Poultry Bosses Aren’t Calling All the Shots in the US Any More

Over Super Bowl weekend, Americans are expected to devour 1.42 billion chicken wings — enough to “circle the circumference of the Earth three times,” the National Chicken Council crowed.

But even a trillion wings might not be enough to put poultry industry CEOs in a party mood after a couple of tough first weeks under the new administration in Washington.

After taking office, Biden officials moved swiftly to block a signature achievement of the Chicken Council’s lobbyists: a Trump administration rule to allow poultry corporations to jack up their line speeds. Industry execs had been looking forward to increasing their profits by forcing workers to process birds at a break-neck speed of 175 per minute, up from the already high max of 140.

Worker advocates persuaded the Biden administration to halt the line speed change before it went into force, arguing that it would increase injuries and Covid-19 infections in an industry notorious for some of the country’s largest outbreaks.

United Food and Commercial Workers International President Marc Perrone said the now-scuttled rule showed Trump’s administration cared “more about corporate profits than the safety of workers.”

Debbie Berkowitz, program director for worker safety and health with the National Employment Law Project, also welcomed the Biden move. “Meat and poultry workers should not be forced by greedy employers to sacrifice their health and their lives in order to put food on our tables and bring in a paycheck,” she said.

In addition to blocking the line speed increase, Biden officials have issued new workplace safety guidelines to strengthen protections against Covid-19 for all U.S. workers. While these guidelines are not legally binding, labor advocates are hopeful they will lead to enforceable regulations. Because of their high exposure and infection rates, poultry and meat processing workers are among those with the most to gain from stricter protections.

For the poultry executives on the National Chicken Council board, Biden’s pro-worker moves must come as quite a shock.

The industry exerted enormous influence over the Trump administration. With Covid outbreaks ravaging poultry plants in the spring of 2020, Trump used his executive authority to require the plants to stay open, forcing this low-wage and largely immigrant labor force to return to high-risk workplaces.

The Trump administration even granted waivers — in the middle of a pandemic — allowing certain factories to accelerate their line speeds. Of the 15 plants receiving the waivers, eight had workers infected with the virus.

The new political landscape must be particularly unsettling for Ronald Cameron, an honorary lifetime member of the National Chicken Council and the owner of Mountaire, one of the poultry companies that received a waiver to jack up line speeds under Trump. The Arkansas billionaire spent $11.7 million in campaign donations to Republicans in the 2020 election cycle.

With Congress under Democratic control, poultry execs are also unlikely to get the liability shield Republicans had promised them as protection against worker lawsuits over Covid-19 negligence.

Much more needs to be done to ensure a safe and dignified livelihood for essential workers in the meat and poultry processing industries. But the industry’s wealthy executives and their lobbyists are no longer calling all the shots in Washington. And that’s worth celebrating.

Sarah Anderson directs the Global Economy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies.