By Colleen Slevin
DENVER (AP) — Three meat plant workers have filed a federal lawsuit accusing 11 of the United States’ largest beef and pork producers of conspiring to depress wages and benefits.
The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Denver on Friday, seeks class-action status and alleges the producers have worked together since at least 2014 to keep workers’ compensation lower than the market would allow, violating the Sherman Antitrust Act.
It was brought by two meat plant workers from Iowa and one from Georgia but seeks to represent hundreds of thousands of other people who have worked in jobs from slaughtering to production at the companies’ collective 140 plants. Together the plants produce about 80% of the red meat sold to U.S. consumers, according to the lawsuit.
The companies are JBS USA Food Company, Cargill Inc., Hormel Foods Corp., American Foods Group LLC, Triumph Foods LLC, Seaboard Foods LLC, National Beef Packing Co. LLC, Iowa Premium LLC, Smithfield Foods Inc., Agri Beef Co. and Perdue Farms Inc., along with some subsidiaries.
Cargill denied any wrongdoing.
“While we cannot comment with specificity during the pendency of litigation, Cargill sets compensation independently to ensure that it pays fair and competitive wages to employees in each of the company’s plants,” company spokesman Daniel Sullivan said.
Perdue Farms spokesperson Andrea Staub declined to comment, saying the company does not discuss pending lawsuits. Smithfield spokesperson Jim Monroe said the company has not had a chance to review the allegations and had no comment at this time. Representatives of the other companies did not immediately return emails and telephone messages seeking comment Wednesday.
Two consulting companies that allegedly helped the meat producers exchange compensation information are also named as defendants in the lawsuit, which was filed by lawyers from Hagens Berman.
“Our firm has secured $195 million in the poultry processing industry for the same antitrust behavior. The meat industry’s gravy train ends here,” the law firm’s managing partner, Steve Berman, said in an announcement of the lawsuit on Wednesday.
The lawsuit alleges that the meat producers had secret meetings to discuss wages and communicated about them surreptitiously to avoid having any written records of the conversations.