In mid-January, more than 1,800 workers at a Cargill-owned beef plant in Plainview, Texas learned that their plant would close just two weeks later, all because there simply aren’t enough cattle to keep the plant open.
The US Department of Agriculture says that the nation’s cattle herd shrunk by 2 percent in 2012, and the herd is now at its lowest levels since 1952. The cattle shortage is being driven by a severe, two-year drought that has dried up soil and wilted crops throughout America’s heartland and affected more than 80% of our agricultural land. As a result, there’s less corn, alfalfa, and hay available for feed.
So far, the drought has hit the beef industry the hardest, because cattle are typically raised in the states hardest hit by the drought. Unfortunately, if nothing changes there’s likely to be a ripple effect through the pork and poultry industries as well as the beef industry, threatening jobs of meatpacking and poultry workers, jeopardizing the livelihood of farmers who can’t afford to feed cattle, increasing prices at grocery stores across the country, and eroding consumer demand for beef – which in turn threatens even more jobs. The unfortunate reality is that this drought affects people across all industries – right down to butchers working in grocery stores thousands of miles away from the nearest feed lot.
Compounding the problem is the ethanol mandate – part of the 2007 Energy Act which requires billions of gallons of corn-based ethanol be mixed into the US gasoline supply. Because so much of America’s corn crop must go to fuel, it exacerbates the scarcity of corn already caused by the drought. The high demand for corn and its low supply means the cost of corn for feed is extraordinarily high. The situation makes it difficult and barely profitable to raise cattle and bring them to market in drought-ravaged states like Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska and Kansas.
Advocacy work on behalf of UFCW members at the federal level has already begun. Our union will be working with the USDA and other agencies to consider meatpacking workers along with farmers and ranchers in its drought relief programs.
Elsa Gordillo is a steward at Cargill Meat Solutions in Schuyler, Nebraska and a member of UFCW Local 293. She, along with dozens of other UFCW stewards and staff attended a USDA regional workshop with USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack to discuss the agency’s drought recovery efforts held in Omaha at the end of last year. “We went to the USDA meeting so they could hear from UFCW members and meat packing workers. Everyone left knowing that people who work in plants are suffering from this drought too, and that our jobs and in many cases, our entire communities are at risk of plant closures. When the USDA or Congress takes action to help farmers and ranchers, they should also consider workers in our industry who are also at risk.”
UFCW members will also be working to advocate for meatpacking workers by educating members of Congress about how the drought, the ethanol mandate, the price of corn, and the cattle shortage hurt the livelihoods of meatpacking workers.
To learn more about UFCW’s food workers and meatpackers, visit http://www.ufcw.org/industries/fairnessforfoodworkers/