of these points are familiar. But here’s the bombshell: supervisors “wagered money on the number of workers who would be sickened by the deadly virus.” It was a winner-take-all betting pool put in place by Tom Hart, the plant manager. Tyson declined to comment on the allegations, though it’s said previously in court that it “vigorously disputes” all of the lawsuit’s claims.

What can you say? These plant managers were gambling on the lives of their underpaid employees, and dangling money over their heads to get them to take on more risk. Predictably, once the spread within the facilities became undeniable, top managers stopped showing up on the plant floor, out of fear of contracting the virus. You don’t see callousness and cowardice meet this cleanly.

Anyway, the gambling story really got moving last night. Maybe it will blow over, but it has all the hallmarks of a Republic Windows and Doors or Carrier scenario, something that rises in the culture to the level where a president-elect has to issue a statement. And it absolutely should. Here are managers of a giant company, bigger than Republic Windows and Doors or Carrier, betting on the souls of their workers. It’s absolutely ghoulish.

This could affect the cabinet position of Secretary of Agriculture as well. Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH) has been campaigning pretty heavily for the job, and she’s probably the only hope to get USDA fully out of the clutches of the corporate Ag types who dominated the campaign. Their top pick for Ag Secretary is former Senator Heidi Heitkamp. Both should be asked about Tyson, and the one who decides to hedge because they want to keep the company in their good graces should be immediately placed out of the running.

Biden has tried to position himself on the side of the common man “busting his neck” (his phrase) for not enough pay. What better story to align with them then to stand with low-wage workers who were literally seen as poker chips by their managers?

I’ve checked in with the Biden transition, and if I get a comment I’ll let you know.

Check It Out

I was on the Feet to the Fire podcast with Jim Lardner talking about my book, MonopolizedWatch here.

I was on Rising Up with Sonali Kolhatkar talking about how Joe Biden can give everyone Medicare by executive action. (He won’t, but if he wants to be aggressive he can!) Watch here.

I should mention our major initiatives right now. There’s the Day One Agenda, which we have two new entries on right now: Harold Meyerson on what a new National Labor Relations Board can do, and Marcia Brown on how canceling student debt by executive action went from a fringe theory to something even the Senate leadership wants to see happen. We also have Cabinet Watch, with original reporting on the possibilities for Biden’s top advisors and staff.

And we are over halfway to our goal in sending a reporter to Georgia for the crucial Senate runoff elections. You can contribute (and get exclusive access to our reporters and advance notice on articles) at our ActBlue page.

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David Dayen

David Dayen is the author of Chain of Title: How Three Ordinary Americans Uncovered Wall Street’s Great Foreclosure Fraud, winner of the Studs and Ida Terkel Prize. Follow him on Twitter: @ddayen.