Workers in meatpacking plants are getting sick, and some are dying. Now Donald Trump is readying himself to place them in further danger. On Tuesday, he said he’ll use the Defense Production Act to require plants that process poultry, pork, eggs, and beef to stay open, and may sign an executive order to that effect as early as Tuesday afternoon. Trump said the order would solve the “liability problems” of Tyson Foods, a major poultry producer. Trump’s exact meaning is still unclear, but as MarketWatch reported, meat processors like Tyson may risk prosecution if their workplace practices help spread COVID-19.
Trump’s decision follows a New York Times advertisement from the CEO of Tyson Foods, which warned of a pending meat shortage if plants remain closed due to the coronavirus. A shortage is possible: 22 plants, union and nonunion alike, have closed since the start of the pandemic, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union said in a press release. One, a Smithfield pork plant in South Dakota, became “one of the biggest” infection clusters in the nation, BuzzFeed News has reported, with over 700 workers ill.
Meatpacking workers, many of whom are immigrants, perform essential labor. But inadequate protective gear and an inability to properly social distance in plants means they’ve been risking illness to do their jobs. According to an internal estimate from UFCW, 20 unionized workers have died of COVID-19; over 5,000 meatpacking workers total have tested positive for the virus, have been hospitalized, or are otherwise symptomatic, with another 1,500 food-processing workers in similar straits. The union had previously written to Vice-President Mike Pence, Trump’s coronavirus czar, with a series of demands, including improved testing for meatpacking workers, better protective gear, and an end to USDA waivers allowing plants to speed up processing lines despite a high risk of injury and even death for workers. UFCW has also asked for meatpacking workers to be designated temporarily as first responders.
Even if the Trump administration does provide protective gear to workers, the executive order could still exacerbate existing threats to worker health. Good safety measures can prevent plant closures, unions have argued; when an outbreak does happen, temporary closure might be the only way to sanitize the plant and protect the people who work there. Another labor leader, Stuart Appelbaum of the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union, lamented Trump’s apparent disregard for workers. “We only wish that this administration cared as much about the lives of working people as it does about meat, pork and poultry products,” he said in a statement. “When poultry plants shut down, it’s for deep cleaning and to save workers’ lives.”
But saving lives has never been a priority for the Trump White House. Tuesday’s likely executive order would belong to the same category as Trump’s lackluster pandemic response, even his immigration policies and proposed cuts to the food-stamp program: cruel, misinformed, and potentially deadly for the people it most intimately affects. Tyson may benefit financially from being able to stay open, but its workers will suffer.