Teamster Head Jesse Case Asks, What’s more important, Bacon or people’s lives?

14 mins read

On Tuesday May 5th 2020 Teamster’s Local 238 Secretary-Treasurer Jesse Case joined Rick to talk about the working conditions processing plant workers face in Iowa, the continual fight to ensure his members receive quality affordable health care, and to talk about the successful organizing of campaign workers.  Here is a lightly edited transcript of the conversation between Jess and Rick talking about the conditions in the food processing plants and how the Trump Administration liability shield will make things worse.

Rick Smith: Trump is using the Defense Production Act to force people back to work in [meatpacking plants] without ensuring that people will be safe.

I look at the most recent report that’s come out of Perry, Iowa, where more than half of the workers at this Tyson plant have now tested positive for the coronavirus. Last week we talked about the Tyson plant out in Washington where over half of the workforce there was infected, and there’s another one in Nebraska, same scenario, and we have a President who wants to shield the plants from any liability.

Here to share some thoughts on where we are, especially in the meatpacking area, I’ve asked Jesse Case to come talk with us. Jesse is the Secretary/Treasurer of Teamsters Local 238 in Iowa. 

Jesse Case: I worked in that industry a long time ago and it hasn’t changed much in the last hundred years, both in working conditions and the attitude of employers. What they’re basically doing is marching people to their deaths. And when the President orders or mandates that packing plants stay open and the government threatens worker that they’ll lose on employment if they refuse to go back to work there. They’re basically marching people to their deaths and committing genocide against the working class. 

Rick Smith: We’ve been living under this idea that corporations will police themselves, that they’ll protect you, that they’re going to do what’s right because it’s in their best interest to do what’s right, only to find out that no, they don’t. 

Jesse Case: They don’t, and they need some public accountability. Our members, and workers in general, want to go to work if the workplace is safe. We have members tell us every day that they want to go to work as long as they are reasonably assured that they’re going to a safe work environment. But these three plants in Perry, Iowa, 58% of the workers tested positive. Waterloo, 400 cases and Columbus junction, 200 cases. That means there are thousands of people in those three communities that are untested, who are positive, and it’s really unacceptable.

That doesn’t count the Dakota City where there are hundreds of cases there. Storm Lake, Iowa, where there were five cases. But “everyone’s been tested.” So that probably means 500 cases. It’s criminal and they’re killing workers. 

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Rick Smith: You’ve hit on a really important point here because you said just the ones that are tested–we haven’t done nearly enough testing. In fact, one of the numbers I saw is we’ve done 5 million tests already, yet the Global Initiative at Harvard University is saying we need to be testing 20 million people a day, not 5 million from start to end.

We need to know who’s got it. We need to do contact tracing. We need to do an awful lot more before we swing the doors open and reopen everything. 

Jesse Case: I think one of the reasons why they’re not testing people on that scale is because they’re going to find out that a lot more people are infected than they want to admit.

The right thing to do, and this may not be popular with all my colleagues, but if we can’t guarantee safe work environments, the correct thing to do is to close the businesses and pay those workers to stay home for a while. 

The world will live without pork chops, but some people won’t live with coronavirus, and we have to make a decision. What’s more important? Bacon or people’s lives: It’s not about the food supply chain. That’s a lie that they’ve orchestrated in order to keep the packing plants open and the workers marching to their deaths.

The food supply chain is not threatened. If we don’t have Hammond pork chops, people will live. They will not die of starvation.

Rick Smith: We had talked with a member of Teamsters Local 839 in Washington state who represents meat workers just miles away from the Tyson plant.

They’ve done it right. They’ve done a really good job of keeping their workforce safe. They’ve got bigger lunch rooms. They brought in trailers so they can have the social distancing. They’ve made the workspaces bigger so that people are away from each other.

They’re doing constant testing. There’s a way to do this in a way that you don’t have to risk people’s lives. This, to me, is just about dollars and cents. 

Jesse Case: That’s right, there is a way to do it safely. It’s accountability. If there’s a union there to hold them accountable, with checklists on how to maintain a safe work environment, then it’s possible. If there’s not a union there, then we need to be forming community oversight committees where the community is acting in that capacity. We need community members to have access to workers independently and in safe environment, so we can hear firsthand what’s going on inside those plants. We need access to the facilities so we know if there’s social distancing, if there are hand sanitizer stations, and so we know that people aren’t congregating in the break room or in the locker room at shift change.

And we need to make sure that the communities are demanding standards that are acceptable, not to Tyson and not to the employers, but to the community itself, because you can’t have one hundred or a thousand people infected at one plant and not infect your community. Kids go into the neighborhoods and play with other people’s kids. People go to the grocery store, they go to the gas station. 

This is not a packing plant issue. This is a community issue. And if Tyson’s and other companies are spreading COVID-19 through our communities, they need to be held accountable. The only people that do that are unions and the community itself.

Jesse Case: You have to look at what’s best for your family. The Governor of Iowa was a miserable failure, marching people to their deaths in an industry to put pork chops and bacon on our plates. That’s somebody who is not looking out for the American worker.

Rick Smith: I’m hoping out of this crisis, out of watching these meat packing workers, the grocery store workers, the truck drivers, the nurses, the doctors, all of the people who clean the hospitals, after watching them being labeled as essential and frontline heroes, to go to work in conditions that are less than they should be, I’m hoping there’s going to be a resurgence in organizing and people saying they deserve better.

Jesse Case: This is a wake up call for American workers.

Workers need to call a union. They need to call the Teamsters union. They need to call other labor organizations, because the only way to really effect change in the workplace is when people exercise their federal rights under the law and organize a union.

If you look one hundred years ago, when things were very similar to today in terms of immigration levels and where the stock market is, or was, up until a month ago, and other economic factors that led up to the Great Depression, it preceeded the greatest growth in the history of the American labor movement. 

I think we’re there again. Workers are fed up. When fear turns to anger, that’s when people start organizing.

We’ve got workers at a Dr. Pepper distribution company in southern Iowa where the company is trying to cut the [health] insurance this week, and we will be on strike in less than 48 hours if they don’t back off that tomorrow. Those workers are ready to walk out. We’re not going to send people to their deaths. Again, people can live without Dr. Pepper, but they can’t live without health insurance. Workers are taking a stand and labor has got to be ready to stand up and lead and fight with them.

Rick Smith:  A country without strikes is a country without freedom. 

I truly believe this is the time where you need to exercise that right to demand, obviously better wages and hours, but also better conditions. It comes down to safe workplaces, the respect, the dignity, all of those things that I’ve been preaching about for years.

As a 30-year Teamster member, I’ve never had a day where I’ve gone to work and feared that the workplace wasn’t going to be safe.

Jesse Case: Workers have an option other than to put up with what we give you or quit your job.

That third option is what millions of workers have already done in this country, which is to organize a union and fight back. It’s a partnership. Employers supply the job, so we need employers, but workers supply the product. Without the workers, there is no business, so the terms of that partnership should be negotiated in a good union contract, one that’s fair to both parties.

Without a union contract, the employer negotiates all the terms, and oftentimes it’s detrimental to the employees. In this case, sometimes it’s detrimental to their lives. 

Rick Smith: I keep my union contract on my desk along with my original union card. I have it right here on my desk as I always do, because it’s that important.

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In 2005, The Rick Smith Show stepped into a local radio world devoid of progressive talk. Rick took his straight shooting no nonsense Teamster outlook to the air and started mixing it up with conservatives from one of the reddest areas north of the Mason Dixon line. His show grew steadily, attracting listeners starved for a voice that spoke to working stiffs who felt the economic floor crumbling beneath them.
Five years after the start of his weekend program, Rick moved to new time slots and new stations. His show now airs Monday-Friday 3pm-6pm on several stations across the state of Pennsylvania where he offers hard truth and commentary with a unique blend of clear-headed, gruff analysis and bemused observation. Lest things get too serious, he spices things up with a laugh or two.

Rick comes by his outlook honestly. He grew up in the projects of Cleveland, ducking local gangs while doing paper routes and odd jobs to help feed his family. After high school, he went out on his own, driving 18 wheelers as a proud union member. Nowadays, Rick, a father of three, is on the front lines of the class work every weekday from 3pm-6pm. He feels the calling to spread the word about the desperate needs facing workers, and to make the world a better place for kids growing up in what is becoming an America of rich and poor.

Rick believes somebody has to wake up the American working class to engage in the democratic process, but not in the corporate-funded Tea Party fashion. He has the rough edges and the grit of a Teamster; he’s a street talker, but a street talker with charm.

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