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Michael Meeropol: “Essential” Workers At Meat-Packing Plants Being Treated As Expendable

The Trump Administration and some of the companies that run large meat-packing plants are behaving reprehensibly towards their workers. When hot spot outbreaks of COVID-19 began to occur at many meat-packing plants, some of them closed down temporarily. As more and more workers got sick, some started to stay home out of fear for their own health. The result was a decline in production. It got so bad, that farmers – particularly those that raised pigs for slaughter – found no place to sell their maturing products.

The response of the Trump Administration was NOT to come up with rules to safely operate the plants. Yes, the CDC came up with guidelines --- but they were published as “suggestions” not mandates. Instead, Trump went ahead and designated meat-packing as an essential industry and invoked the Defense Production Act to keep those plants operating.

And let’s remember --- the virus spreads much more quickly and dangerously in enclosed spaces where people are in sustained close contact – as on a meat-cutting assembly line. It appears it is a lot easier to reconfigure an automobile assembly plant to reduce the risk to workers than it is in meat-packing.

[By the way --- this was the same Trump Administration that refused to use the Defense Production Act to mandate that companies produce masks, ventilators and other important protective equipment to help our medical personnel on the front lines of fighting COVID-19 stay safe.]

Using that law preempts state government efforts to shut plants in the interest of worker health and safety.

The next assault on workers occurred when some companies re-opened without testing all their workers in advance. Some of these same companies have told their workers that if they refuse to work because they are afraid of catching COVID-19, they will be considered to have resigned and therefore will not be eligible for unemployment payments or sick leave.

So workers have now been forced back to work by a triple-whammy. First the Trump Administration has taken the decision-making away from local health officials. Second, because there is no universal testing, the workers in some plants are deprived of information as to how safe it is to return to work. Third, workers who voluntarily absent themselves from work will be deprived of the safety net of unemployment compensation.

[For the Trump Administration Action using the Defense Production Act, see Ana Swanson and David Yaffe-Bellany, “Trump Declares Meat Supply ‘Critical,’ Aiming to Reopen Plants. The executive order is meant to prevent shortages of pork, chicken and other products. But unions fear it will endanger workers in the plants, which have become coronavirus hot spots.” The New York Times, April 28, 2020, available at https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/28/business/economy/coronavirus-trump-meat-food-supply.html

For the inability of state and local authorities to have any say in this issue see, Michael Corkery, David Yaffe-Bellany and Ana Swanson, “Powerful Meat Industry Holds More Sway After Trump’s Order. The executive action signals that decisions around whether to close or reopen plants should be driven by the federal government, not local authorities.” The New York Times, April 29, 2020, available at https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/29/business/coronavirus-trump-meat-plants.html?action=click&module=RelatedLinks&pgtype=Article.] The CDC guidelines for how to safely open these plants actually made a lot of sense. [See “Meat and Poultry Processing Workers and Employers. Interim Guidance from CDC and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)” available at https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/organizations/meat-poultry-processing-workers-employers.html. They include regular testing, re-configuring the work-place to achieve separation, creating physical barriers between work stations, increasing ventilation of plants. There are pages of suggestions but in each and every case, the CDC guidelines put in the caveat “if feasible” or “if possible” or the company should “consider” these ideas. Given that the plant has been mandated to keep producing under the Defense Production Act, every one of these “suggestions” could have been made mandatory. Unfortunately, the only roles the invocation of that law seem to have played is to take any decision-making away from local health authorities and, most importantly, immunize companies from most damage lawsuits from workers who fall ill (or even die) from COVID-19 after working in any one of those plants.

The April 29 New York Times article referenced above tells us:

“One measure that many health experts and plant workers say would help prevent the virus from spreading again is to slow down the production line. The slower that meat moves through a slaughterhouse, the fewer people are needed to cut and de-bone it, which would allow for more space between employees.

But the companies have spent years lobbying to increase line speeds and have not signaled that they will slow lines now.

A federal rule adopted in September allows pork-processing lines to move at any speed with fewer inspectors overseeing production. This month, even as the pandemic was raging, the Department of Agriculture issued waivers allowing 15 poultry plants to increase their line speeds to as fast as 175 birds per minute.”]

Immunizing the companies from damage suits represents a fourth “whammy” added to the original three for workers in this essential industry. And that last one is perhaps the most significant. I have spent over forty years studying what I call “right-wing economics.” To be fair, there is an honorable and consistent strain in economic theory that is libertarian. Though I do not agree with that analysis, I have met some fine individual practitioners of it who are indeed consistent in their application of what they call “free market” economics. According to these consistent libertarians, it is totally unnecessary (they argue it’s counter-productive as well) for the government to make rules to protect the health and safety of workers and consumers. First and foremost, workers will demand higher salaries to work in dangerous businesses and consumers (once they learn about a product’s dangers) will not buy them. I consider this a relatively weak argument because workers and consumers often are unaware of the potential dangers of workplaces and/or products. However, libertarians actually have an “ace in the hole” when it comes to dangerous workplaces and/or dangerous products. Businesses with dangerous workplaces and/or dangerous products will be subject to lawsuits – a strong incentive to behave appropriately. Unfortunately, this argument goes out the window if companies are immunized against lawsuits punishing them for unsafe workplaces. Also, Trump’s invocation of the Defense Production Act, ties the hands of businesses who might want to close to preclude further spread of the virus. Thus, even a good corporate citizen truly concerned for the health of their workers cannot act on that concern.

What is the HELL is going on here? To be blunt, this is capitalist exploitation in its rawest and most blatant form.

These workers may be essential but Trump’s policies make it clear that he believes the profits of businesses are more essential. Since the food supply obviously is essential --- and since most Americans (who are non-vegetarians) buy meat that is processed in these large plants --- keeping those plants operating is certainly in the nation’s interest.

But why cannot the CDC enforce the safety standards it has merely proposed?  Why cannot the company slow down production? Why shouldn’t workers who are afraid to come to work be permitted to get sick leave or collect unemployment? If workers could fall back on unemployment insurance, the company would indeed have a very strong incentive to keep the workplace safe. If that involves shutting down to clean every 12 hours, so be it.  If it involves producing less in a given day, so be it. Why is it always essential that giant companies have their bottom lines protected while the health and safety of workers takes a back seat?

The answer, of course, is that under our economic system, workers are just MEANS TO AN END. They are, in fact, expendable. They can always be replaced. We call such a system CAPITAL-ist because under that system, the owners of capital are more important than their employees.

The idea that there is a conflict between workers and owners is anathema to both American culture and the economics taught in most American classrooms. Instead, we see the idea presented routinely in advertisements and most economics textbooks that there is a cooperative relationship between owners and workers. Any argument to the contrary is demonized as socialist and those making the arguments used to be accused of wanting to turn the US into the former Soviet Union. (Now, they are demonized as wanting to turn the United States into Venezuela.) Unfortunately, when profits are threatened --- as they would be if, for example, the CDC guidelines were made mandatory --- the cooperative relationship goes out the window. Instead, we have the federal government making rules designed to force workers into dangerous jobs while giving them no recourse if they are worried about getting sick.

The quadruple “whammy” for workers in the essential industries of meat and poultry processing represents a truly disgusting display of raw naked power and the denigration of the dignity of work and workers.

Michael Meeropol is professor emeritus of Economics at Western New England University. He is the author with Howard and Paul Sherman of the recently published second edition of Principles of Macroeconomics: Activist vs. Austerity Policies

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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