In New Video, Durbin Speaks With UFCW President About Protecting Workers During The COVID-19 Pandemic

SPRINGFIELD – U.S. Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL), a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, spoke with Marc Perrone, President of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) International Union, about protecting the health and safety of workers throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.  In the video, Durbin and Mr. Perrone discussed the need for clear, comprehensive, and enforceable federal standards, through the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), for workplace safety across the country so companies understand what steps need to be taken to protect their employees and customers and can meet those steps responsibly.  They also discussed Republican proposals to give corporations liability immunity when workers are forced to work in unsafe conditions. 

“I am thankful for President Perrone’s leadership at the UFCW and his continued efforts to protect the health and safety of his members throughout this public health crisis,” Durbin said.  “I will continue fighting alongside advocates like President Perrone so that our essential workers have the PPE and testing that they need, as well as a clear and coherent federal workplace safety standard to properly deal with the threat of COVID-19.”

“America’s brave meatpacking workers are putting their lives on the line every day, with dozens dying and over 10,000 infected, to make sure millions of Americans have the food they need during this deadly outbreak,” said UFCW International President Marc Perrone. “UFCW is grateful to Senator Durbin for being a powerful champion for these essential workers in Illinois and across the country.  We need all of our elected leaders to stand up for these American workers and ensure that they have the rapid testing, strong PPE, and paid sick leave they need to continue doing these incredibly important jobs.”

The Facebook video of Durbin’s conversation with Mr. Perrone is available here.

Footage of Durbin’s conversation with Mr. Perrone is available here for TV Stations.

The House-passed Heroes Act establishes a $200 billion Heroes’ fund to ensure that essential workers receive hazard pay.  The bill also requires OSHA to issue a strong, enforceable standard within seven days to require all workplaces to develop and implement infection control plans based on CDC expertise, and prevents employers from retaliating against workers who report infection control problems.

Durbin is a cosponsor of the PAID Leave Act, which would ensure all workers can take 14 days of paid sick leave and 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave during the COVID-19 crisis.

UFCW represents more than 1.3 million workers, primarily in the retail and meatpacking, food processing, and poultry industries. The UFCW protects the rights of workers and strengthens America’s middle class by fighting for health care reform, living wages, retirement security, safe working conditions, and the right to unionize.

A transcript of Durbin and Mr. Perrone’s conversation is below:

Senator Dick Durbin: Great to get together with Marc Perrone. He’s the President of the United Food and Commercial Workers, a union which I belonged to in several different ways as I grew up in East St. Louis, Illinois. I wanted to talk to him today because his workers are the ones who are on the firing line when it comes to this COVID-19 virus.

Marc, by way of background, I started off as a kid working at Hunter Packing Company in East St. Louis, Illinois, in the early 1960’s, and I was a member of the AMC & BW of GNA, which would be the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workers of Greater North America. I loved the job because it paid $3.65 an hour in the early 60s, which was a pretty good wage and regular work. As you know, it was hard work too. It was hot and dirty and dangerous. But I learned right away what it meant to go to work every day with a tough job to make a living. There were lessons there I never forgot. I worked there for about twelve months. Along the way, I was also a bag boy at A&P grocery store, which made me a member of the Retail Clerks Union. Both of the unions I just mentioned, I think were really a part of UFCW in its formation. That’s my background. Why don’t you tell folks a little bit about your union and your own experience in getting into it?

Marc Perrone, UFCW President: Well, you pretty much described it - retail clerks, Amalgamated Butchers Workmen of America. The fact of the matter is our union is an amalgamation of workers, and they cover retail clerks, retail meat cutters, packing house workers – the job that you did – as well as pharmacies, non-food retail, we also have food processing, which processes food like Campbell’s soup. We represent nursing homes as well as hospitals as well. We cover a wide gambit. We have insurance workers and the old boot and shoe workers that were prevalent in that area of the country that you lived in, if you recall that.

I came to work in the food stores at a company called JW Weingarten’s. It was a regional chain. I worked there for about a year until I ultimately kind of had a little bit of a run-in with one of my assistant managers. I then moved from that company over to the Kroger Company, which still exists today. Now Weingarten’s does not but Kroger company does exist today. And I worked there until I ultimately had a little bit of a problem. If you work in retail food, Senator, and you know this as well as I do because you worked there… you never get a weekend off, right?

Durbin: It’s true.

Perrone: You never get a weekend off. You never get a holiday off. And if you want to go out on a date, if you’re a young kid, there’s really only one way to do that in the regional food industry, and that’s quit.

So I had told a store manager that, you know, I was giving my two week notice on a Wednesday. So that the two weeks from that point, I was going to have a date on that weekend. However, when that two weeks rolled by, that manager told me that I had to work that weekend. And I looked at him and I said, “Look, Mr. Thompson, I’m not going to work this weekend.” And so he said, “Oh, yes you are.”  And I said, “No. I’m not.” And so I didn’t. The following week, when I went back to get my paycheck, there was no check there for me. The head checker, Kay Schratz, She told me, she said, “Marc, I’m sorry but Mr. Thompson says he’s not going to pay you until you talk to him.” So I went in the back room, and I talked to him. He said, “I’m not going to pay you.” And I said “Look, I’m going to call my union representative Cecil Casey to make sure that I do get paid.” And I did, right? Now, not every company or every store has a manager that’s sort of, doesn’t treat people properly. We all know that, right? However, it’s those interesting times when you do have those people who don’t treat you like you should be treated, and that’s when you need someone that represents you. I went to work at another company called Safeway, which we still have today. In fact, they operate here in the D.C. area. And as I went to work for them, I ran into a really good store manager.

I worked for that company through my years in college until I moved back from Pine Bluff into Little Rock. I went back to work for Kroger again, but a different store manager. I went to work for the union because they came in one day and asked me what I was doing, and I was in my third year of college. I was going to go into pre-med. They asked me if I would consider coming to work for the union for a while. And I thought this might be a nice break. There was a little bit of traveling involved. I was a new Millennial, right? I was jumping around.

So, I did it. And as I started to do the work, I realized that it was really rewarding and that not everyone could stand up for what they believe in, and was useful to have somebody that could do that. And I really did enjoy it.

Durbin: Let me ask you a few questions, Marc. We had a hearing a week or two ago in the Senate Judiciary Committee, and you were one of the witnesses. A fellow named, I think, Kevin Smart, who was there as well. He was from a company in Texas, a gas station. What is it?

Perrone: Yes, QuickChek.

Durbin: It was interesting because you were sitting next to him and the reason for the hearing was Sen. McConnell of Kentucky basically said, “I’m not going to do any more bills to help unemployed people or to help businesses unless and until we have government immunity from liability for people on this COVID-19.” He said on the floor, Sen. McConnell said, ‘We’re facing a tidal wave of lawsuits,’ That’s what he said. Exact words – ‘a tidal wave of lawsuits.’ Well, we had a hearing on this question, whether we ought to change the immunity or liability of businesses when it comes to COVID-19.

It’s an important issue for me, and I’m sure it is for you. And this Mr. Smart, who talked about QuickChek, came forward and said, “Here’s what I’m doing at my business.” And he told a pretty good story…

Perrone: He did.

Durbin: About things he was doing to protect his employees and protect his customers. But he said in his testimony that one of my biggest problems is “I don’t know what the standards are. I don’t know what the guidelines are. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.” He said, “There’s nothing from CDC, nothing from OSHA, there’s some state, there’s some local. I’m not sure which way to turn.” Then you came up, and said ‘Let me tell you some numbers.’ I wish you’d share the numbers, when it comes to COVID-19 that you’ve run into in your union in terms of people who have been hurt by this virus.

Perrone: If you’re talking about retail or if you’re talking about packing or food processing, pharmacies, or food manufacturing and operations… We’ve lost 173 workers to the virus. We’ve had over, at this point in time, 29,000n people that have been infected or impacted in some way of our membership, which is a tremendous amount of people.

Durbin: Marc, that’s amazing. I’m reading this morning in the New York Times an article and they said at one point, that out of the top 10 hotspots for coronavirus, five out of the 10 are counties with your workers in them, in the meat processing industry. Think about that for a second.

Perrone: There’s a reason for that.

Durbin: Sure. Explain that.

Perrone: First of all, it’s about the science, right? The science of a meat packing house on the processing side, and you know, if you worked in a processing house, there’s a lot of air conditioning in that unit to keep the temperature low enough in order to process the meat.

So that bacteria won’t grow, right? Since the air pressure is very high since the amount of air conditioning and refrigerator systems they have to have in there, number one, there’s a lot of air flow. The air moves around. Since the virus is an aerosol, and it comes out of your mouth through water vapor, it’s then pushed around in the plant and it can infect more people. In addition to that, the humidity levels are high in the plant, and therefore, the virus itself in the water particles doesn’t evaporate as quickly. Therefore, we have a higher instance of the virus in those locations of people becoming infected if they don’t have what we call layered PPE, personal protection equipment.

Durbin: Now, Marc I can remember, now this goes back a number of years, but I’ve visited these plants since then, and things have not changed too much. I can remember working elbow-to-elbow and there was a big old conveyor belt, and we were in pork processing, and here come different parts of that hog, flying by me, and I’m supposed to be doing my part. But I am shoulder-to-shoulder, elbow-to-elbow, with workers. Social distance is impossible under those circumstances.

Perrone: That’s right. And that’s the reason why they needed to be layered PPE, which were shields and guards between the individuals, and across the table. Because you probably remember, you were across the table from somebody.

Durbin: Absolutely.

Perrone: And it wasn’t six feet, it was more like 4 feet.

Durbin: Six inches at some point.

Perrone: At some point. Because you’re walking down hallways together, you’re standing in line to punch in together, you’re going into large lunch rooms together. So, it’s very difficult to social distance in these plants. And look, here’s the thing I thought was interesting. In the situation where one form of government is trying to make a case, if we were having a conversation, we always seem to go to the extremes, if we’re trying to make a case, as society goes. So, they bring in Mr. Sharp, or Smart, I think. His name was Mr. Smart. And they bring him in, and look I have to tell you something, I thought he was doing a great job.

Durbin: I did too.

Perrone: And so, they bring the best guy in, you know. But it’s not the problem with the best guy. The problem is with the worst guy.

Durbin: I’m going to ask you to take another angle for a second here. Meat processing, boy it is number one. But not far behind are these retail clerks, the folks in the food stores. And we have really come to appreciate how vulnerable they are with the public coming in hour after hour, day after day, before masks, I might add, now with masks, so they put up some shields and such, but that is also an area of vulnerability, is it not?

Perrone: Oh yeah, and here’s the reason why, think about it in the following fashion. In a hospital, you know that you’re going to come into contact with somebody. And you know, pretty much, that the person has the disease in there since that’s where they’re going to be treated. In a grocery store, you don’t know that. On a good day in a relatively small store, they may see as many as 3,000 people a day. On a big store, you may see as many as 10,000. And so, you’re seeing 10,000 people a day that are standing face to face with you that you’re having to come in contact with. Now here’s the challenge today: not everybody will wear masks. They just refuse to. You’ve got about 70% of the population that is wearing masks. The other percentage refuses to do it. You’re wearing a mask to protect the other person, not yourself necessarily. Now our workers are wearing masks to protect the customers, but we don’t have every customer wearing masks to protect our workers. And it’s something that we really have to think about. We had a worker last week, and I didn’t talk about this in the hearing, but walked up to a customer and asked him to put a mask on. Customer got irritated about it, and got violent, and broke my members arm. And, did a radial twist on the arm and broke their arm. And so our concern at this point in time is a couple of things. One, there needs to be protection in these stores. There needs to be protection in the plants. There needs to be temporary standards as it relates to what’s going on with COVID-19. Look, our Administration, and regardless of whether or not they were Republican or whether or not they were Democrat, it doesn’t really matter to me. What matters is they failed, at least in the beginning. The CDC failed because they were given information, since it was a novel virus, that the consistency of the information was not good. First, they said ‘don’t wear a mask’ because they were trying to make sure the PPE that was available to health care was there. I understand why they did it, I’ve got member in health care and they’re important to me. However, we could have in fact slowed this virus spread down, because my food stores, my meat packing plants, my manufacturing units, are transmission points for the virus.

Durbin: And Marc, am I right in saying that the President, with all of his power and authority, has only ordered by executive order one branch of our economy to go back to work? And that’s the meat processing industry. I don’t know that he’s issued an order for any other segment of our economy.

Perrone: He didn’t. Now, he did issue the Defense Production Act on the ventilators. Ok, he did that. But he also did it on the packing houses. What’s interesting is, A., he didn’t do it on testing and he didn’t do it on PPE, for the masks, and the gowns, and the gloves, and stuff like that, or the sanitizer. Look, we’ve got problems. I had a member yesterday on this press conference call that we did, that worked at Kroger’s. Look, Senator, she’s buying her own sanitizer. Because the company at that location, and this is what I want to be clear about, you know how I said some store managers do what they’re supposed to do and some don’t? That’s the difficulty that I see that companies may have. They have one particular person that wants to do the right thing, and they do the right thing. But they have those other people that don’t necessarily do the right thing.

Durbin: So, we need to wrap up here, but I want to thank you and I want to tell you where I stand, and I think we stand together. And that is that, first and foremost, we want to protect the health and safety of workers and customers.

Perrone: Absolutely.

Durbin: Number one. Number two is we believe there ought to be established standards from medical professionals and scientists to tell us how to make a safe workplace and a safe business place.

Perrone: Absolutely.

Durbin: Number three, there’s got to be inspection. There’s got to be inspection. When I worked in that packing house, the inspectors, federal employees, worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, they wore white helmets and white coats, and they stood there. If a slab of bacon hit the floor, they were right on it. ‘Pick that up, we’re not going to sell that to the public.’ They were there to protect the meat. There’s no one there to protect the worker.

Perrone: You’re right, and that’s a challenge that we’ve got right now. And quit honestly, I’m concerned. If you want to have a plant, and you’ve got a good person there, he may or she may do the right thing. But if you’ve got somebody there that is not going to do the right thing, they’re not going to provide the sanitizer, they’re not going to provide the spacing, we are going to have workers in this country that ultimately become sick, and if you set a transmission point in a food store, we’re going to make other people in the population sick, and we need to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Durbin: So, standards established by medical professionals, inspection and enforcement, we can’t go the way that Senator McConnell suggested. If we do government immunity, we all know what’s going to happen, and overwhelmingly the American people do. That bad actor that you just referred to is going to say ‘who cares, I’m going to do what I want to do.’

Perrone: Yeah and look, I have no standards, I have no responsibility, I have no guidelines, I have no threat of somebody suing me. So, all the normal restrictions that would be on a business person is now off of them. And they’re now free to do whatever they want to. Now look, this is not the wild, wild west. This is 2020. And we all know what it’s going to be like if that happens, if there are no limitations. I’m sorry, but I think somebody is fooling themselves if people are going to do the right thing. Now, Mr. Smart is doing the right thing, but he’s not the only person that we’ve got to be concerned about.

Durbin: That’s right, and he was the business witness for convenience stores, and, I said as much at the hearing, you’ve said it here, sounds like a man who is trying to do the right thing. And I will stand by those business owners who want to do the right thing if they are reasonably doing everything they can to protect their workers and employees. God bless them, we. ought to stand by them. I don’t want them to be subject to frivolous lawsuits. But I’ll tell you, that bad actor out there is just waiting for the chance to cut a corner at the expense of somebody else’s health and safety. That’s where we’ve got to draw the line.

Perrone: That’s exactly right Senator, just like Mr. Thompson. I worked that full two weeks, he was supposed to pay me. He decided he wasn’t going to. I had to have somebody help me.

Durbin: Marc, you’ve helped a lot of people and you’ve got a lot of folks counting on you. I hope I can help you and your cause. Believe me, on my side of the aisle up here in the Senate, what I just said is backed up by virtually everybody. Maybe everybody, for that matter. So, we’re going to work together with you. Keep your workers safe and healthy, keep doing your good work standing up and speaking for them, it’s critically important maybe now more than ever. So, Marc Perrone, thank you, as President of the UFCW, United Food and Commercial Workers, and union that I have paid some dues into over the years very happily, I wish you the best and thank you for joining us.

Perrone: Well Senator, I am very proud to have had you as a member and I am going to make sure that you get a lifetime membership card from us.

Durbin: There you go, I will be honored to receive it.

Perrone: Thanks, Senator.