President Donald Trump signed an executive order Tuesday that compels slaughterhouses to remain open, setting up a showdown between the giant companies that produce America’s meat and the unions and activists who want to protect workers in a pandemic.
Meat processing plants around the U.S. have shut down because of the coronavirus, but Trump said in the order that “such closures threaten the continued functioning of the national meat and poultry supply chain, undermining critical infrastructure during the national emergency.”
Using the Defense Production Act, Trump is ordering plants to stay open as part of the critical infrastructure needed to keep people fed amid growing supply disruptions from the coronavirus outbreak. The government will provide additional protective gear for employees as well as guidance.
The move came just days after Tyson Foods Inc., the biggest U.S. meat processor, ran paid ads in national newspapers stating that the food supply chain was “broken.”
A handful of companies account for the majority of the nation’s meat, and as workers fell sick in March, plants initially continued to run. But pressure from local health officials and unions led to voluntary closures.
Companies have been pressing to reopen. The president himself has long agitated for Americans to return to work and restore an economy crippled by social distancing measures.
Environmental Working Group called the order a potential death sentence. The United Food and Commercial Workers union said in a statement that if workers aren’t safe, the food supply won’t be either. At least 20 workers in meat and food processing have died, and 5,000 meatpacking workers have either tested positive for the virus or were forced to self-quarantine, according to UFCW.
While unions have been speaking out against unsafe plant conditions and working for boosts in pay, collective bargaining agreements often restrict them from organizing or endorsing strikes. Still, lives are stake, unions say.
“People should never be expected to put their lives at risk by going to work,” said Stuart Appelbaum, President of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. “If they can’t be assured of their safety, they have every right to make their concerns heard by their employers.”
Trump signaled the executive action at the White House on Tuesday, saying he planned to sign an order aimed at Tyson’s liability, which had become “a road block” for the company. He didn’t elaborate.
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