Poultry plant deaths underscore the need for unions

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The accident at the Foundation Food Group poultry processing plant in Gainesville, Ga.—where six workers died on Jan. 28 and a dozen others were sent to the hospital with injuries—has all the hallmarks of workplace injustice: poor working conditions for low-wage employees, alleged negligence regarding upkeep of dangerous equipment and exploitation of undocumented immigrants.

Fed Ingram, Evelyn DeJesusAFT Secretary-Treasurer Fedrick Ingram, Georgia Federation of Teachers President Verdaillia Turner and AFT Executive Vice President Evelyn DeJesus.

As the case unfolds, the Gainesville community—nearly half Latinx and the self-proclaimed “Poultry Capital of the World” because of its many poultry processing plants—is still rocked by loss. Those who could come forward to expose company neglect are being intimidated, and healthcare for lingering injuries is being withheld.

And so on March 23, labor unions, civil rights leaders and other allies showed up in solidarity to support the victims’ families and press for accountability from plant owners and government officials. “We fight, we care and we show up because these are workers who senselessly lost their lives,” said AFT Secretary-Treasurer Fedrick Ingram at a press conference led by the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement (LCLAA) and Georgia Familias Unidas. “An injury to one is an injury to all. We demand justice in the Gainesville community.”

The AFT not only showed up, but distributed more than 300 bilingual books and hygiene kits to families in the community. Representatives from the Georgia AFL-CIO, Southern Poverty Law Center, Poder Latinx, League of United Latin American Citizens and the Georgia Federation of Teachers also attended.

“Our nation’s poultry industry workforce deserves stronger worker protections,” said Yanira Merino, national president of LCLAA. “Safety in their workplace shouldn’t be a question—no one should lose their life providing for their families. Our frontline workers are already facing disproportionate risks due to COVID-19. Employers and government agencies must ensure the health and safety of workers.”

“This is a human rights issue,” said Georgia Federation of Teachers President Verdaillia Turner. Most poultry plant workers are of Latinx descent, and so, as Turner said, neglect at the plant is “a form of racism” and “a form a classism. Georgia must do better.”

Evelyn DeJesus and book giveawayThe AFT distributed books and other supplies to families in Gainesville.

“These workers got up that morning on Jan. 28 and they never went home,” said AFT Executive Vice President Evelyn DeJesus, who led the group of participants in calling out the victims’ names: Nelly Gisel Perez-Rafael, 28; Jose DeJesus Elias-Cabrera, 45; Corey Alan Murphy, 35; Saulo Suarez-Bernal, 40; Victor Vellez, 38; and Edgar Vera-Garcia, 28.

Each died after a fog of nitrogen, used to flash-freeze food, leaked into the air of the plant, endangering workers with the threat of respiratory distress and cold burns. In addition to those who died, nearly a dozen others were hospitalized for respiratory issues, and 130 people were taken by bus for medical evaluations before being released.

A personal account

“I lost six of my colleagues due to the negligence of Foundation Food Group,” said one worker, whose comments were read by Stephanie Lopez-Burgos of Familias Unidas because she was afraid her employer would retaliate if she came forward. “We all knew there were issues with the freezer in line four, but [they] decided not to fix the issue that took the lives of my colleagues.” She recalls “trying to run for our lives,” and in the following days she was refused healthcare or mental health support despite headaches and high blood pressure. The company did not pay employees for the time lost while the plant was closed. “I returned to work because I needed the money, but I was not mentally prepared to go back,” she said.

“My biggest fear came true when there was an ammonia leak,” she added, recalling her terror when she and others were evacuated again. “Foundation Food Group still cannot guarantee our safety,” she said.

“No one should go to work in fear for their lives,” said Charlie Flemming, president of the Georgia AFL-CIO. “The horrific incident at the Foundation Food Group poultry processing facility underscores the dire need for increased worker protections in Georgia’s agricultural sector, namely the protections offered by a union.”

National solutions

LULAC CEO Sindy Benavides reiterated the group’s call for greater accountability and investigations from OSHA, PPE distribution for workers and increased funding for the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board. Also relevant are bills in Congress, like the Essential Workers Act, that would provide undocumented workers with a pathway to citizenship and the associated protections that would offer.

Flemming said the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, or PRO Act, currently moving through Congress is “a generational opportunity” to bring union protection to more people, including those in “right to work” states like Georgia. The act would empower workers to organize and bargain, hold corporations accountable for union busting and repeal “right to work” laws, which were created during Jim Crow to keep white and Black workers from organizing together.

The PRO Act has passed the House of Representatives and moved on to the Senate; you can express your support for it here.

[Virginia Myers]