Arkansas: Poultry Plant Workers Walk Out, Demand Health Precautions and Wages

Photo credit: Olivia Paschal

By Brian Martel

On December 8, workers walked out of the George’s poultry plant in Springdale, Arkansas, effectively shutting down production. The walkout was organized in response to dangerous conditions which exposed workers to COVID-19.

George’s Inc. is the ninth largest poultry producer in the US, and its headquarters is in Springdale where the walkout occurred. The city is one of the largest poultry producers in the country and home to the meat processing giant Tyson Foods.

Springdale is also home to the largest community of Marshallese immigrants in the continental US, who emigrated from the Marshall islands after they were ravaged by over a decade of US military weapons testing, including the detonation of 67 atomic bombs.

The majority of Marshallese immigrants in Arkansas work in the poultry industry, and alongside Latin American immigrants make up the majority of the workers at the George’s Springdale plant.

Most workers at the plant make less than $12 per hour in dangerous conditions. The majority of participants in the walkout work on the de-bone line, using blades to remove the bones from up to 175 birds per minute. The line’s speed has been increased by 25 percent since the factory received a government line-speed waiver in April. Due to the high speeds, many workers suffer from repetitive stress injuries, cuts, and even amputations.

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, poultry plants have been some of the most affected workplaces. After George’s ended staggered shifts, the workers were forced to stand shoulder to shoulder on the processing line and crowd into tight rooms and hallways. The company sends symptomatic workers home, but doesn’t pay them while in quarantine.

Venceremos, a local poultry worker rights nonprofit, helped organize the walkout—their demands were for the reinstatement of staggered shifts, sanitation, and a wage increase for all workers.

Venceremos supports “worker-driven social responsibility,” which frames exploitation as an anomaly rather than inherent to the capitalist mode of production. Like all nonprofits, their goal is ultimately to preserve capitalist labor relations by pacifying the workers through meager reforms while ignoring the larger question of political power and worker control.

During the walkout, George’s told workers that they had to return to work, where the company would speak to each worker individually or they would be fired. Workers responded by shouting “We won’t leave until you meet our demands!”

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