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January 2008, Volume 14, Number 1

Meat and Migrants

The first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses on January 3, 2008 prompted reporting on immigration, a hot topic for both Democrats and Republicans in the state. Iowa has about 112,000 foreign-born residents, including half who are unauthorized.

A December 2007 Des Moines Register poll found that 81 percent of Republicans and 67 percent of Democrats consider immigration a key issue. Some of the Iowans interviewed said that rising illegal migration, combined with the demise of the family farm and the exodus of young people from small towns, contributed to the sense of unease across Iowa.

Columbus Junction, Iowa has been transformed by immigration, largely because IBP re-opened a closed meatpacking plant in 1986 and began recruiting workers along the Mexico-US border. The population rose to almost 2,000, unlike most of Iowa's small towns that lost residents; the majority of residents are Hispanic. Town leaders are generally pleased with the changes brought by immigration, but many adults cannot communicate because of language barriers. No Latinos sit on the City Council or the School Board, but there is more political activism, especially among second-generation bilingual Hispanics. Median household income is lower than the state average, as is the percentage of residents who have a college education.

Storm Lake, a city of 10,000 in the northwestern part of Iowa, figured prominently in the presidential caucuses of 2000 and again in 2008. Migrants drawn to pork- and turkey-processing plants have changed the ethnic make-up, making the county almost 20 percent Hispanic in 2006. Storm Lake is sometimes called Little Mexico, and critics of the changing face of the area complain that migrants have replaced US workers in the plants, added English learners to the schools and increased crime. Migrant advocates emphasize that, without the migrants, the plants may have closed, putting Storm Lake in a death spiral. Representative Steve King (R-IA), who represents Storm Lake, advocates a tough line against illegal migration.

Key sectors encouraging the Latinization of the nonmetro midwest, southeast, and northwest are agriculture and meat/poultry processing. By 2000, over 60 percent of all workers in meat processing were in rural America, up from less than half in 1980, and the shift to rural areas helped to keep the real labor costs of meat processing workers flat at about $20,000 (1994 dollars).

Just as seasonal agriculture was a port of entry for rural Mexicans in California and the southwest, so meatpacking is serving as a port of entry for Hispanics in nonmetro areas. The Hispanic share of the nonmetro meatpacking work force more than tripled between 1990 and 2005, from less than 10 percent to 36 percent. Over 80 percent of the Hispanics employed in meatpacking in 2005 were foreign-born, two-thirds had less than a high-school education and their earnings averaged $15,600 (2000 dollars).

Smithfield. Smithfield Foods has 5,200 employees at its Tar Heel, North Carolina pork processing plant, the world's largest; it processes 30,000 hogs a day with 5,500 to 6,000 workers. The largest town in Bladen county, where the plant is located, has less than 4,000 residents.

Beginning in November 2006, ICE agents began to check the legal status of the workers in Tar Heel, prompting 1,100 Hispanics to quit. Most were replaced by US-born workers at the entry-level wage of $10.75 (wages average $12 an hour), but plant managers say turnover has increased. About 60 percent of the newly hired US workers quit within 90 days of being hired.

Smithfield opened the plant in 1992 with mostly Black workers. Hispanics arrived after the mid-1990s, replacing Blacks who quit. The United Food and Commercial Workers Union, which lost representation elections at the plant in 1994 and 1997, says that turnover is high because Smithfield expects too much work. In January 2007, Smithfield agreed to pay $1.5 million to 10 workers fired for union-organizing activities.

The UFCW asked Smithfield to recognize it as the workers bargaining representative on the basis of a card check rather than an election. However, in October 2007, the UFCW broke off talks with Smithfield after failing to agree on the ground rules for a card check (Smithfield refused to refrain from "pressure tactics" to discourage workers from voting for a union). According to the UFCW, Smithfield shows an anti-union film to new hires during orientation and advises them to demand a secret-ballot election if they are approached by union organizers.

The UFCW lost an election at Smithfield's Wilson, North Carolina plant in July 1999 on a 152-108 vote. In 2001, a NLRB judge found that Smithfield committed numerous violations of the NLRA, including discharging pro-union employees, interrogating workers about their union views and threatening cuts in pay and benefits if the workers unionized. The ALJ wanted the Board to issue a "Gissel" bargaining order, which would avoid having another election, but the Board ordered another election. In October 2007, Smithfield sued the UFCW for "malicious" and "extortionate" pressure.

In January 2008, Smithfield announced that Martin Luther King Jr day would become a paid holiday, bringing the total to nine.

The meat industry is concentrated: the four largest beef packers accounted for 84 percent of the cattle slaughtered in 2005, and the four largest pork processors 64 percent.

Linda Lantor Fandel, "In Columbus Junction, Anglos, Latinos build community together - and apart," Des Moines Register, November 25, 2007. Jerry Kammer, "GOP voters' worries over immigration shape race in Iowa," Copley News Service, October 18, 2007.

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