Thursday, April 30, 2020

Big Government and Big Meat

JBS meatpacking plant in Green Bay, via Wisconsin Public Radio.

It's funny, and not uninteresting, to look at the Trump administration as if it were trying to prove that the conservative theories about Big Government are true—that it's inevitably inept, roughshod, deaf and blind to the realities of life on the ground, and probably corrupt.

But in the case of conservative "federalism" (the bizarre cult around the design of the US Constitution according which it was intended to preserve the autonomy of states against a powerful central government when, as a matter of well understood historical fact, it created a powerful central government to counterbalance the autonomy of the states under the failed Articles of Confederation), it's getting downright spooky.

I'm thinking in the first place about Trump's crusade on behalf of Big Meat, where our capitalism-loving president, so deeply unwilling to use his powers under the Defense Production Act to ensure essential medical supplies, has deployed them to protect our threatened pork, beef, and chicken industry after some plants have become the centers of Covid-19 outbreaks and shut down.

One reason they've shut down is the press, which has been reporting on appalling failure to deal with the pandemic:

According to a Washington Post investigation, Tyson Foods, JBS USA, and Smithfield Foods failed to provide PPE to their workers. Employees at a JBS beef processing facility in Colorado claimed that managers encouraged them to report for shifts even when appearing sick.
At an Iowa Tyson plant, local officials and workers said that some employees were using bandannas and sleep eyewear as facial coverings, while others wore no coverings at all. At Smithfield distribution center in Indiana, three workers noted supervisors told them that they were lucky to labor in frigid temperatures where the virus could not survive—despite the science.
Workers at all the facilities said PPE was not promptly distributed. JBS confirmed it did not receive masks for its employees until April 2, and did not mandate use until April 13, while Tyson said it wasn't until April 15 that it started requiring workers to wear masks. Smithfield said masks are universally available to its workers but would not say when they became available. According to workers, it wasn't until the last week or two.
Additionally, a lawsuit was filed against Smithfield, claiming it failed to adequately protect workers at a Missouri plant who were forced to work "shoulder to shoulder" during the coronavirus pandemic, reported Reuters (April 24). The suit alleges Smithfield provided inadequate protective equipment to workers at the plant in Milan, refused to give them time to wash their hands, and discouraged workers who are ill from taking sick leave.

Another is the United Food and Commercial Workers union, which has issued some demands:
Meatpacking and poultry workers have been working tirelessly through this health crisis so that millions of Americans continue to have access to the food they need. President Trump’s executive order now mandates that they continue to do so, without any language that ensures their safety. Let me be clear, the best way to protect America’s food supply, to keep these plants open, is to protect America’s meatpacking workers.  
“Every governor has the ability to take key steps and additional safety actions to protect these workers and it is imperative that they do so immediately. To protect our food supply and workers, strong, enforceable safety standards must be implemented in every meatpacking plant. These safety standards must ensure all workers have access to testing and personal protective equipment, social distancing is enforced, and paid sick leave is provided to all workers so that no one comes to work sick. 
Not that the plant owners have been overcome by compassion for the workers' plight. They've been overcome by fear of lawsuits.

Not to worry, said Trump on Tuesday:
"We're going to sign an executive order today, I believe. And that will solve any liability problems where they have certain liability problems," the president said. "And we'll be in very good shape. We're working with Tyson, which is one of the big companies in the world. And we always work with the farmers. There’s plenty of supply, as you know. There's plenty of supply. It's distribution. And we will probably have that today solved. It was a very unique circumstance, because of liability."
Trump was referring to Tyson Food Inc., which suspended operations of its largest pork production plant last week. Smithfield Foods, Inc. also suspended operations at some of their plants.
("And we will probably have that today solved" is German, not English.)

The executive order hasn't actually ordered anybody to do anything, as Charlie Savage pointed out at The Times: Trump backs up guidance from OSHA and CDC as to how worker safety can be protected if the owners feel like it (Rachel Maddow has spoken pretty eloquently about how feeble the guidance is) but the order just informs the world that meat is
a “scarce and critical material essential to the national defense” under the Defense Production Act, while delegating to the secretary of agriculture, Sonny Perdue, the authority to use powers granted by that law to help meat processors continue operations.
Even though, as quoted above, he also said it's not scarce at all. But on the subject of liability it does nothing. What Trump is offering the companies is minimal:
if sick workers or their estates file lawsuits claiming that they were exposed to the virus at work because of their employer’s negligence, following these standards will provide a defense in court: The Trump administration has offered to have a Labor Department official testify as a witness at trial that the federal government thinks the company was not at fault.
Since the standards don't obligate the employer to do anything if it's inconvenient.

Meanwhile, Iowa's government has evidently decided they can't protect the workers and they don't care—that's life!
Gov. Kim Reynolds said Monday that Iowa’s meatpacking plants must stay open despite coronavirus outbreaks that have sickened hundreds of workers, saying that shutting them down would be devastating for farmers and the nation’s food supply.
Reynolds said at a news conference that the virus spreads quickly and easily at the plants because so many workers are in close proximity, acknowledging “we will continue to see clusters of positive cases" in them.
Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts has widely been accused of threatening meatpacking workers that they won't be able to collect unemployment benefits if their plants are closed, but I think that's misreading what he actually said:
Ricketts addressed a concern some Nebraskans may choose to stay unemployed to collect benefits instead of returning to work when their employer calls upon them once the economy begins to normalize.
"If you're employer calls you back, take that job. If you don't, you will lose your benefits. That's how it works in Nebraska," he said.
(It's the editor at WOWT TV that's responsible for "you're" there, not the governor.)

I hate to say it, but if anybody's doing anything worth doing about the situation it's the gross companies themselves, Tyson, JBS, Conagra, and Smithfield, who have at least managed to shut down some grievously affected plants for a couple of weeks and continued to pay employees over that period, and have showed some interest in trying to provide PPE and offering policies to allow sick workers to stay home, but we're a long way from being able to say they're doing it right. The federal government's role is worse than useless.

Meanwhile, states with heavy immigrant populations like New York and California have to defend themselves from moves like the one Steve M was noting on Tuesday, where the Trump administration is threatening to withhold desperately needed financial support from states and municipalities that don't follow Trump demands on upping their cooperation with ICE in "sanctuary cities", which governors and mayors and police chiefs have explained again and again is a way to build mistrust in immigrant communities and make law enforcement really difficult.

This refusal to acknowledge that governors and mayors maybe know what they're doing sounds exactly like what conservatives are complaining about when they challenge "bureaucrats inside the beltway" who never "actually rub shoulders with their fellow Americans" (actually 86% of the federal workforce lives, works, and pays taxes outside the Beltway) while the worthwhile work is getting done in the "laboratories of democracy".

So far the administration has been stopped from carrying out these threats by injunctions from three different appeals courts, but on 26 February a panel of the 2nd US District Appeals Court in Manhattan ruled with the administration:
Judge Reena Raggi said the case “implicates several of the most divisive issues confronting our country” including immigration policy and law enforcement, illegal immigrants, and the ability of state and local governments to adopt policies the federal government dislikes.
I'm at a loss to know what "implicates" means in that sentence. But I'd like the federal government to take an interest in saving the lives of workers (many of them undocumented, of course) as opposed to maintaining the essential flow of hamburger. Or is the administration's aim with the meatpacking crisis, as Steve suggests, Stephen Miller's plans to kill the "illegals" he's unable to deport?

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