Opinion

Don’t just thank Kansas meatpackers — support laws protecting them

September 7, 2020 3:59 am

Alfonso Rangel Toro, center, with family members. Toro was a member of UFCW Local 2 who worked at the National Beef plant in Liberal, Kansas, and died of COVID-19 in May, according to the union. (Submitted)

Alfonso Rangel Toro was 52 when he died on May 4.

“A hard working, humble and modest man whose only dream was to build a better future to his family, he always helped whoever asked his help,” says his oldest son, Diego Rangel. “He leaves behind his life partner, my mom Gabriela, my two younger sisters, Sonia and Citlali, my brother Gabriel and me. All those who got to meet him will remember him as a dreamer, hard working man, full of life, who always faced the challenges of life with a smile on his face. Rest in peace Dad. We miss you and will always love you.”

Diego Rangel’s remembrance of his father comes through a representative of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 2, headquartered in Wichita. The elder Rangel was a union member who worked at the National Beef packing plant in Liberal, Kansas, and lived about 45 miles away in Guymon, Oklahoma, another meatpacking town.

Alfonso Rangel Toro, November 18, 1967-May 4, 2020. (Submitted)

His union, UFCW2, represents more than 13,000 workers in the meatpacking industry and a few thousand other workers in retail and grocery stores and pharmacies.

Most of the union’s members work at the National Beef Packing plants in Liberal and Dodge City and at the Cargill plant in Dodge, says UFCW2 President Martín Rosas. They’re also at the plant in Guymon, which is owned by Merriam-based Seaboard Foods; at Smithfield plants in Wichita and Martin City, Missouri; and at Triumph Foods in St. Joseph, Missouri.

As the summer officially ends and much of our pandemic attention turns to the growing threat of COVID-19 at schools and universities, we can’t forget how the season started — and, as my colleague Max McCoy has pointed out, that people who work at Kansas’ meatpacking plants have suffered the second-highest number of fatalities.

We can also press for legislation that would prevent any more summers like the one they’ve just endured.

As the pandemic began to hit back in March, representatives of packing plants “were minimizing the severity of COVID,” Rosas says.

By April, the Finney County health department was reporting multiple cases at a non-union Tyson plant in Holcomb. In one 11-day stretch, Finney County’s caseload went from 17 to 87, Corinne Boyer of the Kansas News Service wrote on April 23. During that same time, the number of cases in Ford County (Dodge City) had gone from 16 to 288; Seward County (the National Beef plant in Liberal), went from six to 125, Boyer reported.

By late April, officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevent had visited two National Beef plants.

“They spent significant time touring and recommending changes to those facilities,” Rosas says, “but the CDC’s guidelines are just recommendations — they aren’t enforceable.”

All of which made it seem especially cruel, even for an administration marked by cruelty, back on April 28 when the president ordered the plants to stay open. It was as if the Defense Production Act was another military toy the president could play with while ordering primarily Latino workers to “continue operating and fulfilling orders to ensure a continued supply of protein for Americans.”

Trump acted “without any regard for the well-being of those workers,” Rosas says. “President Trump gave these packing plants the green light to send people into harm’s way and risk their lives and the lives of their families.”

Still, Rosas says, Cargill instituted the CDC guidelines “very rapidly” at its plant in Dodge City. At the National Beef plants in Dodge and Liberal, he says, “it took them a little longer to implement protocols. Currently we have a better scenario now than where we were in May.”

Martín Rosas (left) with a UFCW Local 2 member at an event promoting the use of face masks at the National Beef plant in Liberal, Kansas, on Sept. 4.

In most plants, Rosas says, UCFW2 was able to negotiate for two weeks of sick pay for workers in quarantine, some additional hazard pay, and attendance policies allowing employees to stay home without being penalized if they feel their health and safety are at risk.

Of the CDC guidelines, he says, “we’ve been very vigilant in the last six months on trying to push these employers to make those recommendations day-to-day standards in these plants.”

He worries about other plants where workers aren’t organized.

“While we in the union are doing what we can to protect people in their communities, nonunion workers have no protection from the local or federal government,” he says.

What message does Rosas have for everyone far from the plants who’s been eating meat all summer?

“We need their support,” he says. “Packing workers were considered critical to the infrastructure of the food chain, and therefore we need their support demanding and pushing local, state and federal government to conduct thorough inspections of those plants with the goal to provide these people with better safeguards so people will continue to receive their meat as timely and efficiently as needed.”

Kansas could also pass comprehensive COVID-19 workplace safety standards like those recently enacted in Virginia.

The union has lost 13 members to COVID-19, Rosas says. Among those were:

Jose Trinidad Barragan, March 19, 1957-May 26, 2020. (Submitted)

Jose Trinidad Barragan, of Liberal, who worked at the Seaboard plant in Guymon, died on May 26. He was 63. His obituary described him as “a kind, humble, and gentle man who loved spending time with his wife, Clara, and his family.”

Arturo Chavez Valencia, 44, died on May 6. He worked at the Triumph Foods plant in St. Joseph, Missouri. “He was a loving father and enjoyed the outdoors, fishing, cookouts, and spending time with his family,” according to his obituary. Survivors included his wife, Gabriel, three children, parents, siblings and “extended family and friends.”

Juan Garcia Perez, 73, and also employed by Triumph, died on July 9. “He was a man of faith, and trusted God with all his heart and soul.” He left behind his wife, Lucía, and nine children.

Allen Junior Davidson, 53, died on July 2. He, too, worked at Triumph. “Allen’s life was full of surprises,” according to his obituary. “The biggest surprise was him going Home early to his Heavenly Father this 4th of July weekend.”

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C.J. Janovy
C.J. Janovy

C.J. Janovy is a veteran journalist with deep roots in the Midwest. She was the Opinion Editor for the Kansas Reflector from launch unit l June 2021. Before joining the Reflector, she was an editor and reporter at Kansas City’s NPR affiliate, KCUR. Before that, she edited the city’s alt-weekly newspaper, The Pitch, where Janovy and her writers won numerous local, regional and national awards. Her book “No Place Like Home: Lessons in Activism from LGBT Kansas” was among the Kansas Notable Books of 2019.

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