Food Industry Labor at an Inflection Point

Oct. 23, 2020
Change is coming to the food and beverage industry workforce and how it’s treated.

I’m writing this before the November national election, and you’re probably reading it after. So you’ll know, as I now do not, just how awful the election was – and maybe still is. But I’m confident in saying that it will be every bit as awful, if not more so, than the rest of this year.

Apologies for starting with a mention of politics, which I know some of our readers find uncomfortable or inappropriate in this forum. It’s my intention to address the topic of this issue’s cover story: the future of the industry’s plant-floor workforce. But as I try to marshal my thoughts, they keep coming back to politics.

Rancid, toxic politics.

We have reached a point in our history where everything is filtered through the bitterest kind of partisan divide. Cities and forests have burned (maybe they’re still burning), more than 200,000 of our citizens are dead from an incurable, contagious disease and all we can do is argue over who’s to blame. Something as trivial, and as patently benign and necessary, as wearing a mask in public becomes a political statement.

Now, as the food and beverage industry struggles through the pandemic, it finds itself in the same place as the rest of the country: at a political and historical inflection point. It’s a time in our history as significant as the Great Depression. The immediate crises – the pandemic and the protests over racial injustice – are just the tip of a very long spear.

The underlying problem, as I see it, is that labor tension has been building in this country for nearly half a century. Unions have steadily declined in membership and prestige; earnings for the working class have eroded. Income polarization, with concentration of wealth among the top 1%, has reached levels unseen since the Gilded Age – which was the period with the worst labor violence in American history.

The food industry, with its chronically low wages, is as vulnerable as any to this kind of tension. The situation is especially acute in the meat and poultry sector, where workers are notoriously subjected to accidents, repetitive-motion injuries and other dangers.

The pandemic has brought this situation to a head. An initial flurry of solidarity, helped along by bonuses and pay increases, dissipated as the crisis wore on, the extra pay was discontinued and the illnesses and deaths began to pile up. The meat industry, again, bore the brunt. According to the Food and Environment Reporting Network, as of late September, 43,100 meatpacking workers have contracted COVID-19; 206 have died. Those numbers are, respectively, 71% and 80% of the total for food processing workers as a whole.

This situation is untenable, and it won’t go away when the pandemic does. In an age where everything gets politicized, working conditions will be no exception. To put it bluntly, better pay and treatment of workers will once more be seen as a political issue.

That process has already nipped at the edges of the food industry – remember the “Fight for $15” for fast-food workers? Pressure to improve the pay and working conditions of laborers in all industries, including food and beverage, will become more acute as the years pass.

It’s possible to fight political pressure with political protection. Republicans in Congress, led by Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, are insisting on including protection against COVID-related legal liability in any second round of pandemic relief.

I don’t know at this writing if that will succeed, but whether it does or doesn’t, depending on political protection as a long-term strategy is foolish. If there’s one thing recent history has taught us, it’s that political power can shift in an instant. The harsh political polarization we’ve seen so far in the 21st century means that when the other side gains the upper hand, any and every kind of backlash against industry is possible.

The bottom line is simple: Industry must treat workers better. That means higher pay, a better working environment and a commitment to safety. Yes, these things cost money, and the industry needs to deal somehow with the everything-for-the-shareholders mentality that begrudges every dollar spent to improve pay and working conditions. I don’t know how that can be done; I only know it must.

Change is coming to the food & beverage industry workforce and how it’s treated. The only question is whether that change will come from within or be imposed from outside.

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