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April 2007, Volume 13, Number 2

Swift Fallout, Poultry Raid

Swift Fallout. On December 12, 2006, Immigration and Customs Enforcement mounted its largest-ever workplace raid, targeting six plants owned by Swift and arresting 1,282 workers; 148 were charged with identity theft. About a quarter of those arrested were at the Cactus Beef Plant in Texas, 600 miles north of the border, which employs 3,000 workers for wages that start at $11.50 an hour.

The Cactus Beef plant, which opened in 1974, initially relied on Vietnamese and Laotian refugees to supplement local workers, but the work force was mostly Mexican by the mid-1980s. In 2000, Guatemalans speaking the Mayan Quich‚ language began to arrive, and they were among those arrested in December. The 5,000 residents of Cactus are 99 percent Hispanic, and estimates of how many are unauthorized range from 15 to 75 percent. After the December 2006 raid, many unauthorized workers left Cactus.

The New York Times profiled two women on March 22, 2007, one of whom used the other's identity to get hired at the Swift plant in Marshalltown, Iowa. The US woman whose identity was stolen was recovering from drug problems, and ignored notices asking for taxes on the income being reported to her SSN (social security taxes were deducted by Swift, but the unauthorized worker did not file income tax returns).

The 2,220-employee Swift plant vetted the documents of new hires. The woman purchased the genuine birth certificate and Social Security card that did not belong to her for $800. In a case in Des Moines, a jury convicted an unauthorized Mexican of identity theft for using someone else's documents to get hired.

Some 2,460 production workers process 5,100 beef cattle a day at the one-million square foot Tyson Fresh Meats plant in Holcomb, Kansas. On March 1, 2007, the Holcomb workers voted 1,610 to 575 against the United Steelworkers union; only 26 percent of workers supported the union. In 2000, an effort to unionize failed by a similar 22 to 78 margin. Tyson says that the Holcomb employees have the best wages and benefits among all Tyson beef plants. Tyson is the world's largest processor of chicken, beef and pork, with 114,000 employees at 300 plants worldwide.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 47,500 workers in the animal slaughter and processing industry were hurt in 2005 on the job, a rate of 9.1 injuries per 100 workers, double the 4.5 rate for all private sector workers. Almost 522,000 US workers are employed in meat processing.

Smithfield Beef proposed a 3,000-employee, $200-million beef plant near 1,800-resident Hooker, Oklahoma in October 2006, prompting local opposition from at least 10 percent of residents who fear an influx of immigrant workers. The plant, which would process 5,000 cattle a day, would likely draw Hispanic newcomers who some local residents fear would "change the local culture," as have similar plants in Guymon, Oklahoma, Cactus, Texas, and Liberal, Kansas. Smithfield says it will work with local officials to deal with the impacts of the plant on Hooker, but provided no details.

Poultry Raid Aftermath. An examination of hiring patterns in the aftermath of an immigration raid at chicken processor Crider Inc in Stillmore, Georgia demonstrates how hard it is to substitute US for foreign workers after employers have become accustomed to migrants. Crider was raided over Labor Day weekend in 2006, and lost about 75 percent of its mostly Hispanic 900-member work force.

Crider, located in a rural area with few residents, raised wages to $7 to $9 an hour in Fall 2006 and turned to the state Employment Service, hiring 200 of the 400 job seekers sent. But its major response to obtain new workers was to turn to a recruiter of Black workers, Peacock Poultry, which sought workers in rural areas of Georgia and offered them housing in Crider-owned dorms in Stillmore. Blacks soon dominated the Crider labor force.

The Black workers complained about the pay and working conditions. Blacks had been 70 percent of Crider workers in the mid-1990s, but their share fell to 15 percent before the raids in 2006; Crider wages were $6 an hour just before the raids. Crider's president said Hispanics replaced exiting Blacks in the 1990s because "We want people who want to work and are willing to work every day."

Many of the Hispanics at Crider used false documents to get hired, and most of the 120 who were not arrested in September 2006 left Crider. The Blacks who replaced them soon ran afoul of supervisors when they were told to go back to work after slips and falls. There were disputes between the contractors who actually hired the Blacks and workers over pay, especially given the contractor's practice of cashing paychecks for workers, leaving them with cash but no documentation of their hours or earnings. When workers thought they were not paid for all the hours they worked, they had no proof.

During Fall 2006, Blacks were about 65 percent of Crider's labor force, whites 30 percent and Hispanics five percent. However, turnover is high, about 300 percent in the last four months of 2006, meaning that three workers were filled to keep each job slot filled. To get more workers, Crider began hiring felons on probation from a state prison, residents of a homeless mission from nearby Macon, and Hmong from Minnesota and Wisconsin. Crider turned to an Hispanic contractor for workers, and the Hispanic share of workers has begun to increase again.

The Crider case highlights the often subtle changes that can occur when employers become accustomed to an endless supply of migrants in labor markets that offer more opportunity to local workers. Crider was able to find local workers after it raised wages, but they were not as "good" as the migrants they replaced. With supervisors treating US workers in the same way they treated migrants, there were disputes and high turnover. It appears that Crider is returning to dependence on Hispanic migrants. If migrants were not available, it is likely that Crider would have to make fundamental changes in how it processes chickens.

Pork. The UFCW has been trying to organize the Smithfield Foods' pork processing facility in Tar Heel, North Carolina, the world's largest, for a decade. About 48 percent of the workers are reported to be Hispanic, and 37 percent Black. Smithfield participates in the Basic Pilot program, under which newly hired workers have their name and immigration data verified by immigration and social security authorities.

The UFCW alleges that Smithfield is using immigration agents to discourage unionization. There were elections at the Tar Heel plant in 1994 and 1997 that the union lost. In May 2006, a federal appeals court threw out the 1997 election, finding that the company had engaged in "intense and widespread coercion" to block the union.

Minneapolis. Some 40,000 Somalis have settled in the Minneapolis area since 1990. Some drive taxis, and 70 percent of the drivers licensed to work at Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport are Somalian immigrants. About 1,000 passengers a year have been denied rides from the airport because they were visibly carrying alcohol, which the Somalis say is against their religion. The airport is considering suspending drivers who refuse passengers.

Some fear religious extremism in the area. The transit authority promised not to assign drivers to buses that carried ads for a local gay and lesbian magazine called Lavender, and Target agreed to assign Muslim cashiers to jobs that do not require handling pork. Federal law requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for religious beliefs; the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission handled 2,541 complaints of faith-based discrimination in FY06.

Stephanie Simon, "Faith and work collide in Minneapolis," Los Angeles Times, March 27, 2007. Sylvia Moreno, "Immigration Raid Leaves Texas Town a Skeleton," Washington Post, February 9, 2007. Evan Perez and Corey Dade, "An immigration raid aids Blacks for a time," Wall Street Journal, January 17, 2007.