The meatpacking closures forced by the pandemic are imperiling the livelihoods of farmers who’ve been steadfast Trump supporters and driving up food prices for middle-class families reeling from the steepest U.S. economic plunge in memory.
Yet reopening plants requires bringing back mostly low-paid workers who have been infected with the virus by the thousands, a move that could seem callous amid national celebration of “essential workers.” That risks backlash from swing suburban voters against Trump. It could weaken his rural support to if the virus flares in areas around meat processors after they re-open, a concern some local officials have urgently raised.
“You’re balancing competing values: the importance of the economy and the food chain and the importance of public health,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster. “You’re making judgment calls with no obvious answers.”
Trump’s order this week comes as the administration grapples with the fallout from coronavirus and presses to reopen America for business. Worsening problems with the nation’s food supply — along with the prospect of images of pigs rotting in ditches, meat shortages at grocery stores and lengthening lines outside food banks — would directly undercut the White House’s campaign to portray the country as returning to normalcy.
Trump faces the predicament as his political outlook worsens. Even before the pandemic, he had historically low job approval ratings for an incumbent president. The coronavirus outbreak then destroyed the foundation of a campaign plan based on economic prosperity. Recent Fox News polls of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Florida, three critical swing states in November, showed Democratic challenger Joe Biden beating Trump.
Crucially, the deployment of war-time authority in the Defense Production Act repositions a president always determined to show strength and dominate the narrative from hapless victim of circumstance into a powerful player. It shows key constituencies he is looking out for them.
“Trump is a base politician. He’s totally tied into whatever pain they have,” Republican strategist Mike Murphy said. “Unhappy farmers and unhappy food chain people, he hears that.”
Roughly a third of U.S. pork processing and 10% of beef production is shut down as about a dozen plants closed in April because of virus outbreaks among employees jammed together on processing lines. One day after Trump’s order, another slaughterhouse shut.
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue pledged Thursday that plants would be reopening in “days, not weeks.” Top pork producer Smithfield Foods Inc. is reopening a hog-processing plant in South Dakota on Monday, according to a local union.
John Tyson, chairman of Tyson Foods Inc., the biggest U.S. meat company, warned just days before Trump acted that the nation was on the cusp of a meat shortage and mass destruction of millions of animals. “The food supply chain is breaking,” he declared in ads placed in major newspapers.
Such a failure would be a devastating blow to farmers, a loyal and prominent part of Trump’s rural political base. The president has assiduously courted farmers, lavishing them with praise and boasting of what he has done for them. Over the past year, he’s averaged 3 tweets a week about farmers, typical of them a post Friday morning: “I have done more for farmers and ranchers than any President in history, and it has been my honor in doing so!”
He authorized $28 billion in bailout funds to maintain their support through a brutal trade war and already approved another $16 billion in coronavirus relief.
But with meat processing closures, livestock producers say they are facing financial ruin. Prices farmers receive for hogs plunged since the start of the year and some are already culling herds.
Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa, a Republican facing a tough re-election fight this year in a state that swung to Trump in 2016 after twice backing Democrat Barack Obama, joined other Iowa GOP officials over the weekend in urging Trump to use his defense authority.
“Pigs are backing up on farms with nowhere to go,” they wrote in a letter to Trump.
At the same time, a sustained rise in meat prices would hit middle-income and especially lower-middle-income voters that Trump must win. While it’s an axiom of American politics that a jump in gasoline prices hurts incumbents, food spending ranks only behind transportation costs and housing in family budgets. Families with more children — a constituency Republicans court — are pinched harder.
Every meal can be a reminder of shortages in food and every trip to the grocery store of higher prices. Wholesale beef prices are already up 67% since the beginning of the year and wholesale pork up 23%.
But the pandemic has taken a great toll on meat workers, who often work close together on production lines.
As of April 27, nearly 5,000 had been diagnosed with Covid-19, the disease caused by coronavirus, according to a report by the Centers for Disease Control, which said the number was likely an undercount since some states didn’t share their data. At least 20 meat processing workers have died from coronavirus, according to the report.
Moreover, officials in several local communities have publicly identified neighborhoods in which meat processing workers are concentrated as the focal points of coronavirus outbreaks.
The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents more than a quarter million workers in the industry, has called for increased worker testing, more access to personal protective equipment including respirator masks, mandated social distancing including plexiglass barriers, and paid quarantine leave.
“To protect America’s food supply, America’s meatpacking workers must be protected,” UFCW president Marc Perrone said in a statement. “Simply put, we cannot have a secure food supply without the safety of these workers.”
Meat workers are hardly a core Trump constituency. Many are immigrants, with 37% of meat processing plant employees foreign born, according to data from the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan organization which researches immigration in North America and Europe. Those who aren’t citizens can’t vote in elections.
But many suburban voters, who have been shifting toward Democrats since Trump won office, are already alienated by the president’s rhetoric on immigration and may be further turned off by the sight of low-wage workers being forced into a potential hot spot of infection.
Trump and Perdue both have been careful to stress a commitment to protecting workers in public comments. Perdue offered assurances that workers would not be overlooked, saying the Agriculture Department would assure they have greater access to protective gear and testing “virtually immediately.”
“Clearly it will be perceived as a good first step by some to maintain the food supply,” said Tom Vilsack a former U.S. Agriculture Secretary and Democratic Iowa Governor. “If it turns out we’re getting our pork chops while workers in large numbers are getting sick or dying because proper protections weren’t provided, it’s not the political upside it may appear at first glance.”
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