Workers need advocates like YOU!
Good afternoon, Professor Desai. Thank you for the invitation to join your class today and the introduction. And, hello to all of you in the class. Thank you for letting me join you and listen in on the first part of class today. Believe me when I tell you that I wish I could be there in person. Of course, I want to meet you all and shake your hands, but it’s been a long, cold winter here in Wisconsin, so I wish I could be in Tucson soaking up the sun.
Professor Desai is a thought leader on many of the issues that I am going to be discussing today. I told her that if I were pursuing a JD at the law school I would be sitting in the front row of all her classes and trying to get into the clinic. As students at the University of Arizona, we are fortunate to be able to learn from and collaborate with people like her.
It’s an honor to have the opportunity to be with you and to share my experiences as a worker and a non-attorney advocate for workers’ rights. I’m looking forward to hearing your views and fielding your questions during the discussion we will have after I wrap up.
Let me tell you a little bit about myself so that you will better understand who I am, where I am coming from, and why I am here with you today. Currently, I am a student in the Master of Legal Studies online program through this law school. Before that, I was a factory worker, activist, and writer. I have worked in construction, in food processing plants, as a union steward, and as a newspaper reporter, among other things.
I’m most proud of having defended the rights of seafood processing and meatpacking workers for over 15 years. During the pandemic, I was very vocal about the working conditions in the plants that made possible the COVID-19 outbreaks which caused thousands and thousands of people to get sick and hundreds to pass away. I have been featured in newspaper and online articles, radio segments, political print ads, and digital and TV political ads about issues affecting workers. My op-eds are often picked up by widely circulated publications and I have been mentioned in The Atlantic Magazine as well as quoted by the Associated Press, USA Today, and the U.S. News and World Report. I have provided pro bono consultations to the University of Wisconsin Institute of Population Health and a county health department here in Wisconsin about how to keep workers safe during the pandemic. I have also spoken to several political groups and to a class of MBA students at St. Norbert College about workers’ issues.
The first university I ever spoke at was the National Mining University of Ukraine. Though it’s outside of my main topic I want to say that I stand with the people of Ukraine and that all Americans and those who cherish freedom should because the Ukrainians are fighting to protect the future of democracy for themselves and the world. We should show solidarity with the Ukrainians because what is happening there has and will continue to impact the rest of the world both directly and indirectly. That’s all I will say about that, but later I will return to the ideas of interconnectedness and solidarity.
As I mentioned a second ago, I am a student in the Master of Legal Studies online program, so I am not coming today as a lawyer or an authority on the law. I am not going to tell you how to lawyer, either. If I say anything that sounds like that’s what I am doing, please forgive me and know that is not my intention.
In your law clinic, you are concerned first and foremost with legal rights. I assume that you also want to protect all other rights that workers have, whether there are legal remedies or not.
A question you’ve probably already discussed this semester is where do workers’ rights come from. For me, the easiest way to answer that is by talking about the framework for the employer-employee relationship. The way I see it, there are three parts.
The first part is the law. Obviously, there is legal code, statutes, ordinances, government rules, government regulations, government orders, and court decisions.
The law tells us what our rights and responsibilities are.
You all know all about this because that is what the clinic is all about.
Generally, it is ethical to respect the legal rights of others.
The second part is agreements. These are union contracts, written agreements, verbal agreements, unspoken agreements (past practices), employment advertisements, and employment contracts. I also include company policies in this because employees agree to be bound by company policies when they accept employment.
Agreements tell us what our rights and responsibilities are. If the elements of a contract are present, an agreement may be legally enforceable.
Generally, it is ethical to respect the terms of agreements and to uphold your end of a bargain.
The third part is morals. By virtue of our humanity, we have certain rights. Society, our upbringing, our religions, our cultures, our customs, our traditions, and our values systems tell us what is right and what is wrong.
Morals tell us what our rights and responsibilities are. Rights derived from morals may or may not be codified. Just because something is legal doesn’t necessarily mean it is moral and just because something is illegal doesn’t necessarily mean it is immoral.
By definition, it is ethical to follow principles or rules that are based on morals.
So, what do workers want or feel like they deserve? They want employers to treat workers fairly and with respect by providing just compensation, good benefits, safe work areas, and a pleasant or at least non-hostile work environment where their voice matters. They want employers to respect their legal rights, their bargained-for rights, and their rights derived from morals and ethical principles.
Now, with all of that out of the way, I want to share the narrative that led me to become an advocate for workers’ rights.
In the 1950s my grandfather started a tile and marble installation company in Charlotte, North Carolina that is still in business today. My grandfather earned a reputation for quality craftsmanship that attracted new customers and increased his income. In the 1970s, my grandfather became distracted by expensive hobbies like riding horses, restoring cars, flying airplanes, and developing real estate. Since my grandfather was preoccupied with his hobbies my uncle became involved in the financial side of the business. My uncle realized that as the Charlotte area grew and became more affluent there was a potential for the business to bring in many millions of dollars. Instead of thinking strategically about how everyone involved in the business could benefit from it, my uncle thought strategically about how he could take over the business and use the profits to benefit himself and his side of the family.
When I was a kid my father would take me to work with him when school was out. I remember how on Friday mornings old African-American men who worked for my grandfather in the 1950s, 60s, 70s, and 80s used to come in and talk to my uncle who ran the business in the 90s and 2000s. The men would always ask my uncle for money because they never made enough to save anything and they didn’t have retirement investment plans. My uncle would give them money even though he knew he would never get it back. They really needed it.
During that time I became keenly aware of the ways in which employers sometimes take advantage of, mistreat, and abuse their employees. In the late 1980s, my father had a wife and three kids at home. He had to work hard to put a roof over our heads and food on our plates. My uncle understood the predicament that my father was in and used it to his advantage by becoming our landlord and the owner of my father’s truck. Regardless of how little my uncle paid my father or how much he berated him, belittled him, or cursed him, my father couldn’t quit. My father took pride in his work and always created a quality product for the customer, but he hated his job because he hated the way he was treated by his brother.
After graduating high school early in December 2003, I entered the workforce full-time out of necessity. My uncle gave me a job as an apprentice to an experienced tile installer who would help turn me into a highly skilled professional. I was appreciative of the opportunity to learn the same skills that my grandfather, uncle, father, and many other relatives had, but when I got my first paycheck I was surprised to see that I was being paid the minimum wage even though other workers made more than that when they started. I brought my concern about the low pay I was receiving to my uncle who at first defended the pay rate and then blamed it on a clerical error and later on a decision made by my aunt. Over the next two years, I had to have several uncomfortable conversations about the value I brought to the company as I became more skilled. I was able to get a raise of nearly five dollars in two years, but I had to fight for every penny of it.
One day I was carrying buckets of setting material called “fat mud” up a ladder that was leaning against a scaffold when the scaffold shifted and I slipped off the ladder. My right leg got caught between two ladder rungs and I was hanging upside down by the bend of my knee and later by my foot. Eventually, I shook loose and fell down onto the red mud. I called my uncle that evening and told him what happened. Though I was able to walk, my leg didn’t feel right and I was concerned that there could be permanent damage to my knee. When I asked my uncle to set up an appointment with a doctor he got extremely angry, cursed me, threatened me, and told me to quit. My future health and well-being were much less important to my uncle than the fact that he would have to pay for a doctor’s visit and that his workers’ compensation premiums could rise.
The experiences that my father and I had in the “family business” taught me quite a lot about money and power, but they also taught me quite a lot about right and wrong. I have carried those experiences with me everywhere I have gone and I have tried to help other workers get the most out of their efforts by teaching them about their rights.
Over the last 15 years, I have mostly been employed at seafood processing plants, meatpacking plants, and factories. I have worked in hourly positions doing repetitive work, but I have found ways to use what I know and what I am good at for the benefit of my fellow employees. In 2007 and 2008, I was vocal about wage and hour issues that were leaving seafood processing workers, most of whom were J-1 Visa holders from eastern Europe with less money than they had rightly earned. From 2009 to 2014, I was an activist member of the United Food and Commercial Workers and served as a union steward for most of that time. Since I spoke Spanish I was able to adequately represent my fellow employees when issues arose on the production floor. I gained a reputation for being someone who would help anyone at any time. Just as important, I became a source for accurate and reliable information about work issues by teaching my coworkers about their rights as employees and union members.
From 2016 to 2018, I was a supervisor at a seafood processing plant in Dutch Harbor, Alaska. I was in charge of all aspects of the operation of a department including the supervision of 65 employees. I found that maintaining the equipment and sanitizing the production area was much easier than balancing my ethical responsibility to meet my employer’s expectations of me while at the same time respecting the rights of employees and creating the best work environment possible. I freely admit that I was an imperfect leader, but I am proud that the people who worked in my area knew that I respected them and that I always tried to do the right thing.
In 2018, after taking a long vacation in Nicaragua and Mexico, I moved to Green Bay, Wisconsin and accepted an hourly job as a saw operator at a meatpacking plant. On the production floor, I was vocal about safety issues, wage and hour concerns, and general working conditions. I encouraged union leaders to be more observant about the way the company treated its employees and urged them to enforce the collective bargaining agreement. The union deferred to the company on nearly all matters in order to save money, increase efficiency, and avoid the stresses of conflict. Just before the onset of the pandemic in 2020, I settled a number of grievances and accepted a monetary payment in exchange for tendering my resignation voluntarily. The company had been retaliating against me for speaking out about issues at work, informing my coworkers about their rights, and organizing my coworkers to improve conditions for everyone in the plant.
Now, I want to give everyone some background information about the packing plants and what it is like to work there. Then, I will focus on what happened during the pandemic and why we should all be concerned about it.
Some of the major players in the meatpacking industry are National Beef, Cargill, Tyson, JBS, Smithfield, American Foods, Perdue, Sanderson Farms, and Hormel.
The majority of the production workers in the industry are immigrants. Typically, there are workers from dozens of countries and a dozen or more languages can be heard spoken on a daily basis within the plant. Some are educated but lack the language skills to find employment in their field in the United States. Others have limited or no formal education.
Packing plants are generally found in small towns or cities that are surrounded by farming and ranching communities. Often, the packing plants are the largest employers and the economic engines that keep small towns alive. Here in Green Bay, the packing plants and their workers have been a vital part of the local economy for around 120 years.
Incidentally, you can tell your friends that a real-life Green Bay packer spoke to your law clinic and you won’t be lying. They might imagine that you heard from Brett Favre or Aaron Rodgers and you don’t have to tell them they are wrong. LOL
The football Packers get all of the glory, but the meatpackers, the namesake of the team, produce products that end up on dinner plates all around the world.
In order to “feed the world” and to be profitable, the plants require workers to perform tasks repetitively and quickly. The workers perform the same tasks over and over all day, every day. There is a lot of pressure coming from high above for the supervisors to meet production goals. The supervisors have to push their employees very hard in order to meet expectations and keep their bosses off their backs.
Very often, the supervisors cut corners and ignore safety issues in order to keep production flowing. Production is their main focus because production determines profit. The supervisors don’t do enough to stop injuries from occurring either because it isn’t their priority. Instead of removing hazards to workers and thus making the workplace safer, the companies point their fingers at workers when there is an injury.
Every company in the U.S. has a safety policy and safety slogans. If you walk into any plant I guarantee you that you will see a sign that says something like “Safety First,” “Safety is Our #1 Priority,” Safety is Job #1, or “Our Employees Are Our Most Valuable Asset.’’ The problem is that there is often a disconnect between the safety policy and slogans and what actually happens on a daily basis.
Workers who are vocal about safety issues can face retaliation from their supervisors and lose their jobs.
COVID-19 first showed up on most of our radars in January or February of 2020. By March, it was clear that it was going to be an issue that affected everyone across the globe. Some companies, government entities, and organizations did a better job than others in preparing for the arrival of the virus.
One industry that was in the spotlight during the first year of the pandemic was the meatpacking industry because companies in the industry generally failed at protecting their workers. The evidence of that is that there were large outbreaks at plants across the country. At a pork plant in South Dakota, more than 700 people tested positive for coronavirus. At a poultry plant in North Carolina nearly 600 employees tested positive. At the flagship JBS plant in Greeley, CO, hundreds of employees tested positive and 8 died.
Here in Green Bay, JBS and American Foods each had hundreds of employees who tested positive for the virus. Dozens of employees at Salm Partners in Denmark also tested positive.
The actual number of infections and deaths is unknown because most companies stopped reporting the numbers out of embarrassment. The companies didn’t want the public to know how many people had been infected. But, I think we had a right to know because it was a public health issue that affected everyone.
So the question is, why did so many people in the plants test positive and who is to blame?
Inside the plants, the production flow is like an assembly line. Every job leads to the next job. But, in this case, the workers are cutting an animal carcass apart instead of putting a product together. Most of the workers work side by side with their co-workers. In some cases, they brush each other or almost touch. When they go to break they are face to face with their co-workers while they are doffing and donning their equipment. In the breakroom, there could be 500 people or more. There could be 50 or more people in the bathroom. There could be 50 or more people in the hallway. In the locker rooms, workers could be inches away from their co-workers when they put on and take off their hard hats and boots each day.
The fact that the workers are commonly in tight quarters with other people created the opportunity for the virus to spread. Also, the breaks are really short which sometimes leads employees to skip certain sanitary practices in order to avoid getting in trouble for arriving late.
The companies in the meatpacking industry knew or should’ve known that the coronavirus pandemic was a threat to the health and safety of their workforce. They should’ve taken action immediately in order to protect their workers. Generally speaking, they did too little, too late. That lack of action caused more than 5,000 workers to get sick and dozens of deaths.
The reason that the companies didn’t take action is because of greed, plain and simple. The companies make money by processing as much product as they can as quickly as they can and by cutting associated costs by any means necessary. In this case, the companies didn’t want to spread out workers and decrease chain speeds. They didn’t want to increase break lengths to give employees more time to wash their hands and equipment. They didn’t want to stagger breaks to decrease the number of workers in break rooms, bathrooms, locker rooms, and common areas. They didn’t want to provide face shields, masks, hand sanitizer, or protective equipment in work areas. They waited too long to start checking temperatures and testing for the virus. They put too much pressure on employees to work while sick. Those decisions not to act caused the spread of the coronavirus in the plants.
The companies are clearly to blame for the outbreaks at the plants. If they would’ve taken action sooner, we wouldn’t have seen all the headlines. Their decision to procrastinate caused thousands of people to get sick and led to many, many deaths.
But, just to be fair, the government and the unions get to share some of the blame.
The Trump administration, from the beginning, supported the industry’s goal of staying open no matter what. The plants and the workers were deemed essential to the food supply chain. They are and they always have been, but if the health and safety of the workers had been at the forefront, this situation could’ve been avoided.
It’s important to point out that OSHA gave out exactly ZERO citations to companies for health and safety violations related to the coronavirus pandemic until the situation was under better control in the fall of 2020. The companies had no reason to be afraid of punishment by the government because the government sat on its hands and did nothing.
After JBS shut down temporarily, OSHA opened an investigation that appeared likely go nowhere and do nothing. It looked like a face-saving operation to give the illusion that the Trump administration had taken action. OSHA was created to keep workers safe and healthy, but it failed to do that during the pandemic. Ultimately, JBS USA paid a fine of $14,502 to settle the citations against its plants in Green Bay and Greeley, Colorado.
Around April 2020, the CDC released guidelines about how companies should respond to the coronavirus threat in order to protect their employees. The problem is that the CDC’s guidelines were merely recommendations. The companies got to decide whether or not to implement them. This means that a company could decide that the guidelines were too expensive to implement, that they weren’t feasible, or that they just weren’t necessary. Some companies complied more than others.
The companies that chose not to fully implement the guidelines were putting their businesses, their employees, and the general public at risk. What we needed were enforceable regulations that would ensure that all companies were playing by the same rules and doing everything they could to protect workers and the public.
Most of the packing plants in the U.S. are located in small cities and towns surrounded by rural areas. They are often the largest source of revenue for local governments. It seems that some local governments were hesitant to create tension with the companies by asserting authority. Instead, they waited for the state or federal government to intervene. By waiting, they missed an opportunity to quickly and effectively take action to protect their communities.
The unions have the obligation to defend the rights of their members and protect their health and safety. Instead, the unions, namely UFCW and its local unions, allowed the companies to operate however they wanted and didn’t do what was necessary to protect their members. The union leaders chose to maintain cordial relationships with the companies and stable finances over workers’ health and safety. The unions waited until their members were sick to start putting out meaningless press releases. Union leaders are supposed to serve as the voice of working people, but they were almost all silent when their voice was needed most.
If the unions were more organized and engaged, they would’ve had more power and could’ve forced the companies to act sooner, which could’ve saved union members from getting sick, and in some cases, dying.
Some companies have tried to put the blame on workers, but that’s just a cop-out. There are things that workers could’ve done to protect themselves, like following safety rules at work and CDC guidelines at home, but ultimately the workplace is only as safe as companies make it.
The outbreaks at the plants have exposed how the companies operate and how workers are affected by corporate greed. They’ve shed light on how laws, regulations, policies, and politics keep government agencies from doing what’s in the best interest of workers. It’s also become more obvious that strong unions with engaged and organized members are needed now more than ever.
We needed companies to act responsibly, government officials to put the well-being of workers ahead of big-money special interests, and union leaders to take a strong stand in defense of workers, but we didn’t get any of that.
The workers at the plants are vital to our economy and our community. They spend money in stores, buy their own homes, and raise their families here. The workers, most of whom are immigrants, enrich our community in every way. It’s really important that we show them solidarity by making them feel welcome and appreciated. Language barriers make it difficult to communicate our values directly, but we can show them how we feel through our actions.
In May of 2020, The Chief Justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court made a statement that I found disrespectful to people who work in the plants. She drew a contrast between plant workers and “regular folks.’’ It sounded to me like she was making an allusion to the fact that many plant workers are immigrants who aren’t affluent.
The fact of the matter is that the people who work in the plants live in our community just like everyone else. We are directly connected to them as they are to us. COVID-19 spread quickly in the plants, and pretty soon, it was spreading everywhere else in our community because the workers go to stores, dine in restaurants, play at parks, attend church, seek healthcare services, and send their children to local schools.
We needed to stand up for the plant workers because it was the right thing to do for them. But, it would’ve benefited everyone else in the community to do that and more because, as we saw, doing basically nothing led to more people in the community getting sick and passing away and all of us having to pay the direct and indirect costs associated with that. Even if you weren’t a plant worker you were indirectly affected by the lack of action to protect plant workers.
There aren’t very many food processing plants in southern Arizona, but there are workers in a wide variety of industries that are at risk of being taken advantage of, mistreated, abused or otherwise harmed. You may have already come across landscapers, construction workers, restaurant workers, hotel workers, warehouse workers, factory workers, health care workers, and others who are vulnerable and have been harmed by their employers.
We may not have close personal ties to these people, but we need to be willing to stand up for them when they need us most.
As we all know, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. became one of the most important leaders our country and the world have ever produced. I’m no presidential historian, but I would venture to say that Dr. King’s time as a Civil Rights leader was more consequential than the presidencies of a great many of our chief executives. I mean, there is no Millard Fillmore Day. There’s no Franklin Pierce Day. When is James Buchanan Day? There isn’t one, right? LOL I digress.
Getting back to Dr. King, he went to college at age 15 and graduated with a Ph.D at age 26. He was the minister of a church in Montgomery, Alabama at the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement. Though he had a wife and children at home he took a prominent role in the movement locally, then throughout the south, and later nationally. He was beaten and bloodied countless times. His family was threatened and his house was bombed. He was jailed 29 times for non-violent disobedience. On one of those occasions, from the Birmingham City Jail, he wrote a now-famous letter that included a passage with these lines: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”
King was explaining why he came to Birmingham to protect the rights of people who weren’t from his community and whom he didn’t know.
He could have declined a role in the Movement early on and stayed in Montgomery with his wife and four little kids. He could have focused on his ministerial duties and tended to his flock at the church. He could have had a quiet, comfortable, happy, and safe life, but he realized that if he wasn’t willing to stand up and do the right thing maybe no one would be.
Dr. King is most closely associated with the Civil Rights Movement, but he was also a critic of the Vietnam War and was a powerful advocate for workers’ rights. The evening before Dr. King was assassinated he spoke in support of striking waste management workers in Memphis. Our country and all of our people are better for the fact that he chose to use the power of his voice to make the plight of others known.
Few people, if anyone, will be able to have the kind of impact on the lives of others that Dr. King had. We won’t be able to do what he did, but we should use his story to inspire ourselves to act when action is needed.
By the way, if you are ever anywhere near Memphis you should stop in and visit the National Civil Rights Museum. As you enter, you literally stand between where the shooter fired from and where Dr. King fell. The museum reminded me of how far we’ve come and how far we must go.
I’m told that everyone in the clinic has the desire to serve underrepresented communities and protect the rights of workers. There might be other students in the law school who don’t see the benefit of spending time and effort to protect workers’ rights. Since they are educated and likely headed to successful careers in a well-paid profession, they might not think that what happens to low-wage workers affects them. I’m glad that you all understand the importance of standing up for and standing with workers who might be different from you in many ways and engaged in occupations much different than the one you have chosen.
Workers in this country are struggling to keep their footing and move forward. There are so many powerful forces working against them. Workers need advocates that are talented, skilled, smart, creative, and knowledgeable just like you are. More importantly, they need advocates who have the morality, integrity, courage, conviction, and tenacity that you do.
I hope that no matter what path you take on your legal journey you don’t forget how it made you feel to seek justice for your clients in this clinic. More importantly, I hope you don’t forget the sense of empowerment that your clients got from knowing that they had someone on their side in the fight for justice.
Thank you for your time and all that you do. Solidarity!