The United States now has more than a million reported coronavirus cases, by far the most of any country in the world. The health of our nation, physically and economically, depends on the safety of our workers.
That has always been true, but perhaps never more so than in the face of today’s crisis—and it’s why we need clear and decisive action from the White House.
President Donald Trump has given us more confusion than solutions, failing to use his executive authority to protect working people.
In times of crisis, the Defense Production Act is an important tool for mobilizing resources and producing emergency supplies. Trump hemmed and hawed on using it—he said he would use it only if “we need to invoke it in a worst-case scenario.” If this isn’t a worst-case scenario, nothing is.
Take critical ventilators. Not until after GM and Ventec revealed that they had secured suppliers for 700 parts, made a deal with the UAW to staff the Kokomo, Ind., plant and started setting up the plant did the president issue an order telling GM to do what it was already doing.
On April 28, Trump signed an executive order using the Defense Production Act to keep meat-processing plants open. By doing so, he overrode states and some of those plants themselves that know it’s not safe yet. We all want to keep the food supply chain intact, but we have to balance that against the very real risks caused by impatience and imprudence.
The United Food and Commercial Workers, the largest packinghouse union in America, knows of at least 20 meatpacking workers who have died from COVID-19. Five thousand more workers have tested positive for the coronavirus, are awaiting test results, have been hospitalized or have been exposed to the virus. Thousands more may be affected.
The president’s decision to reopen these plants without proper safety protections—on Workers Memorial Day, of all days—was dangerous and disgraceful.
What’s worse, Trump said he would also shield meatpacking companies from legal liability as long as they follow guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Occupational Safety and Health Administration for the facilities, which have proved to be wholly inadequate. Once again, this administration is favoring executives over working people, and the stock market over human lives. He is forcing workers to choose between a paycheck and their health.
This isn’t a choice workers should have to make. But Trump is essentially forcing their hand, ignoring the warning signs and using the Defense Production Act to keep open what should be closed until it is safe.
We need workplace safety standards based on safety and sound science, and we need the president to use his authority to make and distribute personal protective equipment to essential workers.
There is no time to waste. Like health care workers, front-line workers in meatpacking plants are facing similar PPE shortages, and many plants have become coronavirus hot spots. No one knows whether it is safe to go to work because the administration has utterly failed to plan for the tens of millions of tests we need to prevent exposure.
When workers are left unprotected, we get sick and cannot work. We can transmit the virus to our families and communities. If all workers are not protected from the virus, our economy will collapse.
Forcing meat-processing plants to remain open might temporarily satisfy Trump, but it doesn’t help contain the spread of the virus. It is a harmful and misguided use of what can be a valuable tool when properly applied.
The Defense Production Act can replicate successes of the past. Before America joined World War II, the labor movement led the way in calling for defense production. Henry Ford’s assembly line workers produced a B-24 bomber every hour, and California shipbuilders could make cargo vessels about every five days. Companies remained profitable and ensured workers on the front lines were properly equipped and compensated.
This contagion is fast-moving and the crisis it has wrought is rapidly evolving. We need to be faster in our response. We do not have a vaccine for this virus yet, but we have an answer to the lack of lifesaving equipment: America’s workers.
Trump needs to use the Defense Production Act for the right reasons, effectively and swiftly.