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Meatpacking industry got its way on COVID-19 policies, and workers died

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When the meatpacking industry was hit with major coronavirus outbreaks back in the spring, there was no question about making workers’ lives a priority—it was always out of the question. This is an industry with high injury rates and low wages for its vulnerable population of workers, with its many people of color and immigrants. Industry executives have built their careers on harming people. So when local public health departments and outcry over hundreds of COVID-19 cases threatened to close meatpacking plants, the industry asked for help from the federal government. And since Donald Trump was in the White House, that help came almost immediately, without any consultation of any group besides industry lobbyists and executives.

USA Today reports that Trump’s executive order keeping meatpacking plants open came just a week after a meat industry lobby group provided the U.S. Department of Agriculture with … very similar language for such an executive order. The North American Meat Institute’s defense boils down to “hey, we offer language for exactly what we want all the time.” But the federal government doesn’t usually use such language so directly or quickly, without input from other stakeholders, experts say.

According to Adam Culver, an attorney at Public Citizen, emails between Team Trump and the industry show a “degree of collaboration” that’s “astounding.” 

“Wealthy interest groups lobby decision makers in Washington all the time,” James Brudney, a professor at Fordham Law School and former U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Labor chief counsel, told USA Today. “They might get a draft from industry, but it wouldn’t just sail through because there would be other parties involved. That seems not to have happened here.”

Meanwhile, meatpacking plants have been tied to more than 40,000 COVID-19 cases and more than 200 workers have died, and the federal government has issued just two small fines. In one of those cases, Smithfield closed a Sioux Falls, South Dakota, plant after 350 positive cases, then used Trump’s executive order to reopen a few weeks later. By now, that plant has had 1,300 workers get sick, and four die. The company was fined about $13,000 for those workers’ deaths, in yet another message that the Trump administration does not care about the lives of meatpacking workers.

“These tiny fines are nothing to [meat plant owners]. They give an incentive to make these workers work faster and harder in the most unsafe working conditions imaginable,” Kim Cordova, the local union president at the other plant Trump’s OSHA bothered to fine, told The Washington Post. But why would we expect the government to fine companies for behavior that it had essentially signed off on in advance?

”To have government regulatory agencies intervene in a public health matter on behalf of a business interest is appalling,” Lawrence Gostin, director of the World Health Organization Collaborating Center on National & Global Health Law, said. “As a result, people die. It’s not just an ethical breach or something that’s a sterile issue of good governance, which it is. It also costs people’s lives, and that’s unforgivable.”

This blog was originally published at DailyKos on September15, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos.


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