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
July 13, 2020
Ronald Cameron, the head of Mountaire, which critics call a “brutal” employer, is one of Trump’s top donors.Illustration by Cleon Peterson
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’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—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, 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. MORE