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Iowa is currently experiencing some of the fastest-growing rates of Covid-19 infections in America, with Sioux City and Waterloo being particularly hard hit. The meatpacking plants in these cities are the major vectors for the disease spreading—not surprising, considering slaughterhouses are notorious sites of poor health and safety practices. The closing of the Tyson plant in Waterloo on April 22 was forced on the company as employees refused to go to work after colleagues contacted the disease. In explaining the decision to close the Waterloo plant, Steve Stouffer, group president of Tyson Fresh Meats, cited “worker absenteeism, Covid-19 cases and community concerns.”
It’s notable that Stouffer did not mention any pressure from either Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds or the Trump administration. Reynolds has been among the state leaders most reluctant to close down business. She’s intensely eager for a quick return to economic normality. In a press briefing on Monday, Reynolds said, “The reality is that we cannot stop this virus. It will remain in our communities until a vaccine is available. Instead we must learn to live with coronavirus activity without letting it govern our lives.” In an earlier statement, Reynolds warned that workers who did not return to work would be considered a “voluntary quit” and not be eligible for unemployment benefits.
Donald Trump isn’t quite as blunt, but he’s clearly intent on exactly this approach. On Tuesday he gave a major signal that returning to work was the desired goal even in dangerous industries like meatpacking. According to The Washington Post, Trump signed an executive order “compelling meat processors to remain open to head off shortages in the nation’s food supply chains, despite mounting reports of plant worker deaths due to covid-19.” Ominously, Trump invoked the Defense Production Act, which he had previously refused to deploy on behalf of commandeering factories to make hospital equipment.
The exact impact of this executive order is unclear. In describing the need for the order, Trump said, “It was a very unique circumstance because of liability.” Coupled with Reynolds’s comments about unemployment benefits, many labor activists feared that Trump was setting up a situation where employees would be forced to work even in hazardous conditions, with the threat of destitution held over them.
Kim Cordova, president for workers at a JBS Meatpacking Plant in Greeley, Colorado, told The Washington Post, “If these meat plants can’t be held liable, there is no reason for them to take measures to ensure workers are safe. If workers stop showing up, what are they going to do? Enact a draft? This is insane. If these workers are essential, protect them. They are treating workers like fungible widgets instead of human beings.”
University of Texas Law professor Stephen Vladeck argues that the executive order is more Trumpian bluster than a significant policy intervention. As so often, Trump wants to make it look like he’s doing something big, but the actual results will be minor. “Nothing in the text of the Order claims any power to force plants to ‘stay open,’ and nothing in the statutory sections on which the Order purports to rely delegates such authority,” Vladek notes.
But even if the executive order is more a matter of optics, it’s still significant as part of a larger push to reopen the economy. Trump, like Reynolds, is trying to intimidate workers who are abandoning jobs that they rightly feel are health hazards.
Former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum describes this as a “let’s take the punch” strategy. It’s a move to prioritize lifting the lockdown, even if the nation lacks an adequate testing and tracing capacity to control the spread of Covid-19. All evidence suggests that the federal government is leaving the matter of testing and tracing as much as possible in the hands of state governments. Some states are forging ahead, but there is no clear national policy. It’s almost certain that the lockdown will end prematurely, with a greater likelihood of a powerful second wave of the pandemic.
In Frum’s words, Trump wants to “reopen and see what happens. Let’s accept that there may be hundreds of thousands, or some double hundreds of thousands, of Americans killed. They’re going to be mostly poor and minorities, mostly not going to be Trump voters. Let’s take that punch and push through and try to get to herd immunity as fast as possible.”
As Frum makes clear, the “let’s take the punch” strategy is palatable to Republicans because they are not for the most part the people who will be suffering. The punch will land on the working class, with an especially hard blow to people of color. The immigrants who work in meatpacking plants are a classic example.
The push to reopen the economy is really class war by other means. As The New York Times reports, “Efforts to quickly restart economic activity risk further dividing Americans into two major groups along socioeconomic lines: one that has the power to control its exposure to the coronavirus outbreak and another that is forced to choose between potential sickness or financial devastation.” The primarily white middle class hold jobs that allow them to work safely from home.
The newspaper goes on to note, “Those who are lower paid, less educated and employed in jobs where teleworking is not an option would face a bleak choice if states lift restrictive orders and employers order them back to work: expose themselves to the pandemic or lose their jobs.”
The class divide over Covid-19 is becoming starker as the disease ravages American society. With Bernie Sanders now out of the presidential primaries, there’s no national figure that is willing to defend the working class as a group with distinct interests. All the existing official Democratic leaders—Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer—eschew class politics and are eager to expand the Democratic Party into the affluent suburbs. This means giving less voice to a politics that could defend workers at a meatpacking plant, even as the likes of Donald Trump and Kim Reynolds wage a class war on behalf of plutocracy.
The surge of wildcat strikes is a product of this intensified class war. Governed by a callous president, possessing few allies in the political elite, and usually not even having the protection of a labor union, American workers are being forced into militancy to protect their lives.