Thanks to falling production and rising prices, Americans are expected to eat less meat this year than last. But a coalition of groups led by the Iowa chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) wants Americans to cut back even further, calling for a boycott on “corporate” meat until working conditions in meatpacking plants improve.
Inspired by Cesar Chavez, who convinced Americans in the 1960s to quit buying grapes to protest farmworker exploitation, LULAC’s Boycott Big Meat campaign is asking carnivores to shift their purchases of beef, pork, and poultry to family farms and meat lockers, which are common in many rural areas. For vegetarians and vegans, of course, it’s business as usual.
While individuals, including hog and grain farmers and Iowa state legislators, are signing meatless pledges online, LULAC is collecting the endorsements of a growing roster of organizations, including the Iowa Farmers Union, the Factory Farming Awareness Coalition, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, the Main Street Vegan, World Animal Protection, the Iowa Democratic Hispanic Caucus, the Iowa Democratic Black Caucus, Food and Water Watch, and the Organic Consumers Association.
As of May 15, more than 14,200 packing plant employees have been infected with the coronavirus, and at least 59 have died, according to data tracked by FERN. To halt the spread of disease, more than 20 large plants shuttered by the end of April, but in early May, President Trump, invoking the Defense Production Act, directed meat plants to operate during the pandemic. The CDC and OSHA issued safe meat-processing guidelines, but they are not requirements, and workers, says Joe Henry, president of LULAC’s Iowa Council 307, still feel unprotected.
“We’re calling for a coalition of people to stand with workers,” Henry says. “We’re urging consumers and grocery stores to stop purchasing corporate meat.”
The campaign demands that companies slow down line speeds so workers needn’t stand shoulder to shoulder; provide personal protective equipment, fever screening, daily virus testing, fully paid sick days, and temporary protective status for undocumented workers. “And we want health insurance that employees can afford,” Henry says. “Workers pay $300 a month for health insurance – that’s about 12 percent of their gross income – and they still have deductibles of $5,000 to $8,000.”
The boycott is just getting underway, but workers have already walked out of plants in Nebraska, South Carolina, Georgia, and Minnesota to protest conditions. Amazon, Instacart, Whole Foods, and Walmart have also been subject to wildcat strikes or other forms of protest by workers deemed essential.
(Updates to clarify the boycott is being led by the the Iowa chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens)