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Meat industry questions expose flawed campaign financing

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Despite what you might think, America’s broken campaign finance system is about more than expensive ads flooding your screen and glossy mailers clogging your mailbox. The outsized role of money in politics has a real-world impact, with elected officials too often prioritizing the interests of a wealthy donor class and leaving many people behind.

Senators Warren and Booker have rightly called for answers from the meat packing heads of Tysons, Smithfield, JBS and Cargill, on their duplicitousness with ensuring the nation’s food supply, worker safety and public health. The senators’ letter points to the problems within our broken political system that allows these CEOs to write big campaign checks in order to have their profits protected, while drowning out the voices of the front-line workers whose lives are at risk — and who cannot afford thousands of dollars in political contributions.

“All the while you put thousands of your workers in harm’s way to maintain production, dramatically increased prices for U.S. consumers, and successfully lobbied the President to sign an executive order designating your plants as critical infrastructure that allowed them to continue operating in an unsafe fashion,” the letter states.

From North Carolina to South Dakota, from Nebraska to Missouri, and from Iowa to Colorado, workers at meat processing plants—owned by just a few multi-national corporations, like Tyson Foods—have become acutely vulnerable to infection. And plant outbreaks have rippled through surrounding communities, too. As the Associated Press reported, “of the 15 U.S. counties with the highest per-capita infection rates between April 28 and May 5, all are homes to meat processing plants or state prisons.”

Workers in many plants complained that safety measures have been inadequate: their employers have failed to provide safety gear, slow down line speeds to implement social distancing, or even inform workers when their colleagues tested positive or died. But they faced pressure to keep showing up, particularly since most of these workers don’t have paid sick days.

It was against this backdrop that President Trump declared last month that “we’re working with Tyson” and pledged to sign an executive order that would “solve any liability problems” for the company.

Trump’s subsequent order declared meat-processing plants “critical infrastructure” in an effort to keep them open—overriding the authority of state and local governments to close unsafe facilities, and helping to protect  the companies from accountability if they negligently fail to keep workers and communities safe.

It is perhaps no surprise that Tyson Foods chairman John Tyson has given over $90,000 to Trump’s party since 2017. Other top industry executives have given millions more. Ronnie Cameron, the CEO of poultry processor Mountaire Farms, gave $2 million to a pro-Trump super PAC in 2016, $5 million to super PACs aligned with party leaders in the House and Senate, and $4.5 million to the Koch network super PAC AFP Action. In April, the White House announced Cameron won a spot on one of Trump’s “Great American Economic Revival Industry Groups.”

Contributions like those apparently helped buy an audience with the president—and likely helped the industry’s executives get what they wanted.

The White House developed Trump’s order in consultation with industry executives, but line workers have the most at stake. At least 10,000 COVID-19 cases have been tied to outbreaks at meatpacking plants, and at least 45 workers have died, according to a USA Today analysis.

Yet it doesn’t appear that the White House consulted with workers—or workplace safety experts—before issuing the order. That might be because workers in the meat processing industry can’t afford big political contributions like industry executives can: line workers in the industry are paid, on average, less than $14 per hour.

A review of campaign finance records shows that Tyson Foods workers (other than executives or board members) who have made contributions via ActBlue or WinRed this election cycle gave an average donation of just $14, far less than John Tyson’s tens of thousands. Mountaire Farms’ CEO has personally given more than 1,500 times as much this election cycle as all other non-executive Mountaire workers combined.

The threat of workers holding a company accountable can deter companies from creating an unreasonably dangerous work environment. But if, as President Trump promised, his order renders meat processors immune from liability, companies may have little incentive to protect worker and community safety.

Similar dynamics are likely to play out in the ongoing, broader fight over corporate immunity, which powerful special interests across industries are now pushing Congress and the Trump administration to further expand.

For years, a smaller and smaller share of very wealthy donors has come to fund a larger and larger share of our elections, and we know that those donors’ policy priorities often bear little to no resemblance to the top issues facing working families.

The coronavirus crisis has exposed a number of existing inequalities, including the wide and growing gap between those who fund officeholders’ campaigns and those whom officeholders are supposed to represent. When the influential donor base increasingly looks nothing like the constituent base, and when those populations most impacted by government action or inaction can’t have their voices heard, serious reform is required.

Fortunately, a number of structural reforms have been proposed that would begin to narrow that gap by elevating the voices of small-dollar donors and limiting the influence of money over our political system.  Many of those are included in H.R. 1, the “For the People Act,” passed by the House last year.

There’s no single, discrete solution, as these problems are the product of years of misguided court decisions, congressional inaction, and regulatory intransigence. But large problems demand large solutions—and the enormity of the problem has never been clearer than it is in the present crisis.

Authors: Brendan Fischer directs the Campaign Legal Center’s federal reform team, Maggie Christ is a money-in-politics research at CLC.

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