October 1995, Volume 1, Number 4
Hispanics in Iowa Meatpacking
Hispanics and Asians now dominate the labor forces of midwestern
meatpacking, an industry that has come full circle in the 20th
century. It was first an entry-level job for immigrants, then a
high-wage industrial job for the native -born, and is once again at
the end of the century an immigrant job.
Meatpacking plants were typically unionized until 1980, and they
paid wages high enough for one worker to support a family. For this
reason, many midwestern towns welcomed or tolerated meatpacking
plants despite their smells.
Unionization and wages in meatpacking fell 50 percent during the
1980s, while the speed of the kill lines increased by 50 percent. A
1986 US Supreme Court ruling permitted meatpacking companies to
merge, and a merger wave permitted four companies, led by IBP with
32,000 employees, to control 80 percent of US meatpacking.
The meatpacking work force in Iowa and other Midwestern states is
increasingly comprised of Hispanic and Asian immigrants. Turnover
rates are very high--often over 100 percent per year, which means
that workers average fewer than six months on the job. Critics argue
that meat packers deliberately keep turnover high in order to have
most of the workers at entry level wages; companies counter that they
try to reduce turnover to reduce training costs.
It is not clear how much training is provided by companies.
Meatpacking companies report that they spend up to $3,000 to recruit
and train each production employee who, with overtime averaging 10
hours per week, can earn about $25,000 annually. Starting wages are
typically in the $5 to $6 per hour range, or $10,000 to $12,000 per
Immigrants are also coming to dominate the poultry processing work
forces in the Southern states, and some have succeeded in bringing
unions into plants in states that historically have few unions. On
July 15, 1995 nearly 600 poultry processing workers represented by
Local 693 of the Laborers' International Union of North America
(LIUNA) unanimously ratified their first union contract at Sanderson
Farms in Mississippi. Wage rates range from $6.90 an hour for line
workers to $11.70 an hour for maintenance workers.
LIUNA has begun negotiations for a contract at the 1,300-employee
Sanderson Farms poultry processing plant in Collins, Mississippi. On
July 12, LIUNA won an election victory at Case Farms in Morganton,
North Carolina, where 500 mostly Guatemalan and Mexican immigrants
voted for LIUNA representation.
Many believe that the INS should devote more resources to interior
enforcement to prevent unauthorized workers from obtaining US jobs.
On September 26, the INS announced that Operation SouthPAW (PAW -
Protecting America's Workers) had removed 4,000 unauthorized
workers--almost 90 percent Mexicans--in 31 days of coordinated
inspections by DOL and INS investigators in June and September--from
300 US firms in Mississippi, Tennessee, Arkansas, Georgia, Alabama
One-third of the illegal workers were found in Georgia, and
one-fourth in Arkansas. Follow-up surveys by the INS found that local
residents filled over half of the jobs from which illegal aliens were
removed. Some employers were re-inspected, and ten were fined the
maximum $15,000 for continuing to employ illegal alien workers.
Arkansas Governor Jim Guy Tucker questioned the significance of
apprehending 600 illegal workers in his state when Tyson Foods alone
employs 20,000 workers. Tyson Foods said inspections were disruptive,
and the INS apprehended only 73 workers. According to Tyson, only 40
jobs were then opened up for legal workers.
Letters to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette criticized the INS raids.
One asserted that, if the US really wants to stop illegal
immigration, it should " focus on fining and putting companies out of
business for violation of law. No jobs, no illegals."
Simmons Foods, a company that has worked closely with the INS to
learn how to detect false documents, had six illegal workers in a
work force of 650. Simmons officials said they would like to find a
better way to check documents to eliminate the need for INS
The raids have brought fear to illegal immigrants in towns
throughout the South. After Operation Gulf Sweep in Texas, there were
reports that in some towns, streets and stores were empty because
immigrants were afraid they would be picked up on the street by INS.
One woman said she even gave up babysitting, and the $75 per week she
earned from it, because she was afraid she would be picked up in the
"New INS Enforcement Strategy Leads to 4,000 Workplace," Daily
Labor Report, September 27, 1995. "INS Commissioner Announces Results
of Operation SouthPAW," US Newswire, September 26, 1995. D.R.
Stewart, "INS Defends Efforts to Week Out Illegals ," Arkansas
Democrat-Gazette, September 25, 1995. Anne Fitzgerald, "As
Meatpacking changes, a hard job gets harder," Des Moines Register,
September 17, 1995. DR Stewart, "INS Plucks 200 illegals from state
poultry plants," Arkansas Democrat Gazette, September 7, 1995. Tom
Carney, "Hispanics find pain, promise in packing," Des Moines
Register, July 2, 1995.