Last March, Maira Mendez, a high school administrator in Lincoln, Nebraska, worried her parents might contract coronavirus from their jobs at Smithfield Foods, a massive pork processing plant in the nearby town of Crete. While the country grappled with stay-at-home orders, meatpacking plants across the nation quickly became invisible hotspots for the virus. Mendez and several of her friends, whose parents also work at the Crete plant, formed a Facebook messenger group—“The Children of Smithfield.” They urged state officials, including Gov. Pete Ricketts, to take action to protect their parents and other workers. When their pleas went unanswered, they turned to the media and began demonstrating.
Meatpacking plants largely employ immigrant and refugee laborers, a workforce that companies can rely on to keep quiet about working conditions. Even as cases rose into the thousands, many employees were reluctant to speak out. The workers live paycheck to paycheck and fear getting fired or even deported, jeopardizing the lives they’ve struggled to build for themselves and their families.
When the number of Covid-positive cases at the Crete plant jumped sharply, Smithfield planned to close temporarily, but then reversed its decision. On that day, April 28, in an unprecedented move, at least 50 workers walked off the job. The following Saturday, the Children of Smithfield held a drive-by protest and were joined by dozens of workers. They filled the employee parking lot at the plant, honking horns and holding signs. Mendez’s father had urged her not to protest, but when he saw the cars festooned with signs and banners, he started to believe that there was some hope for change.