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White House Used Pandemic To Weaken Safety Regulations, Reporter Says

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in today for Terry Gross. Meatpacking and poultry processing have long been among the most dangerous and low-paying occupations in America, and now they've become hotbeds for the coronavirus, with thousands of workers getting sick. You've probably read about outbreaks of the coronavirus at plants in recent months.

Our guest today, New Yorker staff writer Jane Mayer, has a new article about one of the nation's largest poultry processing companies and how its workers have fared since the pandemic erupted. The Mountaire Corporation's owner, Ron Cameron, is a major donor to organizations supporting President Trump's campaign. Mayer writes that the Trump administration has weakened federal oversight of the industry, and the U.S. Labor Department is effectively supporting an effort to drive the United Food and Commercial Workers out of one of the company's Delaware plants after that union has represented the plant's workers for four decades.

Jane Mayer is chief Washington correspondent for The New Yorker, where she's been a staff writer since 1995. Her reporting has earned a host of prestigious awards. Her most recent book is the 2016 bestseller "Dark Money: The Hidden History Of The Billionaires Behind The Rise Of The Radical Right." Her story in the current issue of The New Yorker is titled "How Trump Is Helping Tycoons Exploit The Pandemic." Jane Mayer spoke to me via an Internet connection from her home in Washington.

Jane Mayer, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

JANE MAYER: Thanks so much.

DAVIES: You began this piece by talking about a rally protesting conditions at a poultry processing plant in Selbyville, Del. You want to describe this plant, what goes on there?

MAYER: Well, it's a chicken processing plant. And there are about a thousand union members for the United Food and Commercial Workers who work there, plus about 400 others who are not unionized who are contract laborers. And the plant - I went to see it. It's a pretty hulking-looking establishment. It has chain-link fence around it and sort of cement barriers and very few windows in the building and lots of tanks. And, you know, it looks like sort of your idea of an industrial factory. And it's owned by a company called Mountaire, and they are the sixth-largest poultry processing company in America.

DAVIES: Were you able to get inside the plant?

MAYER: No, I was not. I interviewed workers who work inside of it. I interviewed them elsewhere. Right now, the plant, which is in Sussex County, Del., it's in the center of one of the COVID-19 hot spots. So I sort of made an effort to try to speak to people in safe conditions outside of it.

DAVIES: And who are the workers, demographically speaking?

MAYER: You know, an awful lot of them are Black and brown workers, Latinos and African Americans. And then there are actually 26 languages spoken in that one plant in Selbyville. They're people from all around the world, a lot of refugees. And according to some of the workers that I interviewed, there are a number of people who have dubious documentation.

DAVIES: Before we talk about what's happened since the pandemic has erupted, just how dangerous is meatpacking and poultry processing generally as an industry?

MAYER: It's actually one of the most hazardous forms of work in the country. It surprised me, and I think it probably would surprise a lot of people. It is more hazardous than, for instance, coal mining or working in a sawmill. On average, people who work in slaughterhouses have to go to the hospital for injuries or they lose a body part every other day.

DAVIES: That's nationally.

MAYER: Nationally, yeah.

DAVIES: And then we have the coronavirus. That's hit a lot of these plants particularly hard, hasn't it?

MAYER: Very hard. And, you know, it's because they have to work closely together. And as much as anything else, it's because under the Trump administration, these kinds of workers - the people who work in the meatpacking and poultry plants - have been defined as essential workers who don't have the option of not working. Either they come to work under, you know, conditions where there's been a lot of outbreaks of COVID-19 or they don't get paid. So they have to keep coming no matter what.

DAVIES: And what do you know about what efforts the company has made to provide distancing or extra protection to workers who have to be in the plant?

MAYER: So the company spokesman said to me that they have provided cloth masks to the workers. She said that they had tried to space them out at distances, quote-unquote, "wherever possible," which is a pretty big loophole there, and that they had put glass barriers between them, again, wherever possible. According to the people I spoke to who were workers there and union officials who represent the workers there, it's been a serious problem. People work very closely together, and they don't have PPE to speak of. They don't have, for instance, the N95 masks. And the company has been doing temperature checks, body temperature checks when workers come in in the morning. But the companies acknowledge that they've had a problem of a lot of people who've been asymptomatic, so that it wouldn't register as a temperature, but just the same, they still have the coronavirus.

DAVIES: You said that the company that owns the Selbyville plant, Mountaire, is the sixth-largest poultry processing company in the nation. As that company has expanded, what's happened to the wages of the workers who work there?

MAYER: Well, this was interesting to me too. On comparison with the national average for manufacturing, poultry workers have been falling further and further behind. I think they're now 44% below the average for manufacturing. Meanwhile, the company Mountaire has - it appears to be spectacularly successful. It's a privately owned company, so you cannot see what the profits are. But you can see what the revenues are. They've reported their revenues. Their revenues for this last year were $2.3 billion, which was a billion dollars more than they were taking in just 10 years ago. So they seem to be doing more and more business and bringing in more money, it would look like, but their workers are falling further behind.

DAVIES: And what did you learn about the wages that the Selbyville plant workers make?

MAYER: The workers I talked to were in a range of $13, some $13.15, some $13 and a few more cents than that. They were given a hardship raise when the coronavirus hit in a big way. And that was one dollar more per hour, but it was taken away from them again by the company starting in July. And so some of the workers felt, I think, really quite angry about it. They felt they were being told they have to risk their lives for an extra dollar an hour when they're only earning 13 something an hour, and that they didn't even get to keep the raise.

DAVIES: And what was the company spokesperson's explanation for the cancellation of the $1 raise?

MAYER: I suppose they just think that, you know, the hazard is over. But, of course, as we see, it's not. You know, it ebbs and flows. But we've been seeing that the - unfortunately, the pandemic is still very much with us. And there were rumors in the plant - that is in the Selbyville plant - talking to workers - and again, these are just rumors - but that was about two weeks ago that there was a spike again in the number of cases of coronavirus among the workers. And they said that there were something like 13, I think, 13 or 15 people home they thought. And I apologize for the - you know, reporters don't like to have these kinds of numbers that are so squishy where you can't be precise. But there's a reason for that. The company does not put out any public information about the number of coronavirus cases among its workers.

The spokeswoman I spoke to told me she didn't even know how many cases there were, which is, to me - I mean, I interviewed people who said they thought it was unconscionable because the workers are, again, considered essential, required to go to work. But they don't know how many cases there are of a deadly virus may be at their elbow. Now, the company says that if we have a case, we will notify you if you've been exposed. But they won't tell people how many cases there are in the plant.

And they don't, also, tell people how many people have died. And so some of the workers that I interviewed, I mean, they would tell me about specific friends they had who had disappeared. And then they would hear that - for instance, in the case of one older worker - that he had died. One of his sons called, eventually. And they said to me there was no notification to the workers. There was not a picture of the man put up, no kind of appreciation - he'd work there forever - and no collection taken for his family. And it's sort of a terrifying scenario in some ways for these workers, going in every morning not knowing, you know, what they're about to be exposed to or not.

DAVIES: Let me take a break here. I want to reintroduce you. Jane Mayer is a staff writer for The New Yorker. Her article in the current issue of the magazine is titled "How Trump Is Helping Tycoons Exploit The Pandemic." We'll talk more in a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAQUITO D'RIVERA'S "CONTRADANZA")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with Jane Mayer. She is The New Yorker's chief Washington correspondent. She has a new article in the magazine about how the Trump administration is helping a major donor, who owns several chicken-processing plants, to strip away worker protections during the COVID-19 pandemic. The article is titled "How Trump Is Helping Tycoons Exploit The Pandemic."

The Selvy (ph), Del., plant that you wrote about is unionized. A lot of the plants that this company owns are not. But this one is unionized. The workers are represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers. There was a move in recent months during the pandemic to undo that and, essentially, strip the shop of union representation. What happened?

MAYER: Exactly. I mean, and this is actually the only unionized plant that this company owns. And so it's kind of the outlier. And so what happened was one of the workers complained that he felt that the contract had been illegal. This was a contract that was just signed two years ago. And again, the union has represented these workers since, I think - it's been something like 42 years, OK? And according to the union, it's the same language in the contract that they've been using pretty much almost exactly since 1982.

But suddenly, a worker came forward. He's a man who speaks no English. We tried to interview him. But - and we even had a Spanish-speaking reporter give him a call. But he did not speak to The New Yorker. And he had a very abstruse complaint about the language in the contract. It worked its way up through the regional office and then the national office of the National Labor Relations Board, which decided, in the midst of the pandemic, when the union was saying, this is crazy - why are you challenging this now when these workers are, you know, facing this life-threatening situation?

Anyway, it got to the NLRB's office in Washington. Now, the Trump administration has not filled all the seats on the NLRB. There are only - there are five seats ordinarily. And it's usually bipartisan. But there are just three filled right now. And all three are Republican. They decided that the union would have to hold an election and allow the workers to decide whether to decertify the union even though the contract had only been voted in two years ago. And ordinarily in labor law, there's a three-year grace period where any union has three years to prove themselves.

So this violated that practice, which goes back to the New Deal. The union complained, saying it violated this long precedent. And the NLRB, under Trump, has decided to just reexamine that whole precedent, the whole idea that there should be a sort of a grace period for unions to sort of prove themselves. And this, then, has opened the doors to kind of rolling back kind of an area of labor rights that's shocked labor lawyers. So this has actually become a pretty interesting case and a pretty good test of sort of how the - under the Trump administration, things are changing that many of us don't really pay much attention to, worker rights on something like this.

DAVIES: And, you know, we should just say, I mean, unions and management, you know, battle over contracts and representation all the time. This is not unusual. But this step of trying to get a union decertified is really the most radical and aggressive step that management can take to actually toss the union out of the company for good - in this case, initiated by a worker. But the union suspects that the worker probably was put up to it by management, right?

MAYER: That is what the union thinks. And part of the reason they think that is that the worker who is objecting is represented by the National Right to Work Committee, which is pretty much the most powerful anti-labor organization in the country, has been for quite some time. And it's giving free legal advice to the worker. And again, he doesn't speak English. He speaks fluent Spanish, but no English. Yet, mysterious, mailings have been sent out to the various union members in English from an organization that no one's heard of from a storefront someplace. So there seems to be some kind of, you know, sort of suspicious aspects to this whole challenge.

DAVIES: OK. And so the situation now is that unless this process is derailed, if a majority of workers who submit ballots vote to toss the union, it will no longer be the bargaining agent for these workers?

MAYER: That's right. And as we discussed this company, Mountaire, has other poultry plants where there are no unionized workers. And so you can sort of see a little bit where they may be going if they get the opportunity here. It would probably be more like some of their other plants. And in those plants, the difference, according to the union and some of the workers I spoke to, is that there are tons of contract workers. There are people who are given less, fewer benefits, less job security. They're cheaper. It costs the company less. And there are a lot of questions about whether those kinds of workers really have proper documentation, whether they're legally in the country.

So it's seen as a threat to the union, of course. And it's seen as a threat by some of the unionized workers who feel they've gotten some seniority over the years. And they feel that, you know, they've got a little bit of security. They get one week of vacation for their first four years and two weeks after that. There are things like that that may no longer be possible for workers in this incredibly dangerous line of work, creating chicken for America.

DAVIES: You know, you said there's a broader pattern here, one of them is the deregulation of private industry by the federal government. And, of course, there is a federal agency that's responsible for regulating workplace health and safety. That's the Occupational Safety and Health Administration - OSHA. This is an industry that had a lot of issues before the pandemic. How has OSHA been handling its responsibilities now that these plants are threatened with this virus?

MAYER: Well, this is really where you begin to see how the influence of Trump comes in. What happened was, on April 28, President Trump issued an executive order that defined these workers as essential, meaning they had to keep the meat-packing business going and the poultry - the chicken coming. And at that point, they also - the Labor Department issued a statement essentially telling the employers in these industries, don't worry about the Center for Disease Control's guidelines on how to behave in the middle of the pandemic. Try to comply with them if you can. But you're basically - all you need to do is show a good faith effort. And if the workers are unhappy, they don't really have any place to go and take their complaints.

So OSHA basically sent a message out to the employers saying, do your best. But we're not going to penalize you if you expose your workers to COVID-19. And so these workers are kind of left out on their own, according to people I interviewed. There was a woman named Debbie Berkowitz at the National Employment Law Center who's really studied the poultry industry for many, many years. And she said, I mean, these workers are really out in the cold. And she accused the companies of, you know, basically, practically, getting away with murder and almost quite literally, she said.

The role that OSHA has been playing recently is visible in some statistics, which are that since the pandemic hit, there have been something like 6,000 complaints to OSHA about workplace safety having to do with the coronavirus, people worried that they've been exposed to it. Six-thousand complaints, out of those, OSHA has issued exactly one citation. It's not taking an aggressive stance against employers who are exposing their workers. That's clear from the numbers. And it's clear from the statements that are coming out of the Labor Department.

DAVIES: Yeah. You know, historically, OSHA's work has been complaint-driven a lot of times. Workers see a condition around them that's unsafe or unhealthy. They complain. OSHA sends an inspector. Do you know if they're sending inspectors to these plants?

MAYER: There are complaints that they're not from the union. The local union in the Selbyville plant has accused OSHA of being AWOL. The New York Times has used pretty much the same language, wondering, why is OSHA AWOL? It's not exerting pressure in this situation. So the workers feel that they don't really have anybody looking out for them.

DAVIES: You know, there are state regulators that deal with issues of Occupational Safety and Health. Have they played any role there in Delaware?

MAYER: Well, so it's interesting because Delaware is, generally speaking, a Democratic-run state. And the governor of Delaware, John Carney, had been interested in trying to set up universal testing in the poultry plants there and had even considered shutting down the plants. But when President Trump issued his executive order, it was taken by the states as superseding everything else. And Governor Carney told the union he felt that he was handcuffed.

And so you begin - see the influence that the White House has. And what interested me about that, in part, was that on the board of advisers that President Trump created was the owner of the Mountaire chicken plant, the same plant that's at the center of this major dispute right now. And, of course, Trump sided with the owners in suggesting that the plants can't shut down. No matter what's going on, they've got to keep those chicken lines running. And that, of course, is better for profits than being shut down.

DAVIES: We're going to take another break here. Let me reintroduce you. Jane Mayer is a staff writer for The New Yorker. Her story in the current issue of the magazine is titled "How Trump Is Helping Tycoons Exploit The Pandemic." She'll be back after we take a short break. I'm Dave Davies. And this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF KENNY BARRON'S "SWAMP SALLY")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. We're speaking with New Yorker staff writer Jane Mayer. She has a new article in the magazine about how the Trump administration is helping a major donor strip away worker protections during the COVID-19 pandemic at his poultry processing plants. The article is titled "How Trump Is Helping Tycoons Exploit The Pandemic."

You know, this order to keep this food supply moving that Trump said was so critical followed efforts by Tyson to warn the nation that millions of pounds of meat were going to disappear. There were some full-page ads. Do the sales shed any light on the accuracy of these warnings? Was the food supply in danger?

MAYER: Yeah. I mean, and, of course, I think pretty much anybody can see how nobody wanted there to be shortages of food in American supermarkets and that it could have sparked panic buying. And you can see the problem there that the White House was addressing. But what was interesting to me was that, in fact, if you go and you look at the numbers carefully on what these meat and poultry plants have been selling through the whole period when they were talking about there being food shortages, they were having record exports of their meat and poultry to other countries, specifically to China a lot of it was going. So far from there not being enough meat, it seemed like business was booming in many ways.

DAVIES: You know, the president in 2016 talked about dismantling the regulatory state. You know, this is something that, you know, Republicans since Reagan have talked about, you know, reducing what they regard as unfair and burdensome rules for industry. You've mentioned how OSHA has essentially taken a hands-off policy on issues related to the pandemic. What about other federal agencies like the Department of Agriculture, they have a role here?

MAYER: Yes, they do. I mean, so what's happened is - and the people were telling me as I was reporting this out that while we've all been focused on the sort of shiny object of the pandemic for obvious reasons, at the same time a more complicated story is unfolding which is the deregulation of so much of America's business world sort of behind the scenes. And what's happened is that the Trump administration, which was - it's been trying to deregulate all along the way, but it's hard to do. There are a lot of barriers to deregulating things in the way the government works.

But the pandemic has provided an opportunity in a sense on this so that the government has been able to cite an emergency. And Trump has put out a couple executive orders that are basically saying to businesses, you can deregulate now. You don't need to abide by various regulations so long as you're acting in good faith. But if you feel that it's harming the economy, you no longer need to play by these rules. And this is in areas of having to do with the environment and workplace safety.

And as you mentioned, the Agriculture Department specifically, when it comes to chicken workers who are already in such dangerous conditions - there's been a long-running fight between the workers and the employers about how fast these workers have to work and how fast those lines move with the chicken zooming down the lines. And there's a cap on how fast they have to move, which is 140 birds per minute. But the employers, the people who own these poultry plants have gotten waivers in the middle of the pandemic. In 15 poultry plants, they've been able to lift that line speed limit up to 175 birds per minute. And 15 plants, including one owned by this company Mountaire that I was looking at that, 175 birds per minute can fly by these workers and they have to, you know, work on each bird.

And then it creates much more stress on their bodies. They have to work more closely together often. It just makes the whole thing that much more dangerous for them. And it turns out there were 15 plants where there was a waiver granted by the USDA, and in eight of those, there were outbreaks at the time of COVID-19.

DAVIES: Processing 170 chickens a minute just sounds frightening. Do you have a sense of what happens when you - when these people try and do that. What it looks like?

MAYER: You know, I think it's incredibly physically hard work. I talked not just to the workers but also to experts who've been in there, people who did Ph.D. theses where they worked in these processing plants. It's just physically grueling. It's mind numbing. And people get a lot of ergonomic problems, stress on their bodies. They get so that they can't move their hands. They get arthritis early. They get cuts from, you know, the blades that they're using. And they're exposed to a lot of very strong chemicals, which they complained about a lot. It's hard, hard work.

DAVIES: You know, you talked about meeting some workers at this Selbyville plant and them talking about circumstances inside, including the fact that they had no information about who might be infectious around them and some people who it appeared had gotten sick, disappeared and died. The company says they told you that they have onsite medical care at the plant and of course a health plan. Are they effective? What does the public record show?

MAYER: They do. They have a nurse at the plant. And they've also got a wellness center at the plant for those people who've signed up for the company health care plan. Not everybody can afford it, as I found out, but for those who can, there is some medical help there. It was a mixed to poor record that I saw. I talked to a medical expert at OSHA where they had done an internal report in 2016 and cited the company for medical mismanagement at that time. It was ugly looking.

There was somebody who had amputated part of his thumb. And they came in to look at that and found someone else who had a really egregious injury to his thumb and was sent back to the line to go back to work. And he wanted to go to an emergency room but was told to go back to work. And I think it was nine days later he finally got to an emergency room, and it turned out he had an open fracture - and things like that. I mean, it's Dickensian seeming in some ways.

And at one point I interviewed David Michaels for this piece, who was the head of OSHA during the Obama administration. And he said the situation seemed so backwards, really, to him. It reminded him of Upton Sinclair's famous expose of the meat industry, "The Jungle." And he said, you know, it felt like we're back in the jungle.

DAVIES: We're going to take a little break here. Let me reintroduce you. Jane Mayer is a staff writer for The New Yorker. Her article in the current issue of the magazine is titled "How Trump Is Helping Tycoons Exploit The Pandemic." We'll talk some more in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. We're speaking with Jane Mayer. She is a staff writer and the chief Washington correspondent at The New Yorker. She has a new article in the magazine about how the Trump administration's helping a major donor who owns several chicken processing plants to strip away worker protections during the COVID-19 pandemic. The article is titled "How Trump Is Helping Tycoons Exploit The Pandemic."

Well, we've been talking about the company that owns this plant, and its principal owner is a guy named Ron Cameron. And you spent some time looking into him. Tell us a little bit about his background, how he got into the chicken processing business.

MAYER: Well, he's from Little Rock, Ark. And he actually inherited the company. It was his grandfather who started it, and then his father ran it, and then he was given it. I interviewed his sister, among other people, who said he was kind of raised to be the prince, as she put it, and molded by their father to run the company. And he's run it, really, since college. So he's expanded it mightily.

The chicken business is - turns out to be very sort of monopolistic and concentrated. Something like 10 chicken companies account for 80% of the chicken in America. It's a big business. It's a surprisingly large amount of money, revenues that are involved here - $2.3 billion a year, this company does in business. And it's very multinational. This company sends chicken to all over the world, basically.

DAVIES: It's interesting that his sister spoke to you. She, at one point, kind of broke away from the family, moved to California. How does she regard Ron Cameron and what he does with his business?

MAYER: Well, she was a complicated character and interesting, and I appreciate that she spoke to me about their upbringing. I mean, what she was able to describe was a kind of cosseted, comfortable upbringing that this family had in Little Rock, Ark., that she described as also kind of racially bigoted, basically. Every - you know, there was tons of racism all around them. And the family had two Black servants that lived up above the garage and served them. One was - they were brother and sister. The sister was the cook; the brother acted as their butler. And the family was very well-off.

And the sister said that it wasn't until she sort of broke away from the family that she began to get some kind of perspective on it. And she read James Baldwin and realized that her upbringing had been really quite narrow, quite bigoted. She married, moved away, joined sort of the counterculture in San Francisco at one point and then, interestingly, returned to Arkansas and to her family's conservative roots. She's now a Trump supporter, and she supports her brother, who turns out to be one of the biggest funders of the religious right and also of Trump and Republican politics.

DAVIES: Also, not a guy who cuts a high profile, right? I assume you tried to talk to him and he wouldn't speak to you.

MAYER: I did. Ron Cameron is very reclusive. I spoke with the editor of a newspaper in Arkansas who said, for years, he had been trying to bump into this man or interview him and had had no success. He likes to be way beneath the radar. But because of the way our financial disclosure laws work, you can see something of who he is from how he spends his money. And he has accumulated hundreds of millions of dollars. In fact, $327 million he's put into a private foundation that he calls the Jesus Fund. And he's also put millions and millions into conservative Republican politics and behind Trump.

DAVIES: Right. It seems like his emergence as a major political donor is in recent years, but he's always been very active in some religious groups, including the Fellowship Foundation. You want to tell us what that is and what his role has been?

MAYER: Yeah. It was one of the groups that, as far as I could tell, he - that brought him into the sort of sphere of Washington. The Fellowship is a very secretive religious organization in Washington, D.C. It's sort of evangelical Christian, basically. It's best known for presenting the prayer breakfast, the National Prayer Breakfast, every year. But it also had - for many years was associated with a mansion on Capitol Hill in which a number of congressmen and senators sort of used as a dormitory. And they would have these prayer sessions there. And then it also has another mansion that's in northern Virginia, where they hold prayer sessions for VIPs.

It's known for kind of cultivating very high-profile, powerful figures all around the world but particularly in Washington, D.C., and bringing them into the - sort of this brotherhood of prayer together. So Ron Cameron became a board member there, appears to have been a major financier behind the scenes there. And somebody else at Mountaire, his company, became president of the Fellowship for a while. It's also known - your listeners may know it better as The Family, it's been called. There are a number of books by Jeff Sharlet about it. I think two books. And there was an HBO documentary about The Family.

You know, I interviewed a number of ministers about it, wanting to hear what other Christian ministers felt about it. And it's been controversial. It's raised a number of eyebrows in part because of the way that it combines power and Christianity and business money and Christianity. And the critics say that it sort of paints a picture of Jesus as having favored the powerful, rather than being a support for the powerless.

DAVIES: Right. You write that, in 2016, Cameron reportedly discussed taking over the Fellowship Foundation, and some of the participants were wary of him. Why?

MAYER: He is seen as a highly partisan figure. He's an incredibly strong Trump supporter, and the Fellowship is supposed to be bipartisan. It's mostly Republican and conservative, but there are Democratic members of it. And, you know, the fact that it is the host of the National Prayer Breakfast, which is also supposed to be bipartisan, means that there's a feeling among some in the group that they don't want it to just be a hub of Trump politics. And they felt that Cameron was part of that. Also, he's quite overbearing. He's been seen as that but other people. Then there's a moment in the story, speaking of his very strongly held views and - very black-and-white views about social issues. And there's a scene where an old friend of his, someone named Bob Duffy, encountered him - they'd been best friends when they were young - encountered him at a memorial service. And they hadn't seen each other for years. And Bob Duffy went up to Ron Cameron and said, you know I'm gay, don't you? And Ron Cameron turned to his friend and said, yes, and I know you're going to hell - and then turned on his heels and walked away.

And so he's got these strong views about things like homosexuality and puts a lot of his money into organizations that, for instance, are fighting LGBTQ rights and also are sort of anti-abortion. That's sort of the niche in American politics that his organization, the Jesus Fund, appears to be pouring money into.

DAVIES: Right. You know, you mentioned the Jesus Fund. You refer to it as his organization. What's the evidence that he essentially runs it?

MAYER: Well, when I tried to find out more about it, I looked up its phone number on its IRS forms and called. And it was exactly the same number for Mr. Cameron's office. And it was the same assistant who answered the phone at both. And it appeared...

DAVIES: His office at his company Mountaire, right?

MAYER: That is the company Mountaire in Little Rock. So there - it seemed to have sort of overlapping physical space. And then when you look at the IRS forms, it appeared that the trustees were Mr. Cameron and somebody else who had worked for a long time at Mountaire and that almost all the donations to it were from either Mr. Cameron or from Mountaire, the - his company.

So it's accumulated, as I mentioned earlier, $327 million. It's quite sizable, especially when you compare the amount of money that Ron Cameron's been able to accumulate in this private foundation to the kinds of sort of meager wages that the company is paying out to the workers. And interestingly, the workers have some sense of this. They don't know much about it, but some of the people that I interviewed said that they've heard that he'd given millions of dollars, for instance, to Donald Trump and given them just a $1 raise which he'd taken away again in July.

And one woman who I interviewed - I don't name her because she was afraid that there would be retaliation. But she said, you know, he's giving 2 million, 3 million to Donald Trump and giving us a dollar and taking it away. She said, what are we, animals? You know, there's a feeling of unfairness among the workforce.

DAVIES: Let me take a break here. I want to reintroduce you. Jane Mayer is a staff writer for The New Yorker. Her article in the current issue of the magazine is titled "How Trump Is Helping Tycoons Exploit The Pandemic." We'll talk more in a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Jane Mayer. She is the New Yorker's chief Washington correspondent. She has a new article in the magazine about how the Trump administration is helping a major donor Ron Cameron, who owns several chicken processing plants, to strip away worker protections during the COVID-19 pandemic.

You write that in 2014, he emerged as a major donor to political campaigns. Just briefly - who has he supported and in what kind of amounts?

MAYER: So in 2014, it appears that he and his company put about $4.8 million behind Republican candidates and groups. Among those, interestingly, is the Koch brothers group that was known as Freedom Partners. And he's become a major donor for the Koch group. He was - I think that year Mountaire, his company, gave the biggest corporate donation to the Kochs.

In 2016, Ron Cameron was the single-biggest campaign donor to Mike Huckabee's presidential campaign, having donated $3 million to that effort. That year when it didn't appear that Huckabee was going to be able to get the traction necessary, Ron Cameron then put $2 million behind Trump's campaign, and then he and his wife put in an extra amount of money that was almost a million dollars more. So in 2016, he was - an awful lot of businessmen were not putting money behind Trump. But Ron Cameron was an early and big, big, big supporter of Trump.

In 2018, he upped the ante and put in $7.7 million in those midterm elections in 2018, which is just a gigantic amount. And he - I think they were exclusively supporting Republican and conservative candidates and groups. And that year, in 2018, on election night, Ron Cameron was invited to spend election night at the Trump White House at a party, attend the party there and to sort of mingle with the other really big backers of the president and be with the president.

In 2020 so far, it looked to me like he has so far put in about $5 million to Republican candidates in the 2020 elections plus an additional about $1 million backing President Trump's reelection campaign. So he's a substantial donor to the Republican Party. This is really big money.

DAVIES: You know, this role's kind of come later in his life - right? - just the last six or seven years. Do we have any idea why he decided to be a big donor as opposed to more of a religious activist than a businessman?

MAYER: Yeah. I mean, again, he's a reclusive person who doesn't speak out very much and unfortunately did not return phone calls when I really wanted to hear what he thought and why he is playing such a big behind-the-scenes role. But he has said a few things that give you sort of a glimpse into his mindset. One was at one point he said that even though he didn't want to give up his privacy and he was concerned about being known, he's even more concerned about his fear that his grandchildren will live under communism. He also clearly was a huge opponent of President Obama's. He just reviled the health care plan that was passed in the - by the Obama administration, the ACA, and talked about that a little bit. So he's, you know, someone who, like his sister, who I interviewed. She also feels that the country is on the brink of becoming communist. That's how both of them appear to think. And so I think he sees this as sort of an existential threat and he is pouring his money into it.

DAVIES: His company, Mountaire, is now the sixth-largest poultry company in the country. And you write in the piece that there have been some lawsuits accusing that company, Mountaire, and other poultry companies of colluding with each other in some of their business practices. What are they accused of?

MAYER: Yeah. I mean, so I had not realized this, but the chicken business is so concentrated in the hands of a few that it's really benefited from the kind of weak anti-trust enforcement that we've had in recent years. And there are allegations in these two major lawsuits, one that the top poultry companies, including Mountaire, have colluded on a regular basis to keep the height - the price of chicken high. They fixed the chicken prices according to these allegations. Now, the companies have denied it. But the cases are ongoing. There are several cases against them for fixing chicken prices.

There's also a big case that was very interesting that suggests that the same companies for the most part, including Mountaire again, have colluded on a regular basis to hold down the wages of poultry workers. And again, as we discussed earlier in the program, the wages for poultry workers have been falling in comparison with other manufacturing sector workers. And meanwhile, the prices for chicken seem to be going up. And so there's sort of some economic mysteries taking place there, and these two lawsuits - which, again, the companies deny - suggests that there's been some foul play so to speak.

DAVIES: You know, you began your piece by describing a rally near the Selbyville plant in Delaware. And I'm just imagining that a lot of these workers are really in pretty desperate circumstances. They're facing the, you know, the pandemic, low wages, you know, that were actually reduced, the $1 bonus that was taken away. And their union, you know, is being attacked. They may lose union representation. I'm just wondering what your sense is of their mood, their commitment. Are they hopeful? Are they desperate, determined? What's your sense?

MAYER: You know, it was really eye-opening to me. One woman particularly said to me that in a strange way, she was almost grateful to the pandemic she said because - she said that she'd been wanting to speak out for so many years. And she said, I want these people exposed. She said to me, it's slavery, baby. It's terrible in there. And so the pandemic in a way has shed a spotlight on these people who we call essential workers who are really being ground down at the bottom. And she wanted to speak up. And she wanted her voice heard. And I was really glad to be able to tell that story in The New Yorker. You know, it felt like a story that people need to know.

DAVIES: Well, Jane Mayer, thanks so much for speaking with us again.

MAYER: I'm really glad to be with you. Thanks for having me.

DAVIES: Jane Mayer is a staff writer for The New Yorker. Her article in the current issue of the magazine is titled "How Trump Is Helping Tycoons Exploit The Pandemic." On tomorrow's show, psychiatrist Christine Montross talks about why there are 10 times more people with serious mental illnesses in our jails and prisons than in our state psychiatric hospitals. She'll explain why she says incarceration undermines mental health. And she'll explore an alternative system of confinement and rehabilitation in Norway. Her book is "Waiting For An Echo." I hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHRIS THILE AND BRAD MEHLDAU'S "INDEPENDENCE DAY")

DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering support from Diana Martinez (ph). Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.