Skip to navigation

Skip to main content

Rural Migration News

contact us

July 2005, Volume 11, Number 3

Meat and Migrants

The $40 billion value-added slaughtering and processing industry turns cattle, hogs, sheep and poultry into meat and other products on "dis-assembly lines" that have long been staffed by immigrants. US meat processing has been changing, as fewer and larger farms, feedlots and processors account for a larger share of producers and packers. Meat production in the past several decades shifted from urban areas near the consumers of meat products to rural areas nearer producers, as from Chicago to Garden City, Kansas. The share of meat processing employees in nonmetro areas rose from less than half in 1980 to 60 percent by 2000.

The meat processing industry has four segments, animal slaughtering (311611), meat processed from carcasses (311612), rendering and meat byproduct processing (311613), and poultry processing (311615). The Economic Census of 2002 reported that 506,000 employees worked in 4,000 meat processing establishments. About 86 percent or 435,000 of these employees were production workers, and they earned an average $22,245 in 2002, about $10.80 an hour. There were 218,000 meat and 216,000 poultry processing workers, and meat processing workers earned about eight percent higher wages, $11.70 compared to $10.80 an hour.

Real wages for meat processing workers fell in the 1980s. In 1982, when about half of the workers in meat and poultry processing were represented by unions, the entry-level base wage under United Food and Commercial Workers contracts was $10.69 an hour (MacDonald and Ollinger, 2000, 24). Many meat processors demanded that the UFCW agree to a cut in wages to the $8.25 an hour that many non-union plants paid, and there were 158 strikes involving 40,000 workers between 1983 and 1986 over wage cut-backs and two-tiered wages. Some plants closed, and by 1987, unions represented only 20 percent of meat processing workers and there were fewer differences in wages between large and small plants and between plants in different regions.

The meat processing plants that opened in rural areas were often larger than the urban plants that they replaced, and today 90 percent of meat and poultry is from plants that have 400 or more employees. There have been technological changes that make the work easier and accessible to less-skilled workers, such as air- and electric-powered knives.

Meat-packing has long attracted workers with relatively little education and sometimes little English, but wages had to be comparable to those in durables manufacturing when processors were in urban areas. Meat processing facilities in rural areas do not have to compete with other factories for workers, and often have to recruit workers from out of the area, especially for second or night shifts. Many Midwestern meat processors offered cash bonuses to current workers and others who recruited workers who were hired and stayed on the job 60 or 90 days, setting in motion networks that brought US-born as well as Mexican-born Hispanic workers from south Texas and other areas with few high unemployment rates.

The Hispanic share of the meat processing work force has been rising, from 15 percent in 1990 to 35 percent in 2000. However, there were still more non-Hispanic whites than Hispanics in US meatpacking, 41 compared to 35 percent in 2000.

The arrival of Hispanic or Asian workers quickly changed the face of rural areas that sometimes had not experienced significant immigration for a century. Some of these changes have been welcomed, especially in areas losing people and jobs, as the newcomers buy homes and shop at local markets. However, there are also more students with limited English proficiency and more patients seeking care at local emergency rooms, which can lead to complaints from local residents about the third-party effects of meat processing on local communities.

Two extremes mark the reactions of meat processors to the externalities associated with changing labor forces and populations in rural areas. Many meatpackers recognize that they are hiring workers with little English and education, and many partner with local community colleges and high schools to offer classes in English, finances and other life skills, as well as courses toward high school degrees, to their workers. For example, Tyson Foods, the largest US meatpacker, has an education assistance plan that pays 75 percent of tuition, books and fees (up to $3,500 a year) for coursework toward a degree that would help meet the company's business needs. In Grand Island, Nebraska, Swift & Co. built a two-classroom school near its plant in 2002 so workers could attend high school classes before and after their shifts with a teacher from the local school district and a teacher's aide.

The other end of the spectrum is marked by processors who say that their major economic contribution is the facility they provide for local farmers and the payroll they provide to local workers. Such reactions have provoked something of a backlash against meat processors in some areas, with some counties and towns voting against zoning or other changes needed to open or re-open meat processing facilities.

Cases. Accomack County, along Virginia's eastern shore in Delmarva accounts for 10 percent of the state's poultry output. The county had 38,000 residents in 2000 and a median household income well under the state's average. The number of Hispanic residents quadrupled to 1,700 between 1990 and 2000, as previous migrant farm workers became year-round poultry processing workers. Turnover in some plants exceeds 100 percent, as workers switch from plant to plant after disputes with supervisors or to be with family and friends. Hispanics were 10 percent of poultry processing workers in 2005, while Blacks were 50 percent.

Duplin County, North Carolina had 49,000 residents in 2000, and accounts for a quarter of the state's turkey production (the county has the world's largest turkey plant, with 3,000 employees in Mount Olive). The number of Hispanic residents increased seven-fold to 7,400 between 1990 and 2000. There are as many Hispanics in agriculture as in meat processing, and the newness of the migration is reflected in the fact that there were 160 Hispanic males for every 100 Hispanic females in the 2000 census. Unemployment fell during the 1990s, but only a third of the Hispanics in the county own the homes in which they live.

Storm Lake, Iowa, a city of 8,800, became 10 percent minority within a decade because of two meatpacking plants with 2,000 employees. The school system requested that local meatpackers pay for English as a Second Language classes and bilingual teachers, but the meatpackers pointed to their payrolls as their contribution to the local economy. This reaction was cited by residents of the nearby town of Spencer, which refused to grant a zoning variance so a meat-packing company could open. During the January 2000 presidential primary, the Federation for American Immigration Reform ran ads highlighting the changing face of Storm Lake. The reaction was mixed. Some Storm Lake residents said that Storm Lake benefited from immigration and diversity, while others said they preferred a stable or shrinking population to diversity and the higher taxes associated with caring for needy immigrants.

Garden City underwent similar demographic changes after ConAgra Beef Processors and IBP opened or expanded meat packing plants in southwestern Kansas that employed about 3,500 workers. The sudden influx of southeast Asians and later Mexicans into a city of 25,000 put pressure on available housing. Many of the newcomers found housing in mobile home parks, which sometimes brought complaints from local residents. When the ConAgra plant was closed for six months by a Christmas Day fire in 2000, the local unemployment rate tripled until the plant re-opened.

The city of Rogers in Northwestern Arkansas is sometimes cited as a model for accommodating immigrants who work in poultry processing plants. Between 1980 and 2000, the population of Rogers almost doubled to 40,000, and Hispanics became 15 percent of residents. Rogers adopted an ambitious plan to integrate Hispanics "in all neighborhoods, locations and areas," and a Rogers bank developed a plan that enabled many two-earner families earning $7 an hour at area poultry plants to qualify for mortgage loans. Mayor John Sampier was credited with organizing sports leagues that enabled the newcomers to get to know established residents, but in 1998 was voted out by Steve Womack, who demanded "zero tolerance" toward unauthorized foreigners and insisted that legal newcomers "speak the language" and conform to community norms.

Beef and Poultry. Between 1970 and 2000, per capita annual consumption of beef declined from 80 to 65 pounds, but chicken consumption almost doubled from 28 to 53 pounds, in part because the real prices of poultry products declined by 55 percent between 1960 and 2000. Poultry processing has traditionally been located in rural areas in states such as Arkansas, Georgia, Alabama and North Carolina. US exports of poultry have increased sharply, and employment in poultry processing by 2001 exceeded employment in red meat processing.

Growth in poultry production encouraged vertical integration, with processors providing farmers with chicks and feed, and turning these independent contractors into practical "employees" who cared for the chickens as specified by the processor. Rural poultry processing plants often hired the wives of producers at relatively low and stable wages, but Hispanic men and women willing to accept wet and noisy working conditions joined them in the 1990s. About two-thirds of US poultry is produced in the southeast, and the average wage of $7.39 in 1997 in poultry processing is about the same in real terms as in the 1970s and 1980s; few poultry processing plants are unionized.

Many producers are trying to obtain premium prices for their commodities. South Dakota is launching a Certified Beef program to appeal to consumers who want a computer-tracked cow that was born, fed and butchered inside state borders, with certified farmers who cheat subject to state felony charges. The aim is to create value-added and differentiated products.

South Dakota is the first state to use its lawmaking powers to underwrite and enforce a marketing story designed to capture the value of high-end beef, which is expected to fetch a $0.75 a pound premium. South Dakota farmers send 1.8 million cows to market each year and processing capacity will have to be added to meet the requirements of the program, since most South Dakota cattle are now sent to other states.

Chicago's Union Stock Yards opened in 1865, and eventually had 475 acres of slaughterhouses. Poet Carl Sandburg called Chicago the "hog butcher for the world," as animals arrived by rail and meat was distributed by trains. Henry Ford reportedly observed the dis-assembly line, in which animals were killed on the top floor and meat was distributed from the ground floor, and reversed the process to put cars together. Chicago declined in importance to meat packing after the 1950s, with the advent of refrigerated trucks.

There is one small slaughterhouse left in Chicago in 2005, Chiappetti Lamb and Veal in Bridgeport, which has 150 mostly Hispanic workers. European immigrants were the mainstay of Chicago meatpacking, and were replaced during World War I by Blacks. When soldiers returned, there were race riots in Chicago in 1919.

Art. Iowa-born artist Grant Woods' painting, American Gothic, is one of the art world's most-copied images, showing a stiff couple in front of a trim white cottage in Elton, Iowa in 1930. The woman has a prim, colonial-print apron trimmed with rickrack, while the man wears a black jacket, collarless shirt, and clean denim overalls and holds a three-pronged pitchfork.

Arreola, Daniel. D. 2004. Ed. Hispanic spaces, Latino places. A geography of regional and cultural diversity. Austin. University of Texas Press. Fink, D. 1998. Cutting into the Meatpacking Line. Workers and Change in the Rural Midwest. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press. Gozdziak, E. M. and S. F. Martin. Eds. 2005. Beyond the Gateway: Immigrants in a Changing America. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books. McMichae, Philip. Ed. 1994. The Global Restructuring of Agro-food Systems. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. Murphy, A., C. Blanchard, & J. A. Hill. Eds. 2001. Latino workers in the contemporary South. Athens. University of Georgia Press. Ollinger, M., J. MacDonald, and M. Madison. 2000. Structural Change in U.S. Chicken and Turkey Slaughter. Agricultural Economic Report 787. Washington, D.C.: Economic Research Service, USDA. Salamon, S. 2003. Newcomers to old towns: Suburbanization of the heartland. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Stull, D. D., M. J. Broadway, & D. Griffith Eds. 1995. Any way you cut it. Meat processing and small-town America. Lawrence. University Press of Kansas. Z£¤iga, V. and R. Hern ndez-Le¢n (Eds.) 2005. New Destinations: Mexican Immigration in the United States. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Subscribe via Email

Click here to subscribe to Rural Migration News via email.