A Positive Step from Tyson but Workers Wait to Celebrate

A worker at a poultry factory

For too long poultry workers employed by Tyson have endured harsh working conditions and grave worker violations. After years of standing up to the industry giant, the workers received welcome news this week. On Wendesday, Tyson announced a number of changes that aim to improve the pay, benefits, and work conditions for their employees across the country—a possible step in the right direction following years of advocacy and pressure from UUSC’s partner, Northwest Arkansas Worker Justice Center (NWAWJC), in collaboration with UUSC, Oxfam America, and a broad coalition of allies.

The changes, which will start being implemented later this year, are intended to improve work conditions for Tyson’s more than 97,000 employees in the United States who work in food plants in 24 states across the country. In particular, the changes are designed to ensure that poultry workers are given a voice in the company, and that they benefit from improved safety, compensation, and transparency—all things the poultry workers care deeply about, and have been fighting for, for years. In the words of Magaly Licolli, the Executive Director of NWAWJC, “Tyson’s new commitments mean a lot for all poultry workers. Every day we hear horrible stories of what happens inside poultry plants, and these commitments give poultry workers hope for the future of their campaign to continue pushing other poultry companies to follow. We’ll still encourage workers to keep monitoring these changes and to tell us what’s going on inside the plants. Definitely, this is a new phase of the campaign. It is not the end, but the continuation of the fight to ensure these changes are real for all Tyson’s processing workers.”

A Step in the Right Direction, but More Work to be Done

While NWAWJC and its allies recognize that the announcement of these changes may be a first step in the right direction, they also emphasize that the struggle is not over. Magaly Licolli emphasizes, “Given the corporation’s history of serious health and safety violations and its lack of accountability to workers’ rights, NWAWJC will be ready to hold Tyson accountable to their commitments to workers’ rights the moment they waiver.” It is now time to stand with NWAWJC and ramp up the pressure on Tyson to ensure that these changes are implemented and that conditions for workers are improved as a result.

Tyson, headquartered in Springdale, Arkansas, is the largest poultry company in the country, with 30% of its estimated $37 billion in annual sales coming from its chicken products. However, the profits have come at a high cost born by the low-wage men and women they employ who have reported significant worker rights violations over the years. As documented in a 2016 report of working conditions in Arkansas’s poultry plants produced by NWAWJC, with support from UUSC, The Food Labor Research Center, and the University of California Santa Cruz, poultry workers in the state faced a wide range of dangerous and difficult working conditions. Of the poultry workers surveyed for the report:

  • 62% had experienced wage theft
  • 91% did not have access to earned sick leave
  • 51% reported experiencing discrimination
  • 44% reported experiencing verbal or sexual harassment

UUSC’s researcher, Amber Moulton noted, “NWAWJC’s report, based on a survey of 500 Arkansas poultry workers, provides hard evidence of discrimination, inhumane and unsafe working conditions, and unlawful wage and hour violations. We are thrilled that the report has contributed to this important step by Tyson and hope to see continued improvements in the future.”

A series of factors appears to have contributed to this change from Tyson, which had otherwise resisted efforts to improve working conditions. In particular, in December 2016, Tyson underwent a shakeup of their leadership which resulted in Tom Hayes being named Tyson’s new CEO. It appears that this change of leadership reflected the pressure that Tyson was feeling as a result of NWAWJC’s advocacy, and the advocacy of their allies, including UUSC’s state-wide poultry report.

UUSC has partnered with NWAWJC, through support for their research report and advocacy conducted outside Tyson’s February 2016 shareholder meeting, in order to support their efforts to organize the workers in Arkansas’ poultry industry, many of whom are low-wage Latinx and Marshallese workers. UUSC is proud to stand with NWAWJC in advocating for improved conditions at Tyson. As Licolli added, “UUSC has been a key partner in this campaign, they’ve been supporting the work of the Center for several years now, and we appreciate all the efforts they’ve made to support the poultry campaign.”

With May Day quickly approaching, there are a number of local actions taking place, that will provide an opportunity to advocate for worker rights. Food Chain Workers Alliance (FCWA), is helping to organize a national general strike, in which NWAWJC and UUSC partner, Rural Community Workers Alliance, will be participating. For more information on how you can participate visit the May 1 general strike website.

Rights Reading

Our weekly roundup of what we’re reading: a few select articles from the front lines of human rights that we don’t want you to miss. This week we are following the launch of “Beyond the Moment: Uniting Movements from April 4 to May Day.

 April 4, 2017 marks both the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic “Beyond Vietnam” speech and his assassination one year later. Beyond the Moment is a campaign organized by a coalition of more than 50 grassroots organizations called “The Majority,” which includes Fight for $15, NAACP, Mijente, Black Youth Project, the Indigenous Environmental Network, and many others. BTM honors the 50th anniversary of King historic speech by bringing diverse movements together in an intersectional struggle for economic, racial, and transnational justice—all leading up to mass mobilizations less than a month later on “May Day” or International Workers Day, May 1.

When Martin Luther King Came Out Against Vietnam, New York Times, April 4, 2017

“I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today — my own government.”

Tuesday marked the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s landmark speech, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence,” in which he first spoke publicly against the war in Vietnam. In this article, David J. Garrow provides an in-depth look at the circumstances surrounding the speech, including the Times’ own condemnation.

While King’s conscience had been tormented for years by the U.S. actions in Southeast Asia, he was under great pressure to remain silent. Some civil rights activists worried that the speech would alienate the Johnson administration (which it did). Even liberal allies and publications that had been sympathetic to civil rights blanched at Dr. King’s powerful denunciation of imperialism and militarism.

King knew that his speech would invite controversy, but he delivered it anyway, recognizing that his role in speaking truth to power, even – or perhaps especially – when that truth is difficult to hear. As King is quoted in this article, “[By speaking out,] I was politically unwise but morally wise.”

Fifty years later, when the U.S. is currently trying to ban refugees from Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Libya, and other countries where its own policies have fueled conflicts and led to civilian casualties that drive forced displacement, Dr. King’s decision to “break silence” – like his message that injustice at home is inseparable from injustice abroad – could scarcely be more relevant.

MLK’s Revolutionary Speech, “Beyond Vietnam,” Turned 50. Here’s How It’s Relevant to Our Current Crazy, Colorlines, April 4, 2017

One of the criticisms leveled against King following the speech was that, supposedly, a civil rights leader had no business commenting on international events. What did the struggle for Black equality in the United States have to do with the war in Vietnam? From the pulpit of the Riverside Church in Manhattan, however, Dr. King affirmed – in words of heartbreaking poignancy – that the freedom struggle in the United States, in fact, had everything to do with the struggle against war, exploitation, and imperialism overseas. King warned against the deadly union of the “giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism,” and declared that the only solution was a “genuine revolution of values” that would oppose all three. His belief in the interdependence of all justice struggles foreshadows the concept of intersectionality.

“King knew that the war and the Civil Rights Movement were part of a common struggle against imperialism, colonization, and capitalism.”

The radicalism of this message has often been obscured by anodyne popular depictions of King as a peacemaker and bridge-builder. Here, Colorlines’ Editorial Director Akiba Solomon interviews Rev. Osagyefo Sekou, a visiting scholar at the Martin Luther King Papers at Stanford University and a key figure in the Black Lives Matter Movement.

Rev. Sekou aims to recover the image of King as someone who was also fiercely committed to struggles for economic justice, transnational freedom, and racial liberation. As he says in this interview, “there are three pillars of the radical gospel of Martin Luther King Jr. that we should not allow holiday remembrances to Whitewash: democratic socialism, transnational anti-imperialism, and Black prophetic Christianity.”

Meet the New Social Change Coalition: ‘The Majority’, The Nation, March 31, 2017

In this article, Collier Meyerson provides an introduction to and overview of Beyond the Moment, an exciting new, intersectional campaign launched by a broad coalition of grassroots organizations to respond to a “minority whose values are rooted in white supremacy, division, and hatred.”

The organizations making up The Majority, the coalition behind Beyond the Moment run the gamut of progressive movements from the fight for fair wages to the struggle to protect indigenous land to resisting deportation and the criminalization of communities of color. “It’s also part of a long-term strategy to build a world where people can live in dignity and where we can situate people at the margins to have power,” said Patrisse Cullors, one of the three founders of BLM. Just as Dr. King’s vision of the beloved community carried him from the civil rights struggle in the Jim Crow South and the Poor People’s Campaign, to solidarity actions with the sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis, The Majority emphasizes that all struggles for justice are interlinked.

The “Beyond the Moment” approach is an intentional change from more siloed, “issue-oriented” advocacy campaigns of the past. It is grounded in the belief that our diverse movements for justice and equality will either stand or fall together, and that protection or sanctuary for one community means little until all of us can live with dignity and freedom. As Mijente organizer Marisa Franco states, “We can’t say, ‘hey don’t let ICE on your campus’ and not call out over-policing of people of color on college campuses. We can’t celebrate local police who might consider not working with ICE but who over-police and won’t make those same proclamations for other communities of color.”

Other articles highlighting “Beyond the Moment” we recommend:

Executive Order on Climate Policy Rolls Back Protections

After months of rumors, Trump released his “Energy Independence” Executive Order yesterday, directing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to begin rolling back environmental protections and policies, including President Obama’s Clean Power Plan. Under the Order, federal agencies are instructed to review “burdensome” regulations that prohibit the development of domestic energy production, particularly oil, coal, natural gas, and nuclear energy; it rescinds and revokes the Obama administration’s actions on energy and climate change; and it requires the head of the EPA to re-write the Clean Power Plan.

Although the order does not mention the Paris Agreement specifically, this intentional weakening of the Clean Power Plan—which provided a roadmap for how the nation would meet its commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 26-28%—will directly impact U.S. compliance with the Paris Agreement targets.

Additionally, the order instructs the Secretary of the Interior to take immediate steps to lift all moratoria on federal coal leasing, placing an imminent threat to our public lands.

Along with his earlier order to weaken the Clean Water Rule, his proposal to slash EPA funding and his attempts to roll back clean car standards, Trump’s actions fundamentally violate the rights of U.S. citizens to live in a safe and clean environment and destroys the sanctity between people and their natural surroundings. Our fossil-fuel driven, capitalist system has far reaching effects, it is changing our entire global atmosphere to the extent that it is forcibly displacing people from their lands and from their homes. UUSC strongly opposes any actions that do not work to combat the effects of climate change.

This executive order is shortsighted and irresponsible. UUSC, together with our partners, will take public action by applying political pressure on the White House at every possible turn. Join us at the People’s Climate March in Washington, D.C. on April 29 to demand environmental justice and climate action.

Rights Reading

Our weekly roundup of what we’re reading includes a few select articles from the front lines of human rights that we don’t want you to miss. This week we are featuring the amazing work our partners are doing on climate justice, protecting refugees, and improving working conditions in the food industry!

Fear stalks migrants huddled along Hungary’s border, Karen McVeigh, The Guardian, March 18, 2017

photo of refugees behind a fence

Asylum-seekers, many who are Syrian refugees and children fleeing extreme violence and war, face additional hurdles in Hungary, which include a 108-mile electric fence and the construction of detention camps along the border. The president of Hungary, János Áder, approved the construction of these detention camps and is implementing a new policy that allows officers to deport any asylum-seekers back to Serbia, where many have already been stuck since last year.

Anti-refugee sentiment in Hungary is on the rise due to politicians like Áder spreading hateful rhetoric and fear, which has recently erupted into violence. There are allegations and investigations about “widespread and systematic violence by police after reporting it had treated 106 migrants, including 22 minors, for injuries caused by beatings, dog bites, and pepper spraying over the last year.”

Hungarian Helsinki Committee (HHC), a UUSC partner, has also documented similar reports of violence. A lawyer spoke to those living in an open camp and reported that people are afraid of and preparing for these new and inhumane policies, and HHC is calling for an investigation into these incidences.

Read more about our work with HHC and the Syrian refugee crisis here.

Catherine Flowers brings civil rights to the fight for environmental justice, Grist, March 2017

“Catherine is a shining example of the power individuals have to make a measurable difference by educating, advocating, and acting on environmental issues.” – Al Gore

Grist, a reader-supported publication focused on climate, sustainability, and social justice, recently announced their top 50 “Fixers,” – innovators who are making headway on climate-related issues. Catherine Flowers, director and founder of Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise Community Development Corporation (ACRE), a UUSC partner, was chosen as a Fixer by Al Gore. She mentions that her work was inspired by her parents, who fought for civil rights. “Even today, people share stories about my parents’ acts of kindness or help, and I feel it’s my duty to carry on their work.”

Flowers is continuing their legacy by advocating for poor and minority residents and working on water and sanitation issues in Lowndes County, Alabama. She is known as “the Erin Brokovich of Sewage.”

Click here to read more about UUSC’s work with ACRE!

Big Strike Brewing Against Trump: Coalition of More Than 300,000 Food Workers to Join May Day Showdown, Sarah Lazare, AlterNet, March 22, 2017

Over 300,000 food workers – farmers, cooks, servers, manufacturers, and more – are joining a nationwide strike on May 1, 2017, which is International Worker’s Day. This strike was issued by Food Chain Workers Alliance (FCWA), a UUSC partner, and Service Employees International Union United Service Workers West (SEIU USWW). Other organizations, unions, and movements are also participating, including Movimiento Cosecha, National Domestic Workers Alliance, and Black Livers Matter Movement.

Jose Oliva, Co-Director of FCWA understands that these types of strikes are risky, especially for food workers who are already vulnerable and underpaid. Oliva says, “The reality is that if folks don’t take the risk, we know what the consequences will be…The only thing we can do is to demonstrate our power through the economic reality we live in.” There will undoubtedly be some retaliation and FCWA and others are starting a strike fund and organizing legal support in preparation.

Learn more about our longstanding work with FCWA and worker’s rights here.

A Win for Rights, But the Struggle Goes On

 

These rulings, like those that blocked the first order, come as a great relief to refugees, immigrants, Muslim Americans, and everyone who cares about our country’s values of individual rights and equal treatment.

Two key rulings by federal judges in Hawaii and Maryland last week have temporarily halted the implementation of the President’s second attempt at a “travel ban”—widely referred to as the Muslim Ban 2.0. These rulings, like those that blocked the first order, come as a great relief to refugees, immigrants, Muslim Americans, and everyone who cares about our country’s values of individual rights and equal treatment.

Under these rulings, refugees in the United States will be able to reunite with their family members without fear of being denied a visa purely because of their nationality, people who have applied for third-country refugee processing in Costa Rica will no longer be stranded in limbo, and some refugee children in Central America who have already spent months or longer waiting in deadly conditions will again board flights to safety.

Too close for comfort

As crucial as these rulings were, however, they should never have been the only thing standing between people and the loss of their rights. The first ruling came down only a few hours before the ban was set to go into effect. Refugees, visa applicants, and nationals of six Muslim-majority countries were left staring down a precipice of possible family separation and years of processing delays up until the last minute. This was far too close a call.

Neither ruling offers permanent relief from these fears. They are both temporary restraining orders and could be lifted on appeal. The administration has already made clear its intent to fight the rulings, and Trump has suggested that he may return to the, even more discriminatory, version of the first order.

Moreover, the ban, even if permanently blocked, has already had a chilling effect on the lives and prospects of refugees. Since January, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has stopped conducting new interviews with child refugees applying for the Central American Minors program (CAM), even though the executive orders were supposedly on hold. Asylum-seekers from Africa and the Middle East have been fleeing the United States for Canada in significant numbers, enduring a frigid and dangerous journey on their way, because of the U.S. government’s undisguised hostility to their rights. And none of these court rulings will affect the administration’s other executive orders and implementation guidelines that continue to target immigrants and asylum-seekers.

What did the courts decide?

In many ways, the refugee ban has been foiled so far because of the President’s own rhetoric. The courts did not have to look hard for evidence of discriminatory intent for the actions of this administration. In fact, they relied on the President’s campaign statements that he would seek “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” and that “Islam hates us.” Both cited Trump’s comments in interviews that he only stopped referring to a Muslim ban in public because “[p]eople were so upset when I used the word Muslim” that he decided to “talk […] territory instead of Muslim.” Further, administration officials have been quoted stating that the second executive order was meant to accomplish the same purpose as the first, even as the first was under a nationwide injunction because of its discriminatory purpose.

The second version of the order claims it does not discriminate. Instead, it offers a “national security” rationale for the ban (one that did not appear anywhere in the text of the first version), and which administration officials were not able to supply when asked for it at trial. These are strong indicators that the national security argument was a mere pretext. In fact, Maryland District Court Judge Theodore Chuang found that national security was “not the primary purpose for the travel ban.”

The administration claimed that people who come from six conflict-ravaged nations—Iran, Libya, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen—pose a greater terror risk than others. (They make no mention of the role the United States itself has recently played in conflicts in more than one of these countries.) The administration’s argument is not only belied by a recent DHS report which found that country of origin has little determination on whether someone is likely to commit violence. It is also a betrayal of our national promise, violating one of our most important social values: that people should not be judged based on where they come from, but rather as individuals with worth and dignity.

One order down – an entire political agenda to go

The executive orders are so extreme that they may not survive the legal challenges ahead. However, the courts on their own will not be able to forestall every piece of a larger xenophobic agenda. There are signs, for instance, that the administration could still suspend the refugee program even if the rest of the executive order is not allowed to stand. The Maryland court, for one, while blocking portions of the executive order, did not extend its ruling to cover the refugee program. This choice is difficult to understand, given that the assault on the program was motivated by the same anti-Muslim bias (nearly half of refugees currently entering the United States are Muslim, and the vast majority coming from the same Muslim-majority countries targeted in the order).

UUSC will remain vigilant in the months ahead and pick up the work of resistance wherever other remedies are insufficient. Our organization was born out of the struggles of refugees and victims of persecution during World War II and we will continue to speak out against the politics of hate and all efforts to unwind the moral consensus that has emerged since those years. UUSC is in solidarity with all marginalized communities as we struggle for greater recognition of human rights.

Rights Reading

Our weekly roundup of what we’re reading includes a few select articles from the front lines of human rights that we don’t want you to miss. This week’s catch up on the recent rulings on Trump’s travel bans, human rights violations in Burma (Myanmar), and immigration in the United States.

Two Federal Judges Rule Against Trump’s Latest Travel Ban, Alexander Burns, The New York Times, March 15, 2017

 “This is a great day for democracy, religious and human rights. I am very pleased that the processing of my mother-in-law’s paperwork will not stop now but more importantly that this Muslim ban will not separate families and loved ones just because they happen to be from the six countries.” -Mr. Elshikh

Two federal judges, from Hawaii and Maryland, blocked the Trump Administration’s revised travel ban earlier this week. This is the second setback since Trump issued the new executive order banning travel from certain Muslim-majority countries. The first block was from a federal court in Seattle. The federal judges both argued that the travel ban was discriminatory and based on religion, making it unconstitutional. In addition, the lawsuits mention that the executive order harms the operations of various organizations, schools, and hospitals overseas.

Learn more about the effects these executive orders are having on immigrant families in our blog, DHS Memos Threaten Immigrants’ Rights, Families, and Safety.

Myanmar must ‘allow Rohingya to leave camps’, Al Jazeera, March 16, 2017

Former U.N. Secretary, General Kofi Annan, was appointed to lead a commission by Burma’s (Myanmar) current de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi to investigate tensions between Buddhists and Muslims in the country. The commission released a report stating that Burma must close internally displaced persons (IDP) camps that have been housing and trapping thousands of Rohingya, Burma’s Muslim minority, for the past five years. The Rohingya are not recognized citizens and are denied basic rights, including healthcare, education, and often, humanitarian aid. The report also recommends that the U.N. to run an independent investigation into the ongoing violence and persecution of that has been taking place over decades.

Today, UUSC President and CEO Tom Andrews, along with other human rights leaders, gave testimony on the humanitarian situation in Burma. Click here to watch the hearing and join our call for a Commission of Inquiry at uusc.org/truthforrohingya.

Donald Trump’s Crackdown On Undocumented Immigrants Is Silencing Exploited Workers, Dave Jamieson, Huffington Post, March 8, 2017

The Trump administration’s crackdown on undocumented immigrants may have opposite consequences than intended. Christopher Williams, a lawyer who works closely with undocumented immigrants states, “I honestly think it’s creating an incentive to hire more undocumented workers, because now they’re even more vulnerable to being exploited.”

In light of the recent raids, some workers are even denying back pay, afraid of providing their home addresses for fear of deportation. The increase in raids and deportations are creating unsafe working environments to an already vulnerable population.