July 1999, Volume 5, Number 3
Operation Vanguard, IBP
Nebraska's congressional delegation met with the INS in May and June 1999
to complain about the impact of Operation Vanguard on the state's meatpacking
industry. Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-NE) said that Vanguard caused cattle and
hog prices to decline because slaughter-line speeds had to be slowed as
unauthorized workers quit.
Operation Vanguard reflects the new INS strategy of issuing do-not-hire
letters to employers rather than raiding work places. In November 1998, the
INS subpoenaed Social Security numbers and A-numbers of employed workers from
meatpackers and checked employee data against national databases. In March
1999, the INS announced that a review of 26,000 employee records at 40
meatpacking plants found 4,500 (17 percent) had discrepancies. These workers
were asked to clarify their status before the INS interviewed them in plant
Many of the workers quit before the INS arrived. The INS said that 2,149
of the 3,135 workers that it planned to interview in Nebraska plants quit
rather than be interviewed by the INS. As of June 1999, the INS interviewed
1,040 workers and arrested 34 unauthorized workers.
Nebraska's governor and congressional representatives complained that
Vanguard was slowing down slaughter lines just when the supply of hogs and
cattle was extraordinarily large, thus depressing prices for farmers. Former
Nebraska Gov. Ben Nelson, who was hired by farmers to lobby for changes in INS
enforcement strategy, said that "It was ill-advised for Operation Vanguard to
start out in a state with such low employment and an already big problem with a
shortage of labor... There has been an adverse economic impact on agriculture
because of this."
Nelson wants Congress to modify the H-2B program to permit the importation
of nonfarm foreign workers into permanent US jobs such as meatpacking. In a
letter dated July 16, 1999, the National Council of La Raza asked President
Clinton to suspend Vanguard, arguing that it increases discrimination against
Asians and Latinos.
The INS said that it is planning to shift the focus of Operation Vanguard
from Nebraska to meatpacking plants in Iowa, Kansas and Missouri.
The Lexington, Nebraska Board of Education in April 1999 postponed a
decision on hiring bilingual teachers and aides for four elementary schools in
order to see how Operation Vanguard affects school enrollments in Fall
A record number of hogs, 101 million, were slaughtered in 1998, with 55
percent processed in Iowa, North Carolina, Illinois and Minnesota. Prices fell
to $14 a 100-weight in December 1998, the lowest level since 1963. Hog
producers greatly expanded production in late 1997, after disease outbreaks in
Asia, and before the full dimensions of the Asian financial crisis were
apparent. It takes 10-months from breeding until hogs are ready for slaughter,
and in 1998, overproduction pulled down prices, as farmers were sending 2.2
million hogs each week to be slaughtered, up sharply from 1997 levels of 1.6
million hogs a week. Production shrank and prices are expected to rise to $40
a 100-weight in 1999.
IBP. The largely immigrant work force at a 1,400-employee IBP plant
in Wallula in eastern Washington went on strike June 4, 1999 to protest low
wages, poor working conditions and lack of respect. Wallula is an agricultural
town near the confluence of the Snake and Columbia Rivers near Yakima. IBP has
48 plants and 42,000 employees throughout the US.
The workers, who were represented by the Teamsters and were in the midst of
renegotiating a new contract, complained of starting wages of $7 an hour, and
wages of $8.28 an hour after five to ten years experience. Workers also
complained of fast production lines that led to unsafe working conditions:
about one-third of meatpacking employees report injuries each year.
The strike began as a wildcat effort, but the Teamsters endorsed the strike
after workers voted 847-291 to strike. About 90 percent of the workers are
immigrants. Rallies featured speeches in English and Spanish, with pauses for
the words to be translated into Lao, Vietnamese and Serbo-Croatian. (In July
1999, the 1.4 million Teamsters union agreed to hire a former federal
prosecutor to monitor union activities in a bid to end government oversight of
IBP, based in Dakota Dunes, South Dakota, said it is offering workers a pay
increase of $1.57 an hour over the next four and a half years, to a
company-wide average of $10.41, with 82 cents an hour effective immediately.
The union in July 1999 accepted an offer to raise the entry-level wage from $7
to $8.50 while cutting IBP's retirement contribution.
ConAgra Inc., one of the world's largest food companies, in May 1999
announced that it would lay off up to 8.4 percent of its work force, or about
7,000 employees in 80 divisions; ConAgra sales were $24 billion in 1998.
Many US meatpackers offer independent recruiting agents $200 to $300 for
each worker who remains on the job for one to two weeks. These recruiters
operate in both Mexico and the US, often setting up offices near US consulates
in Mexico and implying that they have authority to issue US work permits. In
south Texas, they hand out flyers saying "Busca trabajo?" or "Looking for
work?" at homeless shelters, on street corners, at bus stations or outside
Texas Employment Commission offices. In some cases, there may be three or four
levels of recruiters between a company such as IBP and street-level solicitors.
IBP has never been sanctioned for knowingly hiring undocumented workers.
A Houston-based bus company, El Expreso, a division of Coach USA, says that
it has transported 15,000 workers from Laredo to the North Carolina tobacco
Indians. President Clinton in July 1999 visited the poorest spot in
the US, the Oglala Sioux Indian Reservation in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, and
vowed to improve housing and create jobs for the 38,000 Native Americans on the
two million-acre reservation. The unemployment rate is 72 percent and male
life expectancy is 56. The Oglalas were the tribe that won a battle with
Custer in 1876 at Little Big Horn.
Mike Sherry, "INS, Meat Industry Group Differ On Release of Employee Data,"
Omaha World-Herald, July 10, 1999. Marisa Taylor and Steve Stein, "Network
helps recruit immigrants for US job market," Fort Worth Star-Telegram, July 4,
1999. Merrill Goozner, "Immigration tide helps keep US wage inflation in
check," Chicago Tribune, June 28, 1999. Sam Howe Verhovek, "Meat-Plant Workers
Are the Latest Example of Immigrants Packing the Picket Lines," New York Times,
June 26, 1999. Suzi Parker, "Hispanics reshape culture of the South,"
Christian Science Monitor, June 10, 1999. David Hendee, "Lawmakers to Discuss
INS Operation," Omaha World-Herald, May 13, 1999.