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 		 [The secretive titan behind one of America’s largest poultry
companies, who is also one of the President’s top donors, is
ruthlessly leveraging the coronavirus crisis—and his vast
fortune—to strip workers of protections.]
[https://www.portside.org/] 

 PORTSIDE LABOR 

 HOW TRUMP IS HELPING TYCOONS EXPLOIT THE PANDEMIC  
[https://www.portside.org/node/23373] 

 

 Jane Mayer 
 July 13, 2020
The New Yorker
[https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/07/20/how-trump-is-helping-tycoons-exploit-the-pandemic?utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=onsite-share&utm_brand=the-new-yorker&utm_social-type=earned%20via%20%40NewYorker]


	*
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	*
[https://www.facebook.com/sharer/sharer.php?u=https%3A//www.portside.org/node/23373]
	* 
	* [https://www.portside.org/node/23373/printable/print]

 _ The secretive titan behind one of America’s largest poultry
companies, who is also one of the President’s top donors, is
ruthlessly leveraging the coronavirus crisis—and his vast
fortune—to strip workers of protections. _ 

 Ronald Cameron, the head of Mountaire, which critics call a
“brutal” employer, is one of Trump’s top donors., Cleon Peterson


 

A Reporter at Large
[https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/a-reporter-at-large]

July 20, 2020 Issue [https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/07/20]

How Trump Is Helping Tycoons Exploit the Pandemic

The secretive titan behind one of America’s largest poultry
companies, who is also one of the President’s top donors, is
ruthlessly leveraging the coronavirus crisis—and his vast
fortune—to strip workers of protections.

By Jane Mayer [https://www.newyorker.com/contributors/jane-mayer]

On June 22nd, in the baking heat of a parking lot a few miles inland
from Delaware’s beaches, several dozen poultry workers, many of them
Black or Latino, gathered to decry the conditions at a local poultry
plant owned by one of President Donald Trump
[https://www.newyorker.com/tag/donald-trump]’s biggest campaign
contributors. “We’re here for a reason that is atrocious,”
Nelson Hill, an official with the United Food and Commercial Workers
International Union, told the small but boisterous crowd, which
included top Democratic officials from the state, among them Senator
Chris Coons. The union, part of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., represents some 1.3
million laborers in poultry-processing and meatpacking plants, as well
as workers in grocery stores and retail establishments. Its members,
many defined as “essential” workers
[https://www.newyorker.com/science/medical-dispatch/the-essential-workers-filling-new-yorks-coronavirus-wards]—without
the option of staying home—have been hit extraordinarily hard by the
coronavirus. The union estimates that nearly thirty thousand of its
workers in the food and health-care sectors have
contracted _covid_-19 [https://www.newyorker.com/tag/coronavirus],
and that two hundred and thirty-eight of those have died.

For the previous forty-two years, a thousand or so laborers at the
local processing plant, in Selbyville, had been represented by Local
27. Just two years earlier, the workers there had ratified a new
five-year contract. But, Hill told the crowd, in the middle of the
pandemic, as the number of infected workers soared, the plant’s
owner, Mountaire Corporation—one of the country’s largest
purveyors of chicken—conspired, along with Donald Trump, to “kick
us out.”

Hill, who is Black and from a working-class family on the Delmarva
Peninsula—a scrubby stretch of farmland that includes parts of
Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia—was used to the area’s heat and
humidity. But, as he spoke to the crowd, behind dark glasses, his face
glistened with anger. “It’s greed, that’s what it is,” he
said. “It’s a damn shame.”

The jobs at Mountaire rank as among the most dangerous and worst paid
in America. Government statistics indicate that poultry and
meat-processing companies report more severe injuries than other
industries commonly assumed to be more hazardous, including coal
mining and sawmilling. Between 2015 and 2018, on average, a
slaughterhouse worker lost a body part, or went to the hospital for
in-patient treatment, about every other day. Unlike meatpackers,
two-thirds of whom belong to unions, only about a third of poultry
workers are represented by organized labor—and those who are
unionized face mounting pressure. The industry, which is dominated by
large multinational corporations such as Mountaire, has grown
increasingly concentrated, expanding its political influence while
replacing unionized employees with contract hires, often immigrants or
refugees. These vulnerable workers are technically hired by temp
agencies, relieving poultry plants of accountability if documentation
is lacking. Trump has weakened federal oversight of the industry while
accepting millions of dollars in political donations from some of its
most powerful figures, including Ronald Cameron, Mountaire’s
reclusive owner. In 2016, Cameron gave nearly three million dollars to
organizations supporting Trump’s candidacy.

Founded in Little Rock, Arkansas, but incorporated in Delaware,
Mountaire has operations in five states. It reportedly generated more
than $2.3 billion in revenue last year. Because it is owned almost
entirely by Cameron—and because it supplies poultry to other
companies that put their own labels on the meat—the company’s
public profile is virtually nonexistent. Cameron himself has received
almost no media attention. “I’ve tried mightily over the years to
bump into him, but he lays low,” Max Brantley, a longtime editor at
the _Arkansas_ _Times_, told me. According to trade journals,
however, Mountaire has been spectacularly successful. _Arkansas
Business_ reported that the company’s sales in 2019 were a billion
dollars higher than they were in 2010, nearly doubling the size of the
business. Information on profits isn’t available, but as
Mountaire’s revenues have risen wages for poultry workers have
fallen even further behind. In 2002, workers were paid twenty-four per
cent less than the national average for manufacturing jobs; today,
they are paid forty-four per cent less. On average, poultry workers
now earn less than fourteen dollars an hour.

By long-standing custom, labor contracts are binding for at least
three years, giving a union time to prove its value to members. But in
April a laborer at the Selbyville plant, Oscar Cruz Sosa, raised a
legal objection to the contract, arguing that he’d been forced to
join the union and pay dues against his will. He wanted a vote on
whether to decertify the union. Mountaire maintains that it played no
role in Cruz Sosa’s actions, and that the move to decertify the
union was “entirely employee-driven.” But Cruz Sosa has had some
outside help. His case was supported by lawyers from the National
Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, the foremost anti-union
advocacy group, which is funded by undisclosed tax-deductible
donations. Meanwhile, a mysterious group calling itself the Oscar Cruz
Committee for Employee Rights sent out mailings, in English,
supporting Cruz Sosa’s complaint. (Cruz Sosa speaks only Spanish.)
The return address was the Rehoboth Beach branch of MailBiz, which
rents post-office boxes.

Jonathan Williams, a spokesperson for the union, suspects that Cruz
Sosa was a stalking horse. “It’s not hard to find one individual,
who may get special privileges from management, and who maybe is
offered a future position,” he told me. “It’s very, very rare,
though, when an employee does the research, contacts the Department of
Labor, and goes through all this effort. Usually, someone is being
coached.” (Cruz Sosa didn’t respond to interview requests.)

When the union reached out to Cruz Sosa, his lawyers filed a grievance
with the National Labor Relations Board, claiming harassment. The
specific legal dispute is abstruse. Mark Mix, the president of the
National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, has called the
contract’s language “illegal,” claiming that it didn’t make
sufficiently clear that—as stipulated by law—new employees had
thirty days to decide whether to join the union. The union argues that
applications presented to new employees are unambiguous about the time
frame, and says that the current contract has virtually the same
boilerplate used in every contract with Mountaire since 1982.

After Cruz Sosa got thirty per cent of his co-workers to sign a
petition, the National Labor Relations Board ordered an election at
the Selbyville plant. When the union protested that this would violate
the customary bar on overturning contracts before three years, the
N.L.R.B. decided to broaden the case, reëxamining the entire concept
of barring challenges to settled union contracts. The move has shocked
labor-law experts. By statute, the N.L.R.B. has five members and is
bipartisan, but the Trump Administration has filled only three seats,
all with Republicans.

Given the pandemic, the union argued that there was no way an
in-person election could be safely and fairly held in Sussex County,
where Selbyville is situated. Delaware’s governor had declared a
state of emergency on March 23rd, because of the surge in _covid_-19
cases, almost half of them in Sussex County, which has many poultry
plants. The union asked for a stay, but on June 24th the N.L.R.B.
moved to proceed with the election, by mail. The ballots that were
sent out must be received by July 14th. Meanwhile, the board will
weigh the larger question of whether such elections are legal,
potentially overturning a precedent that dates back to the New Deal
[https://www.newyorker.com/tag/new-deal].

“We’re really being let down by the federal agencies,” Williams,
the union spokesperson, said. He also lamented a shift at the
Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the division of the
Labor Department that enforces workplace safety. Since _osha_’s
inception, in 1970, the agency has enforced federal law that makes it
illegal to subject employees to “recognized hazards.” But during
the pandemic the _Times_ editorial board has been prompted to ask
[https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/21/opinion/coronavirus-osha-work-safety.html],
“Why is _osha_ _awol_?” Democrats pushed for the agency to issue
an emergency rule forcing businesses to comply with the Centers for
Disease Control’s health guidelines for _covid_-19, but the Labor
Department refused.

Instead, on April 28th, forty-eight hours after Tyson Foods, the
world’s second-largest meat company, ran a full-page ad in several
newspapers warning that “the food supply chain is breaking,” Trump
issued an executive order defining slaughterhouse workers as
essential. The White House had appointed Cameron to an advisory board
on the pandemic’s economic impact. The executive order commanded
meat-processing facilities to “continue operations uninterrupted to
the extent possible.” The Labor Department released an accompanying
statement that all but indemnified companies for exposing workers
to _covid_-19. It assured employers in essential industries that the
agency wouldn’t hold them responsible if they failed to follow the
C.D.C.’s health guidelines, as long as they made a “good faith”
effort.

Meat and poultry workers had to keep working and risk infection—or
lose their jobs. By July 7th, _osha_ had received more than six
thousand coronavirus-related workplace complaints but had issued only
one citation, to a nursing home in Georgia. David Michaels, a
professor of public health at George Washington University, who
headed _osha_ during the Obama Administration, told me that the
agency was “saying that the Labor Department would side with the
employers if workers sued,” and added, “That would be unthinkable
in any other Administration. _osha_’s job isn’t to protect
corporations—it’s to protect workers!”

The prospect of food shortages understandably caused concern in the
White House. Yet reports show that in April, as Tyson and other
producers were warning that “millions of pounds of meat will
disappear” from American stores if they had to shut down, exports of
pork to China broke records—and Mountaire’s chicken exports were
3.4 per cent higher than they were a year earlier. The next month, the
company’s exports were 10.9 per cent lower than in 2019, but its
exports to China and Hong Kong grew by 23.1 per cent in April and by
fourteen per cent in May, according to statistics provided by
Christopher Rogers, an analyst with Panjiva, which tracks the
food-supply chain. Tony Corbo, a lobbyist for Food and Water Watch, a
progressive nonprofit advocacy group, said, “They were crying about
shortages, and yet we’re still exporting meat. The shortage was
phony.”

Meanwhile, coronavirus cases exploded in the meat-and-poultry
industry. Initially, Mountaire released statistics about employee
infections. At the end of March, the company told the union that there
had been forty-one cases in Selbyville. However, Hill’s shop
steward, Manuel Rosales, told him not to trust this number. “Half
the plant isn’t there,” he explained, either because the workers
were sick or because they feared becoming so. A month later, a
television station in North Carolina reported that a Mountaire plant,
in Siler City, which employs some sixteen hundred workers, had at
least seventy-four positive cases among workers and their families.
After that, the company stopped sharing its _covid_-19 numbers.
Mountaire became so secretive, Hill said, that workers “were seeing
people disappear, and they didn’t know _what_ the hell was going
on.” In many cases, a “co-worker had tested positive, but the
company wouldn’t tell anyone.” Rosales, who works in the deboning
department at the Selbyville plant, told me, “People are coughing
and they don’t look well, but they just want to keep the chicken
coming. It’s all hush-hush.”

Cathy Bassett, the communications director for Mountaire Farms of
Delaware, confirmed, “We’re not releasing any numbers,” adding,
“_I_ don’t even know those numbers. We’ve told our workers that
if you’ve been exposed we’ll notify you.” According to Hill, the
company argued to the union that it was protecting employee privacy.
“They were hiding behind it,” Hill told me. “We weren’t asking
for private health information—we were just trying to report the
numbers.”

Corbo said that, after “the President said these plants had to stay
open,” the meat and poultry companies “clammed up.” Trump’s
executive order was interpreted as superseding state and local health
departments. In a private conversation with the union, Delaware’s
governor, John Carney, a Democrat, admitted that he had wanted
universal testing in the plants, and had considered ordering them
shut, but felt “handcuffed” by Trump’s order. The result has
been an extraordinary blackout of public-health information. “I can
look online and find the number of _covid_-19 cases in nursing
homes,” Corbo said. “But not in the poultry industry. If you walk
into a poultry plant, you don’t know whether the person next to you
has got it. It’s unconscionable.”

The union also maintains that Mountaire charged employees for the
protective equipment necessary for them to work safely. The company
denies this: Bassett told me that Mountaire has distributed cloth
masks to workers, although not N95 masks, and, “where possible,”
has erected Plexiglas shields between employees, along with
instituting daily body-temperature checks. But Williams, the union
spokesperson, sent me a screenshot of a Mountaire paycheck stub that
shows deductions for “plant supplies.” Williams said that the
supplies in question were “gloves and aprons and such,” adding
that deductions like these were illegal. At the rally, Hill protested
that, if Mountaire’s owner could afford to give “two or three
million dollars—or whatever it was he gave—to Trump, they
shouldn’t be stealing money from workers’ paychecks.” Noting
that Cameron is “Trump’s buddy,” Hill added, “I guess they
feel like they can do whatever they want.”

The union’s struggles with the Labor Department are part of a much
larger reversal of federal protections for workers, consumers, and the
environment under Trump. In 2016, the President promised to
“dismantle the regulatory state,” as Stephen Bannon
[https://www.newyorker.com/tag/steve-bannon/], his former White House
strategist, often put it. Given the complexities of federal
rulemaking, this proved somewhat difficult in the first three years of
the Administration. But the pandemic has offered Trump an opportunity:
now that he can invoke an economic emergency, he can relax, rescind,
or suspend federal regulations by fiat. In May and June, Trump issued
a pair of executive orders directing national agencies to ignore
federal regulations and environmental laws if they burdened the
economy—again, in many instances, the companies were told that they
just had to act “in good faith.” As the _Times_ and the
Washington _Post_ have reported, these moves have weakened
regulations on all kinds of businesses, from trucking companies to oil
and gas pipelines. In Corbo’s view, many in the media have missed
one of the biggest aspects of the _covid_-19 story. “Everyone is
looking at the shiny object—the pandemic,” he said. “Meanwhile,
the government is deregulating _everything_. It’s unreal.”

In April, for instance, the United States Department of Agriculture
granted fifteen waivers to poultry plants, including a Mountaire
facility in North Carolina, authorizing them to increase the number of
birds per minute—or B.P.M.—that workers must process. The waivers
enabled companies to accelerate the pace from a hundred and forty
B.P.M. to a hundred and seventy-five. Angela Stuesse, an
anthropologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who
has studied the poultry industry, told me that, in the chicken
business, “you make pennies on a pound.” Among the few ways to
increase profits are squeezing labor costs and accelerating line
speeds, which are set by the U.S.D.A. to accommodate federal
inspectors, who are supposed to assess every bird. The regulations
have long been a point of contention between poultry-plant owners and
unions, because as the line speed increases so do injuries and other
stresses on workers’ bodies. “They move the birds so fast, you
have to be really close together to get every bird,” Williams, the
union spokesperson, told me. “It’s like the ‘I Love Lucy’
episode at the chocolate factory.” Even though the C.D.C. has
emphasized that social distancing is necessary to maintain safety,
faster production lines require more workers, who must then squeeze
closer together. In many areas of a plant, poultry workers already
stand two feet apart at most, often facing one another. Nonetheless,
the U.S.D.A. has now indicated that it plans to permit faster line
speeds throughout the poultry industry. The National Chicken Council,
the industry’s trade group, had lobbied for precisely this change.
Williams fears that “these policies will result in the deaths of
many more workers.”

Debbie Berkowitz, a program director at the National Employment Law
Project, a pro-labor group, who previously headed the
health-and-safety division of the United Food and Commercial Workers
Union, told me that, thanks to the pandemic, “the Chamber of
Commerce is getting everything they always wanted.” An analysis of
public records by her group found that, of the fifteen poultry plants
granted waivers to increase line speeds in April, eight
had _covid_-19 outbreaks at the time. “If you’re a worker in a
plant bursting with _covid_-19, it’s a shitshow for you,”
Berkowitz said. “The industry is getting away with murdering
people.”

Michaels, the former _osha_ head, told me, “We’re very much back
in Upton Sinclair’s ‘The Jungle’ ”—the 1906 novel
[https://www.amazon.com/Jungle-Upton-Sinclair/dp/1503331865?ots=1&tag=thneyo0f-20&linkCode=w50] that
exposed abuses in the meat industry. The book so shocked Americans
that President Theodore Roosevelt ordered an immediate investigation
of slaughterhouses. The result was landmark consumer-protection
legislation that formed the foundation of today’s Food and Drug
Administration. But, for the past four decades, wealthy donors to the
Republican Party have pushed hard for the dismantling of Progressive
Era reforms and later curbs on corporate power. The 1980 platform of
the Libertarian Party, which was underwritten by the billionaire
conservative donors Charles and David Koch
[https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2010/08/30/covert-operations],
laid out a road map, calling for the abolition of almost every federal
agency, including the F.D.A. Although Trump claims to be a defender of
the working class, he has delighted wealthy donors—and their
pressure groups, such as the Club for Growth—by reliably serving
their agenda. Michaels told me, “Mountaire and others are taking
advantage of the _covid_-19 crisis to say, ‘We need more
chickens.’ The Trump Administration is aiding and abetting this.
They’re saying, ‘Produce more food,’ regardless of the cost to
workers. If companies cared as much about their workers as they do
about their chickens, we’d be a better country.”

The union rally in Delaware wrapped up with a surprisingly impassioned
endorsement from Chris Coons—ordinarily a moderate in the Senate and
a booster of the state’s poultry industry. Coons, who studied at
Yale’s divinity school while getting a law degree there, later told
me that supporting the union had become a moral imperative. Addressing
the rally, he explained that the labor showdown had brought to a head
three crises: “We’ve got a pandemic that’s already taken more
than a hundred and twenty thousand American lives. We’ve got a
recession that’s already knocked forty million people out of work.
And we’ve got a nation where millions of people have taken to the
streets in the month after George Floyd
[https://www.newyorker.com/tag/george-floyd] was murdered by a police
officer.” Coons concluded, “All three of those come together in
this moment, in this vote tomorrow, because the plants of the Delaware
poultry industry only work because of Black and brown workers, and
they only have safe conditions because of organized labor.”

As the temperature in the parking lot climbed into the nineties, the
rally dispersed. The participants drove in a convoy to the Selbyville
plant, in a show of support for the upcoming vote. The facility is a
hulking mass of industrial tanks and largely windowless buildings
crisscrossed by a maze of metal pipes and ventilation shafts.
Surrounded by concrete barriers and chain-link fences, the complex has
the feel of a prison.

A few miles away, at the Oasis truck stop, I met with an employee from
the Selbyville plant. A feisty mother with three kids still at home,
she explained, with a laugh, that she had put on her “Tina Turner
wig” for the occasion.

She had worked in Mountaire’s chicken plant, off and on, for years,
after attending a local high school. Although she and her co-workers
had felt frightened as more and more colleagues disappeared after
contracting _covid_-19, she was grateful to the pandemic for one
thing. “I’ve wanted to speak out for so long—I thank God that
this pandemic happened, so that my voice can be heard,” she told me.
“It’s terrible in there. I want these people exposed.”

She asked to speak anonymously, because she feared retribution both
from Mountaire and from local racists, who, she said, seemed more
aggressive recently toward African-Americans like her; when out
shopping, she had noticed more Confederate-flag paraphernalia on
public display. But she was eager to describe working conditions so
exploitative that, as she put it, “it’s slavery, baby.”

Typically, her shift begins at 8:18 _a_._m_. and lasts until
4:54 _p.m_. Since her youngest child is still a toddler, she works
less than full time. As a result, she has lost her seniority, and gets
only one week of vacation a year; workers don’t get two weeks until
they’ve been employed for four full years. “You know what they
give us for Christmas?” she said. “You think I _ever_ got a
bonus since working there? They give us two whole chickens and a bag
of potatoes. Every year, that’s all we get.” She was paid about
thirteen dollars an hour until the pandemic hit. Mountaire then
instituted a hazard-pay raise of a dollar an hour, but in June the
raise was cancelled. Even local convenience stores, she noted, gave
workers a three-dollar-an-hour raise. “And then Mountaire took it
back!” she said, shaking her head. “Why are they giving us a
one-dollar raise and giving two _million_dollars to Donald Trump?
What are we, animals?”

She works in the refrigerated side of the plant, handling eviscerated
carcasses. The temperature, she said, is so cold that “it’s
unbearable.” Although she is under fifty, she said that she already
has arthritis. “Listen, girl,” she said. “My body _hurts_ from
that place. My hands. The cold air. Imagine you got to put your hands
on that cold meat. I mean, sometimes it’s so cold I have to go
home.”

She and other workers complained that, even before the coronavirus
struck, their respiratory systems had suffered from inhaling harsh
antimicrobial chemicals, such as peracetic acid, that are used to
protect chicken from contamination. When she walks through some parts
of the plant, “I hold my breath,” she told me.

When the pandemic hit, she said, “a lot of people died.” She
wasn’t sure how many fatalities there had been, because her bosses
were “not talking about it.” One co-worker she considered a
friend—an elderly man named Hyung Lee, who was known as Pop
Pop—disappeared. “Everything was hush-hush,” she said. “It was
just ‘Go in there and do your work.’ ” Eventually, Lee’s son
called to say that Lee had died from pneumonia brought on
by _covid_-19, and that Lee’s wife was now “fighting for her
life.”

The employee said of Lee, “God, it took him out. I’m hurt. I cried
my ass off.” But management was silent. “You think the owner cares
about people dying in that hell?” she said. “No! You think they
posted _one picture_ of a person who died, in memory of somebody?
Nothing. Not one picture.” A co-worker confirmed this account and
added, “They didn’t even take up a collection for the family.”

Soon afterward, the employee said, she warned her supervisor that
another friend at the plant, an émigré from Guatemala, seemed sick.
The supervisor sent the woman to see the company nurse. The employee
told me, “The nurse sent her right back on the God-damned line to
work. The nurses aren’t worth shit in there.”

The Guatemalan woman eventually stopped showing up for work. One day,
one of her four sons called and said that his mother was sick
with _covid_-19 and was on a ventilator. “That woman worked _right
by_ me!” the employee told me. “I prayed for her.” The
Guatemalan woman recovered, but vowed not to return to Mountaire. The
employee told me, “It’s an evil company.”

According to the Washington _Post_, in April and May at least
twenty-two hundred poultry workers on the Delmarva Peninsula
contracted _covid_-19, and at least seventeen died. Delaware health
officials began testing workers outside poultry plants, and at one
plant thirty per cent of the results were positive. The
paper reported
[https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/are-you-ready-to-go-back-after-covid-19-a-poultry-worker-fears-a-return-to-work/2020/07/05/58195510-b1a9-11ea-8f56-63f38c990077_story.html] that
one infected Mountaire worker, in an effort to protect her family,
tried to quarantine herself for two weeks in a windowless bathroom,
sleeping on a foam mat. After the company provided two weeks of
partial sick pay, it paid her nothing during the additional month it
took her to recover. At the Oasis truck stop, the employee said of
Mountaire, “They have all these signs that say stuff like ‘In God
We Trust.’ But how, in a pandemic, can you treat people like
this?”

Bassett, the Mountaire spokesperson, said, “This has really been a
challenge for everyone. We tried to follow the C.D.C. guidelines, but
they changed.” At first, the C.D.C. had advised that anybody exposed
to the virus should quarantine for two weeks. But, Bassett said, “at
some point the C.D.C. realized essential workers were being sent home
for fourteen days.” Williams alleges that the C.D.C. rolled back its
recommendation “after interventions from lobbyists and Trump.” As
Bassett acknowledges, employees were henceforth permitted to
quarantine only “if they were symptomatic.”

In a filing to the N.L.R.B., Mountaire conceded that it did not
conduct its first plant-wide testing in Selbyville until May 27th.
Thirty-four workers, it says, tested positive, and none were
symptomatic—underlining the inadequacy of sending home only people
with symptoms. Another surge appears to be coming: in late June, word
spread through the Selbyville plant that fifteen more workers had been
sent home because of the virus.

Bassett emphasized that, when the pandemic hit, Mountaire began
offering paid sick leave even to contract workers, who ordinarily got
none. The company also temporarily suspended a point system, detested
by employees, that penalized them for missing work. “Managers in our
plants have good relationships with our workers,” Bassett said,
adding, “We are blessed, because there is medical care on the
premises.”

The employee I met at the truck stop scoffed at this notion. She said
that Mountaire had offered workers just five days of paid sick leave,
and only at sixty per cent of their regular pay. Sick employees, she
noted, couldn’t afford to stay home on such reduced wages: “People
have to feed their families.” She paused. “It’s miserable,”
she said. “The struggle’s real, but I’m thankful for what I’ve
got. I wish I could have a whole lot more. But I’m thankful.”

She and her husband, who is self-employed, can’t afford the
health-care plan offered by Mountaire. They rely on Medicaid, and on
food stamps. Moreover, the quality of the company’s on-site medical
care, she said, is poor—an opinion validated by _osha_, which, in
December, 2016, levied a forty-thousand-dollar fine against Mountaire,
which was partly for medical mismanagement. (Mountaire contested the
citations but eventually settled.) _osha_launched an inspection of
the company after the tip of a worker’s thumb was amputated. A
second employee, it emerged, had also injured a thumb, and had asked
to visit an emergency room; the doctor provided by the company’s
health plan sent him back to work. A week later, a hospital X-ray
revealed an open fracture.

At the time, Mountaire had a licensed practical nurse offering first
aid, in what the company calls its “medical department.” The nurse
had claimed to be making treatment decisions under the direction of a
local doctor. But, when _osha_ inspectors contacted the doctor, he
said that he didn’t work for the company, and had never set foot in
the plant. “There was no clinical oversight,” Kathleen Fagan, a
retired physician with _osha_’s medical unit, told me, after
reviewing an internal report. The nurse’s responsibility included
keeping a log of worker injuries, as required by federal law,
but _osha_ found that workers were discouraged from complaining, and
were unfairly accused of lying about health problems—likely in an
effort by the company to avoid reporting injuries.

At the Oasis truck stop, the Mountaire employee told me that she was
“praying for Local 27.” She suspected that the company wanted to
replace the union employees with contract workers, many of whom, she
said, were “illegal, temp-agency” hires who came from other
countries. She understood why such immigrants took the jobs, but the
terms of employment were “highway robbery.” She said, “Mountaire
gives them less—no sick pay, no vacation. They can terminate
you. _That’s_ what they want.”

Before the employee drove off, she noted, “I’ve never seen the
owner, long as I’ve been working at that company. I don’t even
know the owner’s name. I just know that Little Rock is where the big
headquarters is.” She said she’d heard that the owner was “doing
business with Donald Trump.” She had a question: “How rich is
Mountaire? They’re rich, aren’t they?”

The house in Little Rock where Ronald Cameron grew up was perched high
on the best street in town, Edgehill Road. The road was dyed
pink—nobody recalls why—but it might as well have been painted
gold. The Cameron family, who owned an animal-feed business, had a
house with two-story pillars out front, and a porte cochère over
which two Black servants lived. One was the cook, Lucille, who
delighted the four Cameron children with her homemade chocolate pies;
her brother, Robert, worked as the butler. When the Camerons spent
summer weekends at a lake house, in Hot Springs, Lucille and Robert
often accompanied them. A family friend remembers her squeezing fresh
orange juice for breakfast, “just spoiling us.”

Ronnie Cameron, as he is still known today, was born in 1945, and was
his parents’ only son. His sister Amanda, who is five years older,
told me, “My father was a very generous man. He always made sure I
had everything. But the minute my brother was born—it was the South,
he was the son—he was raised, reinforced, and groomed better. It was
hard for me.” She said of her brother, “He was almost worshipped.
He was raised to be the prince.”

The feed company, which later became Mountaire, had been founded in
Arkansas in 1914 by Ronnie’s grandfather, Guy Cameron. Guy’s son,
G. Ted Cameron, who took over in 1948, began not just supplying but
also buying up chicken farms.

By the time her father was running the firm, Amanda said, many of the
workers were Black. She says that her father taught his children to
show respect to everyone, but she acknowledges that racism was
prevalent. In 1957, the governor of Arkansas deployed the National
Guard to Little Rock, in an attempt to block nine Black students from
integrating Little Rock Central High School. That year, Amanda’s
parents sent her to a new public high school on the wealthier side of
town. Amanda recalls the choral instructor teaching that “Black
people could never pronounce the English language properly, because of
the construction of their mouths.” At the time, this didn’t faze
her: “I was a typical convertible-driving, self-centered débutante,
whizzing through life.” It wasn’t until she read James Baldwin
[https://www.newyorker.com/tag/james-baldwin], and married and moved
away, that she realized how bigoted her upbringing had been and
rebelled against the family.

After living in San Francisco, divorcing, and growing disenchanted
with the counterculture, Amanda returned to her family’s
conservative roots. She said of her brother, “We have a horrible
relationship, but I love him.” She added, “I support Trump, and am
thrilled my brother is doing what he’s doing.” Trump, she
believes, is the only thing standing between America and communism.

Ronnie Cameron followed a more conventional path. Blond, handsome, and
well mannered, he left a good impression on schoolmates, but he, too,
had a defiant streak. According to one of his best friends in high
school, Bobby Duffy, who later became the culture editor of the St.
Louis _Post-Dispatch_, Cameron was given a Ford Falcon at a young
age, and was a “very reckless driver.” Duffy said, “It was white
knuckles all the way—and if you told him to slow down he’d go even
faster. Just like Trump, when challenged he’d double down.”

Cameron’s father was a Republican, and by the time Ronnie enrolled
in college, at the University of Arkansas, he was one, too. Patrick
Hays, who joined the same fraternity as Cameron a few years later,
eventually became the mayor of North Little Rock; he recalls Cameron
telling him that he was the only Democrat to whom he’d contribute,
because the mayor dealt with mundane issues, such as collecting
garbage. The Cameron family was firmly anti-union, a sentiment that
was evident in a telegram that Ronnie’s father sent to President
Lyndon Johnson in 1968—the year that Ronnie joined the family
business. In the telegram, his father asked the President to intervene
in a railroad strike, warning that it could ruin the Arkansas poultry
industry. The strike, which lasted for five days, was settled the day
after the telegram was sent, but the battle lines were drawn.

Arkansas had an ugly, racist history with organized labor. In 1944,
legislators had proposed a so-called “right to work” amendment to
the state constitution, which would prohibit making union membership
or paying union dues a condition of employment. The Arkansas Farm
Bureau Federation had pushed for the change, in alliance with a group
calling itself the Christian American Association, which warned that
unless the amendment passed “white women and white men will be
forced into organizations with black African apes . . . whom they
will have to call ‘brother’ or lose their jobs.” A similar
drive in California failed that year, but in Arkansas, where Jim Crow
laws and other forms of voting-rights discrimination disenfranchised
many Black citizens, the amendment passed, insuring that poultry
workers, and other low-wage workers, would have little bargaining
power. North Carolina, where Mountaire has two poultry-processing
plants, is also a right-to-work state; Selbyville is the only location
where the company has a slaughter plant at which workers have
organized.

Mountaire prospered under Ted Cameron, but Amanda told me that he was
an alcoholic, which “was hard on everyone, but especially Ronnie.”
In 1978, five years after Ronnie succeeded his father as president,
Ted was found dead, in his swimming pool. “Either a person succumbs
to those hard family things or rises,” Amanda told me. “I think it
made Ronnie a more private person.” She added, “Ronnie’s a tough
cookie. He’s seen weaknesses in people, and just toughened up.”

Pratt Remmel, who grew up down the street from the Camerons, recalls
Amanda telling him bitterly, as an adult, that her brother “was in
control of the family money.” She told me that it had been her
choice “not to be part of it anymore.” Yet, she added, “the
company was _given_ to Ronnie.” The division of Mountaire’s
shares isn’t public, and messages to its corporate headquarters went
unanswered. A. Larry Ross, who is a spokesperson for evangelical
leaders, and who travels in Ronnie Cameron’s social circle,
forwarded my request for an interview, but there was no reply. A
well-informed source said that, in the past, Cameron had held at least
sixty-nine per cent of Mountaire’s shares. The company’s other
shareholders are believed to include a few top executives and family
members. Cameron’s son-in-law Kevin Garland is Mountaire’s C.E.O.

Cameron has been married three times. According to Amanda, his first
marriage, which started when he was quite young, didn’t last long.
He then married a former Breck Girl model, Sherrill Heerwagen. Duffy
told me that Heerwagen, with whom Cameron had two children, learned
that he was divorcing her only after her mother-in-law read about it
in the local paper. (Heerwagen died in 2018.) Cameron’s current
wife, Nina, is the daughter of a fundamentalist preacher and,
according to Amanda, is “very Biblically based.” Nina once
appeared on a Christian program, describing her effort to convert an
anti-religious patient in a nursing home. After Nina sensed a
“prompting of the Holy Spirit,” she flew the woman’s son in to
visit, and it melted the woman’s resistance to reading the Bible.
“She was seeing Christ in me,” Nina said. Cameron was raised an
Episcopalian, but he and his wife now attend one of Little Rock’s
biggest evangelical churches, Fellowship Bible. A hub of social
conservatism, it lists condemnation of homosexuality as among its key
beliefs, stating on its Web site
[http://www.fellowshiponline.com/about/our-beliefs/] that “Adam and
Eve were made to complement each other in a one-flesh union that
establishes the only normative pattern of sexual relations for men and
women.”

Six years ago, Duffy told me, he ran into Cameron at a memorial
service. They hadn’t seen each other in years, but, because they had
been close in school, Duffy felt that he could speak openly about his
life. “You know I’m gay, don’t you?” he said.

“Yes,” Cameron replied. “And I also know you’re going to
Hell.” He turned his back and walked away.

“I was stunned,” Duffy told me. “I think he became very devout,
and then, at some point, the devotion went to the right.”

Mountaire’s official creed says, “Good stewards of all the assets
that God has entrusted to us.” Cameron increasingly began using his
share of the company’s assets to influence American policy and
politics by funding socially conservative and business-friendly
candidates and advocacy groups. Low-level poultry workers have been
described as cogs in a perpetual-motion machine, but big-donor
politics can also be a kind of perpetual-motion machine—one that
recycles profits to perpetuate profits.

By 2001, Cameron had extended his sphere of influence beyond Arkansas
by becoming a director of one of the Washington area’s most
secretive and best-connected religious organizations: the Fellowship
Foundation, also known as the Family. Its public face is as the
presenter of the annual National Prayer Breakfast, but it has also
courted influential converts by offering dormitory-like housing for
members of Congress in a mansion near the Capitol, and by hosting
prayer sessions for V.I.P.s at another mansion, in northern Virginia.
The Fellowship Foundation has purported to be politically neutral, but
it was launched, in 1935, by a Seattle minister, Abraham Vereide, who
viewed the historic labor strikes spreading across the West Coast that
year as satanic. At prayer breakfasts, Vereide helped mobilize
powerful business leaders to crush the insurrection.

Defenders of the Fellowship Foundation argue that it does good by
disseminating the teachings of Christ to those in a position to make a
difference. But critics such as Jeff Sharlet, a journalist who has
written two books about the group, see its blurring of church and
state as a threat to democracy. Cameron has long been a major funder
of the group, typifying what Sharlet sees as its conflation of big
business and Christian nationalism. After Cameron, in 2009, retired
from the board, another Mountaire executive, W. Dabbs Cavin, became
the group’s president, serving until 2016.

“It’s like the Dead Poets Society—a club no one knows about that
is vital to its participants,” Eric Williams, the senior pastor of
North Congregational United Church of Christ, in Columbus, Ohio, told
me. A group that he led, Clergy Voice, has questioned the Fellowship
Foundation’s authenticity as a faith-based organization. “It’s
an old boys’ club,” he told me. “They think God favors the
powerful, and that Jesus came as a leader of the rich and powerful,
not of the powerless.” He added, “They should just own up to what
they are—the American Religion of Autocratic Capitalism.”

Hays, the former North Little Rock mayor, recalls that Cameron once
flew him to Washington, in a private jet, for the National Prayer
Breakfast. “Ronnie’s got a strong religious affiliation,
certainly—he’s a man of principle,” he said. But his
conservative views, Hays speculates, are also driven by his corporate
interests: “He’s business-oriented. It’s about free enterprise,
reductions of regulations.”

For tax purposes, the Fellowship Foundation must skirt politics. But
it has repeatedly stirred political controversy by cozying up to
members of Congress and by forming ties with antidemocratic world
leaders, including a Ugandan official who promoted the death penalty
for homosexuality. In 2015, the Center for Responsive Politics
revealed that the group had paid for the international travel of a
congressman and his wife, and that Cavin, the Mountaire executive
serving as the Fellowship Foundation’s president at the time, had
signed the expense forms. The congressman, Robert Aderholt, a
Republican from Alabama, insisted that the travel had been strictly
religious in purpose, but the payment provoked criticism because
Aderholt was the chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on
Agriculture, which has substantial influence over poultry policy.
In an interview
[https://www.opensecrets.org/news/2015/10/prayer-and-poultry-foundation-picked-up-tab-for-lawmakers-travel-with-support-from-chicken-producer/] with
the Web site OpenSecrets, Meredith McGehee, then the director of the
Campaign Legal Center, asked whether the Fellowship Foundation had
been used “as a conduit for a poultry company.”

In 2016, Cameron reportedly discussed taking over the Fellowship
Foundation. But some participants are wary of him, seeing him as an
overbearing, hyperpartisan Trump supporter who is politicizing the
group. Cameron’s business practices should also be of concern,
according to Warren Throckmorton, an evangelical Christian and a
psychology professor at Grove City College, in Pennsylvania, who has
written about the Fellowship Foundation for _Christianity Today._ He
said, “It matters how he treats his workers, because he’s making
money off the backs of these people and is donating it to Christian
causes—so there’s a moral connection.”

Cameron’s political activities extend well beyond the Fellowship
Foundation. In 2004, he set up a private foundation, the Jesus Fund.
Given the poverty of many Mountaire workers, the size of the fund is
striking: according to the most recently available federal tax
statement, the book value of the Jesus Fund’s assets in 2018 was
three hundred and twenty-seven million dollars. The sole donors were
Cameron and his company.

The gulf between Cameron’s spectacular wealth and his workers’
meagre circumstances echoes the findings of a recent study by two
Harvard economists, Anna Stansbury and Lawrence H. Summers, the
former economic adviser to President Bill Clinton and President Barack
Obama. In the paper, “The Declining Worker Power Hypothesis
[https://www.nber.org/papers/w27193],” Stansbury and Summers argue
that, in the past four decades, the single largest driver of income
inequality in America has been the decline in worker power, much of it
stemming from the collapse of membership in private-sector unions.
Since the fifties, the percentage of private-sector workers who belong
to unions has declined from thirty-three per cent to six per cent. As
a result, there has been an upward redistribution of income to
high-income executives, owners, and shareholders. The economists argue
that this decline in worker power, more than any other structural
change in the economy, accounts for nearly all the gains in the share
of income made by America’s wealthiest one per cent.

An outgrowth of this trend is the accumulation of enormous wealth and
political influence by private foundations. The Jesus Fund has the
same address as Cameron’s corporate office, in Little Rock,
Arkansas, and shares the same phone number. A Mountaire administrative
assistant who works in Cameron’s office also answers the phone for
the Jesus Fund. (Calls to the number were not returned.) I.R.S.
filings name Cameron and a former Mountaire employee as the fund’s
sole trustees. The fund sometimes makes relatively small grants to
secular charities—in 2015, it gave five thousand dollars to the
Arkansas Hospice Foundation—but it contributes overwhelmingly to
conservative Christian groups. In 2018, its only grant was an
eighteen-million-dollar donation to the National Christian Foundation,
in support of unidentified “organizations that esteem traditional,
Scripture-based values for government.” Cameron’s fund could have
donated to such organizations directly, but this approach kept the
ultimate recipients of its money from public view. The N.C.F. is a
“donor-advised fund,” and such groups redistribute charitable
donations from various sources to many causes, acting as a middleman
in a way that erases the fingerprints from any one gift. Donor-advised
funds have become increasingly controversial, in part because they
impede transparency. The N.C.F. has been ranked as America’s
eighth-largest charity, and in 2018 it redistributed $1.7 billion in
grants to some twenty-six thousand organizations, ranging from the Boy
Scouts to the Federalist Society. According to _Inside Philanthropy_,
the N.C.F. has probably become the single largest funder of the
anti-abortion movement. It is, for instance, a huge source of funding
for the Alliance Defending Freedom, a group that facilitates lawsuits
aiming to curb abortion and L.G.B.T.Q. rights, and also supports
limiting insurance coverage for contraceptives—a position that the
Supreme Court sided with in early July. The N.C.F. has supported
twenty-three organizations that the Southern Poverty Law Center
defines as hate groups, including the Alliance Defending Freedom.

In recent years, Cameron has also used his fortune to influence
electoral politics. In a 2011 speech, Charles Koch praised him for
being among a select group of backers who had given a million dollars
or more to the Koch brothers’ political war chest, which became
known as Freedom Partners. The next year, Freedom Partners gave a
million dollars to the National Right to Work Committee, whose head,
Mark Mix, had spoken at a Koch private-donor summit in 2010. In an
illustration of how such contributions serve donors’ interests,
Mix’s organization went on to represent Cruz Sosa, the Mountaire
employee who is currently challenging the union.

By 2014, Cameron’s name was appearing on lists of the nation’s
largest campaign contributors. He and his company spent $4.8 million
on Republican candidates and groups that year. He was the biggest
corporate donor to the Freedom Partners Action Fund, a Koch
political-action committee. When Mountaire gave three million dollars
to it, Cameron told Politico
[https://www.politico.com/story/2014/10/koch-donors-111846] that it
was “time to stand up and put my money where my mouth is.” He said
that he worried about attracting publicity—“I work very hard to
keep my name out of stuff”—but noted that he was even more worried
about the possibility “that my grandkids could be living under
Communism.” He told Bloomberg News
[https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2014-07-15/koch-founded-super-pac-draws-500-000-donor-in-first-days] that
“Obamacare is a disaster,” characterizing it as an effort “to
take over all of the private health-care services.” That year in
Arkansas, Cameron heavily supported the successful Senate campaign of
Tom Cotton, the archconservative former Army officer. And, according
to the _Wall Street Journal_, Cameron helped Republicans get around
campaign-finance restrictions in Maryland, where Larry Hogan, the
Republican candidate for governor, appeared to be in trouble. The
State of Maryland limits direct campaign contributions to candidates.
The Republican Governors Association, which can spend as much as it
wants, asked Mountaire for money. Late in the race, the company
donated a quarter of a million dollars. The R.G.A. claims that it
didn’t solicit the funds specifically for Maryland, but it went on
to spend lavishly there. Hogan won, and on his inauguration day he
blocked a proposal opposed by the poultry industry.In 2016, Cameron
made even bigger political contributions. After giving three million
dollars in support of Mike Huckabee’s Presidential campaign—its
largest donation—he gave two million dollars to Rebuilding America
Now, a pro-Trump super _pac_. He and Nina contributed an additional
$893,400 to Trump’s joint fund-raising committee. In the 2018
midterm elections, Cameron topped himself again; he and his company
gave more than $7.7 million to Republican candidates, campaigns, and
groups. His biggest gift went to a Koch-related organization pouring
contributions directly into House and Senate campaigns. Cameron’s
cash didn’t save the Republicans from big losses, but it did win him
an invitation to an Election Night party with Trump at the White
House, where guests were reportedly offered hot dogs and hamburgers,
but no chicken.

This year, Cameron and the Koch network have reportedly been at odds,
because Charles Koch, a libertarian, has declined to back Trump, whose
leadership he has criticized. The network is expected to spend heavily
in support of Republican House and Senate candidates but to stay out
of the Presidential race, as it did in 2016. Cameron, who remains a
strong Trump supporter, reportedly objected to the decision. He and
Mountaire have already donated more than a million dollars in support
of Trump’s reëlection, and about five million dollars to Republican
candidates and electoral groups.

Before the 2016 elections, according to a well-informed source,
members of Mountaire’s executive committee met. They complained that
the Obama Administration had too many regulations—and discussed how
much better it would be for the business if a Republican were
President. It appears that Cameron’s bet on Trump has paid off.

Mountaire’s Web site [https://mountaire.com/] says that it is now
the sixth-largest poultry company in America. By 2019, thanks in part
to lax antitrust enforcement in recent decades, the ten largest
poultry companies controlled an estimated eighty per cent of the
chicken market. Two current lawsuits question whether those gains were
achieved entirely legally. A sweeping class-action suit representing
chicken workers alleges that fourteen of the largest poultry
companies, including Mountaire, illegally conspired to hold down the
workers’ wages. And a suit filed by Maplevale Farms, which supplies
food to restaurants, accuses many of the same poultry companies,
including Mountaire, of having conspired since 2008 to fix chicken
prices. Last year, the Justice Department halted the discovery process
in the price-fixing suit so that it could launch its own investigation
into the matter—raising the prospect of criminal charges. In both
cases, the companies have denied the allegations.

Williams, the union spokesperson, called Mountaire’s culture
particularly “brutal.” In 2010, the company settled a lawsuit in
which it was accused of racial discrimination and retaliation. Three
years later, it settled a class-action suit accusing it of charging
workers for necessary protective clothing and of failing to pay them
for the time spent putting it on; Mountaire denied the allegations but
agreed to pay about eight million dollars. The same year, the company
paid a fine of nearly fifty thousand dollars to resolve a retaliation
case brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. At a
Mountaire poultry plant in North Carolina, supervisors had allegedly
discriminated against Haitian workers, denying them bathroom breaks,
throwing chicken parts at them, and then firing a translator for
complaining about this behavior.

Between 2010 and 2016, Mountaire had twice the number
of _osha_ violations per thousand workers as Tyson—a company with
a workforce twelve times bigger. Since 2001, Mountaire has been
responsible for a series of environmental and workplace violations in
Delaware. The company currently stands accused of letting
chicken-plant waste pollute the well water of at least eight hundred
residents living near its plant in Millsboro, Delaware. Mountaire and
state authorities reached a tentative settlement agreement, but the
court hasn’t yet accepted it, and lawyers representing some of the
affected residents are pursuing a class-action suit.

George Farah, a lawyer representing the poultry workers who are
accusing Mountaire of fixing wages, told me that “it’s remarkable
that someone committed to Christianity” would run a company the way
Cameron has. “I think Jesus would have wanted the workers at
Mountaire to be compensated more effectively and treated with more
dignity,” Farah added. “But there’s a history in the poultry
world where, every time a voice has stood up for the workers,
they’ve been displaced by an even more vulnerable group.”

At the Oasis truck stop, the Mountaire employee expressed disgust
that, in the middle of a pandemic, she might be replaced by someone
paid even worse—a worker who had likely come from a foreign land to
seek opportunity. “I’m telling you, Donald Trump wants to make
this a Third World country,” she said. “Treat them like slave
dogs. They come to the Land of the Free—but, honey, it isn’t free
anymore.” 

Jane Mayer [https://www.newyorker.com/contributors/jane-mayer], The
New Yorker’s chief Washington correspondent, is the author of
“Dark Money
[https://www.amazon.com/Dark-Money-History-Billionaires-Radical/dp/0307947904?ots=1&tag=thneyo0f-20&linkCode=w50].”

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