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How the Animal Rights Movement Hurts Its Own Cause

If we ever want to win, we need to stop turning workers into enemies.

The animal rights movement has an uneasy, and at times openly hostile, relationship with workers. From union-busting at animal rights organizations, to animal rights legislation that makes few provisions for mitigating impacts on workers’ livelihoods, to “undercover investigations” that expose animal cruelty at the cost of sending workers to jail, the animal rights movement tends to treat workers as part of the problem rather than part of the solution to animal exploitation. 

If the animal rights movement ever wants to win an end to animal exploitation—a goal which this author very much supports and which has been helpfully defended in this magazine—it needs to radically rethink its relationship to workers. The animal rights movement needs to learn the same lesson that the environmental movement is starting to learn, thanks to a young and energized left—that making workers part of the solution is the only way to win transformational change for us all, human and non-human alike. 

The Animal Rights Movement’s “Worker Problem” 

Unfortunately, the animal rights movement’s “worker problem” seems to run deep. Pro-animal rights organizations, ranging from nonprofits like the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) to vegan food companies like No Evil Foods, have recently responded to employee unionization campaigns by hiring union-busting law firms and forcing workers into captive-audience meetings with managers who barrage them with anti-union talking points. Of all 35 nonprofit union drives the Nonprofit Professional Employees Union has organized, the management at ALDF was only one of two who declined to voluntarily recognize their employee union. 

But the animal rights movement’s strained relationship with workers is arguably even worse when it comes to workers in the animal agriculture industry (a term that can be described as “euphemistic” if you’re feeling generous, or “blatantly misleading” if you’re not). These workers are seen, at best, as a nuisance or an obstacle to be overcome in the service of animal liberation, and at worst, as enemies of the animal liberation project. A recent example of the former is New York City’s foie gras ban, which was supported by many animal rights organizations on the grounds that it banned an incredibly cruel practice of force-feeding ducks. But this bill made few provisions to support the largely immigrant workforce in upstate New York whose livelihoods would be negatively impacted by the ban.   

One tactic commonly used by animal rights activists—“undercover investigations”—offers a striking example of some of the movement’s more harmful tendencies to treat workers in animal agriculture as scapegoats. In undercover investigations, animal rights activists obtain jobs in various sectors of animal agriculture and industry—on dairy and egg farms, puppy mills, meatpacking plants, and the like—to wear hidden cameras and catch workers engaging in egregious acts of animal cruelty. While these investigations often succeed in exposing animal cruelty, they almost always end up in punishment of workers. Once undercover footage is released, bosses eagerly throw workers under the bus, feigning ignorance and outrage about the cruelty. At recent investigations of dairy farms in Pennsylvania and pig and poultry farms in Virginia, bosses tried to save face by firing the workers caught committing cruelty to animals on camera. At a 2014 investigation at Chilliwack Cattle Sales, the largest dairy farm in Canada, workers not only got fired but some served jail time on animal cruelty charges. A recent investigation into Fair Oaks Farms in Indiana resulted in several workers being fired and one arrested. The one who was arrested turned out to be an undocumented immigrant; he was then turned over to ICE, who detained him. 

Some animal activists who participate in undercover investigations admit to certain misgivings about getting workers in trouble. For example, Geoff Reiger is a vegan activist known primarily for his work on undercover investigations. After one investigation he led, workers not only got fired but some served jail time on animal cruelty charges. Interestingly, Reiger acknowledges that workers caught up in these investigations do not deserve to go to jail. One reason is that the boundary between illegal animal cruelty and legal animal cruelty is quite arbitrary. As he said in an interview, “would you rather be punched and kicked, or would you rather have your body parts cut off while you are fully conscious?” The former is illegal animal cruelty; the latter is standard industry practice. Given that legal cruelty is part of their job descriptions, workers often have no idea that they are doing anything illegal when they punch or kick an animal—let alone something that could get them fired, jailed, or sent to an ICE detention center. Expressing some regret, Reiger said, “it’s really too bad, just the way the system works.” 

What is striking about Reiger’s comments is his characterization of these consequences of undercover investigations—workers getting fired while bosses are rarely held accountable—as unavoidable. He suggests they are regrettable, but necessary, parts of the project of animal liberation. Firings and arrests make for better media coverage; better media coverage shines more light on the situation of animals; more light may convince greater numbers to go vegan. In the struggle for animal liberation, it is unfortunate but inevitable that human workers must play the part of scapegoat. 

The fact that scapegoating workers appears necessary to so many vegan activists is, in my view, a product of the movement’s near-myopic focus on a single strategy for pursuing animal liberation: convincing consumers to change their consumption habits. As a result of the near-total grip of this “consumer strategy,” mainstream vegan organizations are unable to see that workers in the animal agriculture industry have unique forms of power and leverage that go beyond their power as individual consumers. They are also uniquely positioned to sabotage animal exploitation—but this power cannot be activated if workers are treated as scapegoats. Animal rights activists ignore these distinctive sources of worker power at our own—and at non-human animals’—peril.   

The Strategic Importance of Workers for Animal Liberation

Workers in the animal agriculture industry are some of the most exploited and vulnerable workers in the world. The jobs themselves tend to be low-paying and extremely dangerous—especially during the COVID-19 crisis, where meatpacking workers are falling ill with COVID-19 at alarmingly high rates. Adding to these workers’ vulnerability is that many are also undocumented immigrants. This puts these workers in a particularly vulnerable position to be taken advantage of by their employers. Companies like Smithfield Foods, for example, have been known to respond to union activity among their workers by dangling the threat of deportation and ICE raids above their heads. 

How should animal activists respond to these conditions for workers in animal agriculture? Some may argue that it is a natural extension of the vegan worldview—as a philosophy which values compassion and justice over cruelty and exploitation—to fight alongside these uniquely vulnerable workers, rather than against them. But the reasons we should fight with, rather than against, workers are more than just moral and ideological: they are also strategic and practical. Making workers allies rather than enemies is not only about doing right by human workers. It’s also about winning liberation for non-human animals. 

This is because it is workers in the animal agriculture industry—and not animal activists and vegans outside of the industry—who have power to shut down the entire industry through striking. A massive strike of all workers in animal agriculture could grind the gears of the animal exploitation business to a halt tomorrow. A mass strike of workers in the industry, paired with a more traditional “consumer strategy” involving a large-scale boycott of animal products, may actually succeed in the goal of ending animal exploitation and abuse. Leveraging both worker power and consumer power will have a much higher chance of success in actually ending animal exploitation than a strategy which focuses upon consumer power alone.   

Of course, a mass strike of workers in animal agriculture would take many years to build toward. Union density in the animal agriculture workforce is already much lower than it once was, thanks to union-busting from management at major firms, so mounting an industry-wide mass strike would have to begin with increasing union density in slaughterhouses, egg and dairy farms, and the like. But short of the more ambitious goal of an industry-wide mass strike, which would take many years to pull off, there are other tactics that workers have at their disposal—and which they have already employed—to disrupt the industry’s production. 

For example, workers at a Smithfield Foods pig farm managed to halt the farm’s production by blocking the trucks that let pigs off trucks and into the farm. This tactic is not so different from those employed by animal rights groups like Direct Action Everywhere and others, who stage blockades that try to “gum up the works” of the animal exploitation business. The only difference is that animal agriculture workers have employed these tactics in the service of their own fight for safer working conditions and better pay, rather than in the service of animal rights. But how much more powerful could such actions be if animal rights activists and animal agriculture workers planned and carried them out together, in the service of shared ends, rather than by acting independently or even at cross-purposes? After all, workers’ and animal activists’ problem is with the same class: the bosses who profit from both the exploitation of workers and the exploitation of animals. And it is only those bosses who benefit when we allow the causes of workers and animals to be pitted against one another, because it splinters two constituencies—workers and animal activists—who could be standing united in a fight against their power.  

Would animal agriculture workers be motivated to work in partnership with animal activists and animal rights organizations, with the goal of ending the entire animal agriculture industry? It’s a tough question to answer. For many, working in this industry is what pays the bills. They may feel threatened by animal activists’ calls to end animal exploitation, on the grounds that ending the industry would also destroy their jobs. 

But workers in animal agriculture are in fact uniquely positioned to appreciate the massive scale of the harm that industry perpetuates to non-human animals and the planet. Rieger discussed how, while taking part in one undercover investigation, he befriended an animal agriculture worker who was contemplating going vegan. The worker said that working at the farm went against everything he believed in and talked to Reiger about the devastating environmental impact of animal agriculture. Animal agriculture workers also often sense that what they are doing is wrong, even if their working conditions force them to become desensitized to animal suffering. As one former slaughterhouse worker describes, her experiences as a slaughterhouse veterinarian were so horrific that she developed PTSD. One of her coworkers later died by suicide. Sadly, studies have shown that this reaction is not particularly unique; slaughterhouse workers have higher rates of PTSD and a greater potential to engage in aggressive behavior than the general population. One psychiatrist described how slaughterhouse work is unique in its capacity to cause lasting trauma because of its repetitive nature; killing hundreds of animals every day is bound to take a toll on one’s psyche. These workers, in other words, understand the horrors of the industry with far greater intimacy than many of us. Their proximity to the industry’s mass-produced cruelty suggests that they could be moved toward the cause of animal liberation. 

That said, animal agriculture workers are only going to be moved toward this goal if animal activists and organizations begin to cultivate their trust. And as it stands, animal agriculture workers have very little reason to trust the animal rights movement. Animal activists use tactics which turn these workers into scapegoats, as in many undercover investigations, and advocate for legislation which treats them as an afterthought, as with New York City’s foie gras ban. Also, when we fail to treat workers in vegan food companies well—e.g., by busting their unions, like management at No Evil Foods has been doing—it gives animal agriculture workers even less reason to trust us. A crucial piece of bringing animal agriculture workers over to the side of animal liberation is persuading them that a world which does not exploit animals is also a world in which they, as workers and human beings, are treated with dignity and respect. 

But animal agriculture workers have little reason to believe this when animal rights organizations treat workers badly not only in the industries they condemn, but also in those they support. When we use tactics which throw workers under the bus, and when we treat the workforce in vegan food production terribly, we compel the only group who has the direct power to end animal exploitation—animal agriculture workers—to distrust both the messengers and the message of animal liberation. This is a disaster for our cause.

 How the Animal Rights Movement Can Show Up for Workers

Once we think about animal agriculture workers not as scapegoats or enemies but as people with unique forms of power within and knowledge about their industries, it opens up a field of new tactics for animal rights organizations. What if the movement showed up for and with workers rather than against them? We could do so by raising funds for strike support, or by helping workers in the animal agriculture industry form unions, or by connecting them with immigration lawyers and other legal counsel as needed. 

Rather than sending in undercover investigators to shine a light on the horrors of animal agriculture, we could—after earning workers’ trust—see if workers themselves would be interested in shining that light. Having actual workers record undercover video and audio could also result in footage with a more three-dimensional perspective, which not only highlights the horrible conditions for animals in these industries, but also the dangerous conditions for workers. It can help us make a case for abolishing the industry as a whole and transitioning to forms of food production that are better for workers, animals, and the planet. 

What animal activists need to realize, in other words, is what environmentalists fighting for the Green New Deal seem to have already grasped: everyone loses when we allow the causes of animals and the environment to be pitted against the cause of workers. In other words, we have it in our power to prevent a counterproductive “animals versus workers” framing of these issues. And we should seize this opportunity not only because it is the morally right position, but also because it is our best shot at winning animal liberation.

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