Trump’s executive order invoking the Defense Production Act to compel beef, pork and poultry processing plants to reopen is a direct assault on workers’ health and lives. No industry’s workers have suffered more from Covid-19 infections than these individuals. Nationwide, more than 5,000 have contracted Covid-19 and the death toll keeps mounting. In one Iowa meat packing plant, 58 percent of the tested labor force was positive, forcing the plant to close. Similar plants have closed all over the country because of the rapid spread of the virus in the close working conditions in these plants where social distancing is virtually impossible. What Trump has done is to force this underpaid workforce that processes our food to choose between their jobs and their lives.
The rationale for the executive order is “to ensure a continued supply of protein for Americans.“ This ignores that there are plenty of alternative protein sources, including eggs, cheese and other dairy, seeds such as Quinoa, soy and many other plant-based products.
The executive order references the joint guidance (i.e., suggestions, not mandates) for meat processors issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). The opening paragraph of the guidance document tells you all you need to know about how effective this is likely to be in protecting worker health: “…workers may be permitted to continue work following potential exposure to COVID-19, provided they remain asymptomatic and additional precautions are implemented to protect them and the community.” One such precaution being implemented is providing workers with only one facemask a week. These facemasks are supposed to be for one-time use only and then discarded.
Meat processing is a close-order occupation. It is by its nature a highly dangerous environment. That is not going to change.
Worse, the executive order directs the U.S. Department of Labor to issue regulations protecting plant owners from liability if workers who return to the job come down with Covid-19. In other words, if you get sick and perhaps die because you returned to work, you or your heirs have no recourse.
Senate Majority Leader McConnell wants to take corporate liability protection to the next level and confer it across-the board on all employers. Fortunately, the House of Representatives will not go along with the sycophantic Senate Republicans whose contempt for the very people they and Trump profess to champion appears to know no bounds. However, that does not mean that McConnell won’t use this existential threat to workers as a negotiating ploy during the next round of relief bills to be considered by Congress. House Democrats may be pressured to give in on liability in return for getting some relief for desperate states and municipalities strapped for money to pay essential public sector laborers like cops, fire fighters, teachers, transit employees and sanitation workers. Trump and McConnell’s war on workers includes them, too.
When faced with doing good vs. doing harm, so far Trump and McConnell always choose the latter. The war on America’s workers is just the latest example of this tragic truism.
May 8, 2020