The United States now has more than a million reported cases of coronavirus, 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.
This has always been true, but perhaps never more than in the face of today's crisis – which is why we need clear and decisive action by the White House.
President Trump has given us more confusion than solutions, failing to use his executive authority to protect workers.
In times of crisis, the Defense Production Law is an important tool for mobilizing resources and producing emergency supplies. President Trump surrounded himself and insisted on using it – he said he would use it only if "we need to summon him in the worst case scenario". If that is not the worst case scenario, nothing is.
On April 28, President Trump signed an executive order using the Defense Production Law to keep meat processing plants open. In doing so, he replaced the states and some of those plants that they know are not yet safe. We all want to keep the food supply chain intact, but we need to balance this with the real risks caused by impatience and recklessness.
United Food and Commercial Workers, America's largest packaging union, knows at least 20 slaughterhouse workers who died from Covid-19. Another five thousand workers tested positive for the coronavirus, await the results, were hospitalized or were exposed to the virus. Thousands more can be affected.
The president's decision to reopen these plants without adequate security protections – at the Memorial do Trabalho, every day – was dangerous and shameful.
What's worse, President Trump said he would also protect companies from slaughterhouses from legal liability, as long as they follow the guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Occupational Health and Safety Administration, which have proved to be totally inadequate. Once again, this government favors executives over workers and the stock market over human lives. He is forcing workers to choose between a salary and their health.
This is not a choice that workers should make. But President Trump is essentially forcing their hand, ignoring the warning signs and using the Defense Production Act to keep open what must be closed until it is safe.
We need safety standards in the workplace based on safety and sound science, and we need the president to use his authority to manufacture and distribute personal protective equipment to essential workers.
There is no time to lose. Like health professionals, frontline workers in slaughterhouse factories face similar difficulties. shortages and many plants have become coronavirus hot spots. No one knows whether it is safe to go to work because management has completely failed to plan the tens of millions of tests we need to avoid exposure.
When workers are 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 may temporarily satisfy President Trump, but it does not help stem the spread of the virus. It is a harmful and misuse of what can be a valuable tool when applied correctly.
The Defense Production Law can replicate past successes. Before America entered World War II, the labor movement led the way in the call for defense production. Henry Ford assembly line workers produced a B-24 bomber every hour, and California shipbuilders could manufacture cargo ships every five days. The companies remained profitable and ensured that workers on the front lines were adequately equipped and compensated.
This contagion is fast and the crisis it caused is evolving rapidly. We need to be quicker in our response. We still don't have a vaccine for this virus, but we do have an answer to the lack of life-saving equipment: America's workers.
President Trump needs to use the Defense Production Act for the right reasons, effectively and quickly.
Richard Trumka (@RichardTrumka) is the president of the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations.
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