Meatpacking Workers Organizing on the Front Lines of COVID-19

Shortly before the Trump Administration issued its Executive Order to keep meatpacking plants running at all costs, ROP got a call from Friends of Tyson Workers that more than 100 of the 1400 workers at the Tyson meatpacking plant in Wallula, WA had confirmed COVID-19 cases and one worker had died. Friends of Tyson Workers, a volunteer-run group of friends and family of Tyson employees, had been building community support for workers’ health and safety, and exposing Tyson’s neglect by reaching out to local and state representatives, talking with the media and collecting petition signatures for multiple weeks. Since then, immigrant and refugee workers have joined forces across some of the 11 language groups represented in the plant, and together we have built a coalition of organizations supporting the workers’ organizing efforts and making it possible for many workers to access relief programs they wouldn’t have otherwise been able to. After intense community pressure, the health department shut the plant down for two days to test all of the workers and Tyson has instituted some of the safety precautions that workers have been calling for, but much more needs to be done as workers continue to be pressured into working in crowded and unhealthy conditions.

Read on to learn more about how the workers at the Wallula Tyson meatpacking plant are organizing for safe working conditions, fair wages, and childcare and how you can support them! Ready to strategize with rural human dignity groups like Friends of Tyson Workers about how to build power to keep our communities as safe and healthy as possible in the short-term and for the long haul? Register today for the Rural Caucus and Strategy Session on Saturday, May 30th from 10-11:30AM!

Friends of Tyson Workers Takes Action!

At first, it seemed like just one or two people were sick, but when workers visited the local clinic, doctors asked where they worked and immediately tested them for COVID-19 after hearing they worked at Tyson. Still-healthy Tyson workers were told by supervisors that missing coworkers were on vacation only to find out through articles in the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin and the Tri-City Herald that they might be exposed to COVID-19!

After Friends of Tyson peppered the Walla Walla County Public Health Department with questions and pleas to protect workers, Walla Walla County Public Health Director Meghan Debolt refused to close the plant and blamed the outbreak on the workers themselves, stating that the employees were “incapable of social distancing” so might as well continue working. Children and friends of workers realized that if they didn’t do something, no one else would. During breaks and after their full-time jobs, Friends of Tyson Workers formed with leaders spanning the entire country. Together they began sharing information over Facebook and Twitter, and started a petition to the Washington State Secretary of Health John Wiesman that gathered over 5,600 signatures in less than two weeks.

Finding no easy solutions to support and protect the 1,400 workers that speak at least 11 different languages at Tyson’s Wallula plant, Friends of Tyson Workers tried a little bit of everything to see what could work:

  • They started a campaign to have concerned community members call local officials and found that the Walla Walla County Commissioners were largely unresponsive with the exception of one commissioner who expressed concern about the loss in tax revenue if Tyson were to close temporarily.
  • Children of workers spearheaded a project to use social media to share photos with signs reading messages like, “Free us from fear of losing our family members. Save lives before it’s too late.”
  • Friends of Tyson Workers started and shared the petition out to their networks both in the local community, and in refugee communities working in meatpacking plants from Kentucky to Iowa, calling on the Washington State Secretary of Health, Tyson Foods CEO, and Washington Governor Jay Inslee to shut down the plant for 14 days and test all the employees. In less than two weeks, the petition gathered 5,600 signatures and successfully shut down the plant for two days to test all employees!
  • Workers and their children spoke anonymously with reporters
  • Workers reached out to their coworkers to share information and figure out what was going on since Tyson refused to acknowledge nor comment on the outbreak.
  • They contacted State and Federal Representatives as well as the Washington State Governor and called on ROP and other organizations for reinforcements.

Building a Powerful Regional Coalition

After getting the list of priorities from Friends of Tyson Workers, ROP got to work calling human dignity groups and leaders in Umatilla County, where many Tyson employees live, and organizations we know in both Oregon and Washington that might be able to support. We also helped line up donated hand sanitizer and soap, a #1 priority for workers because they still didn’t have access to proper handwashing facilities at the Wallula plant. Everyone we called had been following the massive outbreaks at meatpacking plants across the country and in Oregon at a seafood plant in Astoria and a frozen foods plant in Albany. We soon learned about the many foodpacking plants in Umatilla and Morrow Counties that were quietly shutting their doors for a two-week break, sometimes without even telling employees why. In one case, workers at a potato plant were first told the sudden closure was due to a lack of storage space, but just before returning to work Human Resources called to inform employees that the shut-down was because a worker tested positive for COVID-19. One question that kept coming up was: what are the local health departments doing to protect people? Shouldn’t they be notifying everyone that was potentially exposed? Organizers in Umatilla County tried reaching out to their local health department to see if they were doing a better job than their Walla Walla counterparts but had trouble getting through. Health departments seemed completely overwhelmed by the crisis and under-resourced to protect workers and people who were potentially exposed.

We also learned that the Tyson plant had previously been unionized under first the Teamsters and then the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), but they have not had union representation since 2016. The stark difference between conditions at Tyson plants and nearby unionized food processing plants has led some workers to look toward collective organizing to build a stronger voice for workers. At nearby unionized plants, employees receive ample sick time, social distancing measures were implemented early on, and prompt two-week shutdowns have followed positive test results. At the Tyson plant in Wallula, workers didn’t even have access to hand sanitizer or hand washing stations in mid-April (in fact, ROP got donated hand sanitizer and soap mailed to Wallula because this was named as a top priority – thank you Dr. Bronners!). Many workers reported facing pressure to keep working even when they were experiencing COVID-related symptoms. Since many students plan to work at the Tyson plant after graduating high school, Friends of Tyson Workers has connected with local teachers about the possibility of incorporating labor organizing history, and human rights into the curriculum. This feels like one long term approach for young people in Friends of Tyson Workers to seed the conversation of unionizing in the next generation of Tyson workers.

From immigrant justice organizers and legal advocates to union representatives and state health departments, ROP and the groups we reached out to quickly organized Zoom meetings to form a coalition and determine who could play which roles in supporting Tyson workers. The workers we were talking to felt isolated and had questions about how to feed their families having now been out of work for weeks. We organized a workers rights meeting so workers could get their questions answered and talk together about priorities. As we pulled together this initial meeting of workers, the Walla Walla County Health Department announced that Tyson would shut down for one to two days to allow the Health Department to test all of its employees.

Friends of Tyson Workers, ROP, Northwest Justice Project, Washington Immigrant Solidarity Network, and Washington State Labor Council, prepared to facilitate in English and Spanish and lined up interpreters into Burmese, Karen (a language and group of people from Myanmar), and Mam (an indigenous language from Guatemala) for the meeting so people could engage with each other across language barriers. We weren’t sure how many people would join, but the night before the first call, Angel took flyers over to her friend’s apartment complex, where many Karen workers live. By the time she got home, the call-in information had been posted to Facebook and shared with Karen-speaking meatpacking workers as far away as Iowa! More than 30 workers speaking four languages joined that first meeting. Many workers shared concerns about not receiving their paychecks nor payment for the sick time they had applied for weeks ago. Many reported that they had called Tyson multiple times but had not gotten any answers or support and weren’t even able to leave a voicemail. Workers were scared of getting fired, but also fearful of going back to work and catching or spreading COVID-19.

No Answers and No Pay

During the first Tyson workers call, coalition member Northwest Justice Project shared information to help workers navigate the complicated pathways to financial relief for workers and families impacted by COVID-19, but many of these are English-only and only available to workers who are documented. For undocumented Tyson workers living in Oregon, the Oregon Worker Relief Fund will soon be able to provide cash assistance, but Washington has yet to follow Oregon and California’s lead in creating a fund to help those who do not have access to pandemic relief including $1,200 stimulus checks because of their documentation status. In Washington, most people who get sick on the job can apply for workers’ compensation through the state, regardless of documentation status. At Tyson, however, workers must first apply for Short Term Disability through Unum, Tyson’s private insurance agency. This coverage lasts no more than three weeks and requires workers to fill out an English-only online application that asks workers to report whether or not they have filed a complaint with the Department of Labor and Industries without clarity on whether Tyson Foods is notified about the application responses. Those that need help because they don’t speak English have faced pressure from their managers at Tyson to lie about their illness and not report that it was COVID-19. The many workers who had successfully applied when they first got sick in late March or early April still have not received the Short Term Disability money.

After going through the private insurer for Short Term Disability, if you are still sick after the allotted three weeks are up, you must then apply for workers’ compensation and pandemic unemployment insurance through the state of Washington. While workers’ compensation has a multilingual phone line, it has been totally overwhelmed by thousands of calls and it is extremely difficult to get through. For pandemic unemployment insurance, workers must first apply for regular unemployment insurance and get denied before they are allowed to apply for pandemic unemployment insurance, which requires both an online form and a set of five paper forms sent in the mail. Only workers with documentation can apply for unemployment though. Those that have yet to test positive for COVID-19 but live with high-risk family members can apply for pandemic unemployment insurance and also potentially paid family medical leave, but again those programs only cover documented people. Since all of these systems are backlogged in normal times, and even more so now with the pandemic, we don’t know when any of the workers will actually receive money, even once approved. Are you feeling confused? No kidding!

As you can imagine, we weren’t able to get into all the details of how to navigate this process in one hour and a half long call. The day after the first worker meeting, members of Friends of Tyson Workers hosted an impromptu Facebook Live meeting in English and Karen to continue the conversation about programs for relief for workers and answer questions that were coming up. They talked with 14 people, including a meatpacking worker in Kentucky. From there, Friends of Tyson Workers began setting up one-on-one Zoom meetings with workers to help navigate the tangled web of applications. Building off of this success, we held a Spanish-language Facebook live (pictured here) and trained 23 English-speaking volunteers on how to help non-English speaking workers apply for the benefits they need.

Due to the pandemic, the local school district distributed Chromebooks and email addresses to all its students, so Friends of Tyson Workers have been able to support many workers who have children in schools that didn’t previously have a computer in their household. They have helped at least seven workers use their kids’ school email address to tediously apply for benefits that they wouldn’t have otherwise been able to. With sick family members, full-time jobs, classes to attend, and other responsibilities, Friends of Tyson Workers has been simultaneously applying for funding and enlisting local volunteers to support workers in navigating these systems. But they are also left wondering: why are the applications for public assistance programs so complicated that there are entire nonprofit organizations with staff paid to help people navigate these systems? Shouldn’t Tyson take responsibility for exposing its workers instead of leaving public benefits and taxpayers to pay the price for Tyson’s lack of safety precautions? Wouldn’t it be cheaper and faster if the applications were accessible enough for anyone to fill out with ease, regardless of what language they speak?

Returning to Dangerous Conditions

Unfortunately, just a few days after shutting down part of the plant, employees were called back in and Tyson restarted production on Tuesday, May 5th. Despite workers, organizers, and health experts calling for a two-week shutdown to quarantine the workforce and adequately sanitize the facility and the fact that 18% of COVID-19 cases in the Tri-Cities area are linked to the plant, Tyson was deemed “clear to open” by the Director of the Walla Walla County Health Department. Employees who had tested positive for COVID-19, as well as spouses of sick workers, have been pressured to return to work despite still feeling sick! Workers remain justifiably terrified of both the financial burden of missing work and the health risks of clocking in when at least 260 workers at the Wallula plant have now tested positive for COVID-19 and three people have died.

On Saturday, May 9th, we held a second worker meeting and learned that while Tyson had made some small improvements in sanitation, the re-opening left much to be desired. They installed plastic barriers between worker stations, slowed down the production line speed, put out hand sanitizer at work stations, and were offering free corn dogs and chicken nuggets to those returning to work. Even with these small improvements, the fact remains that workers are still being forced to work in unsafe conditions! Tyson claimed to have added additional cafeteria space but workers reported that they had to eat in the crowded locker rooms upon returning to the job. Not only that, workers normally receive an annual pay raise this time of year, but instead Tyson is offering a meager $30 a day in hazard pay for just the month of May. Workers are justifiably frustrated at Tyson’s attempts to sweet-talk employees with free food, free t-shirts, and pro-Tyson ads peppering the newspaper articles about their misconduct. It appears Tyson is spending more money on temporary freebies and public relations campaigns than they are on protecting the actual health and safety of their workers.

The Organizing Continues!

Friends of Tyson Workers created a new petition after the plant reopened, demanding Tyson take the following measures: (Read the full text here)
  • Provide paid sick-leave for all employees so that employees are not incentivized to come to work while they are sick…
  • Provide free COVID-19 tests for every worker who requests one or who has a fever or other COVID-19 symptoms when reporting to work…
  • Provide working conditions, protective equipment, and training to protect the health and safety of all employees in accordance with guidance issued by the CDC and by the Washington State Department of Health…
  • Provide higher hourly wages to these essential workers commensurate with the risks that they are assuming to keep our meat supply going…
  • Provide improved communication to the more than 10 different language groups that currently work at Tyson…
  • Provide information about sick workers to county health officials so they can trace contacts and provide instructions for care…
  • Provide childcare. Tyson workers are now having trouble finding childcare since members of the community believe they carry the Coronavirus.

After being back at work for over a week, and feeling desperate, Tyson workers and the coalition organized a car caravan and vigil to honor the workers who had died on May 15th during the time of the shift change. 14 cars participated in the solidarity caravan, parking on the side of the road next to the entrance to Tyson and displaying signs of support in multiple languages. Tyson management heard about the vigil and held 3-minutes of silence for the three people who had lost their lives during the morning shift, then held workers an extra two hours that day in the attempt to prevent workers from seeing the vigil outside. When workers were finally released from their shift, management warned that if they participated in the vigil, they would be cited for breaking social distancing requirements. Still, many honked, waved, and shared photos on social media.

In the coming weeks, workers will continue to support each other and strategize together. We are bringing together workers who are organizing in different languages to have a shared conversation about local strategy. We are reaching out to community groups in the Tri-Cities, Walla Walla, and Umatilla area to amplify what the workers are calling for. Lastly, we are connecting with workers from Washington to Kentucky, Arkansas to Iowa, to determine how best to win protections when the big three meatpacking employers, Tyson, Smithfield, and JBS, are clearly willing to risk the lives of its employees to keep raking in profits.

How Can You Plug In?

  • Sign and share Friends of Tyson Workers’ petition
  • Demand that Washington Governor Jay Inslee publicly support the workers’ demands, fund the Washington Worker Relief Fund, and provide ongoing oversight to ensure their health and safety. Governor Inslee has continued to make plans for re-opening without responding to the concerns of those on the frontlines of this crisis. Give him a call at 360-902-4111.
  • Call on Oregon Governor Kate Brown at (503) 378-4582 to ensure these measures are in place for food processing plants in Oregon. She should be actively seeking out the perspectives of essential workers in all fields, not just employers.
  • Call the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (800-232-4636) to push them to make their recommendations for safe working conditions into requirements in meatpacking plants with over 100 employees.
  • Call Valerie Clay, the Food Safety and Inspection Service District Manager for Field Operations within the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) at (303) 236-9793 to end the favoritism to large corporations and support small-scale butchers and beef, pork and poultry processors with the financial and technical assistance they need to become USDA Certified Processing Plants. COVID-19 has made it clear that our nation’s meat supply cannot rely so heavily on large-scale, industrial meatpacking plants, like those run by Tyson Foods.

We want to hear from you! Are food processing plants in your community taking the necessary measures to protect workers during the pandemic? Is your health department carrying out robust contact tracing? Are they doing this with interpreters available for those that don’t speak English? Does your county have the ability to test everyone with symptoms? Is your group organizing around food security and/or workplace safety during this pandemic? Let us know what you are seeing and doing! We would love to share your work over ROPnet and connect you with other communities working on similar issues! Email us at