Essential work: Is business doing enough?
The Trump administration last week invoked a law from the Korean War era to compel businesses to help the fight against coronavirus, said Alex Leary in The Wall Street Journal. Complaining that General Motors was “moving too slowly” in converting plants to make ventilators, and planning to charge the federal government $1 billion for them, Trump ordered the company to make medical equipment using a provision of the Defense Production Act that lets the federal government force companies “to divert production capacity” in a national emergency. “This is war,” said White House aide Peter Navarro, who has been appointed Trump’s “equipment czar.” Navarro has suggested tougher measures, threatening to raid the warehouses of “suppliers who could be impeding swift delivery of protective equipment to health workers.” Trump’s action is a “sign of seriousness,” said NationalReview.com in an editorial. The back-and-forth with GM was “typically confusing,” but the end goal is “fortifying the medical system.” If the fight against coronavirus is a war, “we need to focus first and foremost on defeating the enemy.”
If you’re looking for villains who are “foot dragging and price gouging” in this effort, GM is the wrong target, said David Welch in Bloomberg.com. “Even as Trump was excoriating GM,” workers at GM and its partner, Ventec, were engaged in a “lightning-fast effort to convert an auto-parts plant into a medical-equipment complex.” GM was fully committed to helping in this, “order or no order.” This is “political theater,” said Megan McArdle in The Washington Post. Using the law to force GM to “retool its plant, design a machine, or school its workforce on making an unfamiliar product” doesn’t magically make it any easier. Demanding a company should do more by government fiat is just a way to turn an enthusiastic cooperator into a “sullen, unwilling partner.”
Keeping any kind of business going means workers are “on the front lines,” said Vanessa Yurkevich in CNN.com, and they’re scared. And essential work doesn’t just mean building ventilators. Americans are “delivering food and packages, stocking grocery store shelves, and operating public transit” in the midst of a pandemic. Some say it’s worth the risk. “It feels crazy to understand how much people really need us now,” said one driver for the grocery delivery service FreshDirect. But many others are wondering about the trade-offs. Amazon this week fired a worker who led a walkout from one warehouse of employees who demanded a deep cleaning of the facility. Some Instacart drivers struck for better pay and expanded sick leave. Industries like meatpacking are also under enormous new stresses, said Michael Grabell in ProPublica.org. Tyson Foods and Cargill started “companywide temperature checks to screen employees for signs of the virus,” after several Tyson workers tested positive. The industry “relies on grueling shoulder-to-shoulder work,” and if the virus spreads, “it could take out a critical cog in the nation’s food-supply chain just as it struggles to keep up with increased demand.” ■