Immigrants, meatpacking and my town:
I confess my confusion
By ART CULLEN
Visit my town: Storm Lake, Iowa, 8,800 people according to the census, a
pretty place with a 3,000-acre glacier lake, a small liberal arts college,
a wide main street with healthy stores, and two big meatpacking plants.
Those meatpacking plants have created quite a stir over the last few years,
both here at home and nationally. Storm Lake has been featured by US News
and World Report, NBC News, The Nation, The Wall Street Journal, and Time
magazine in the past couple years.
The focus is on immigrants and IBP, the nation's largest slaughter company.
(Receiving virtually no attention nationally is Bil-Mar Foods, a turkey
processor that is a division of Sara Lee.) Further, 60 Minutes just did
a story on IBP, too, but this time concentrating on its pork plant in Waterloo,
Each of the stories runs roughly the same: Mexicans stream across the border,
invade small-town America, are victimized by IBP, and the town is a pot
There is a little bit of truth to all of this. There is a lot that doesn't
quite tell the story, either.
Here's the story, as I can best understand it, from my vantage point as
the editor of a little weekly newspaper in a county seat town.
Storm Lake lies halfway between Fort Dodge and Sioux City in Northwest Iowa.
It has been a meatpacking center for as long as anyone here can remember.
Years ago, Kingan's and later Hygrade operated a slaughter plant with well-paid
union workers. A local family operated a turkey plant that ran seasonally,
using a lot of migrant laborers, who often slept in a closed-down roller
rink or camped along the lake. We called them gypsies back then.
Around 1982 things fell apart for Hygrade. It said its union contracts were
too burdensome in an industry that operates on margins of 1 or 2 percent.
Hygrade would close the plant and put some 500 people out of work.
Storm Lake celebrated when IBP came in and put $26 million into opening
and renovating the aged plant. What was a union town was now non-union.
Workers, fearful of another closing, repeatedly voted down union membership.
IBP is legendary for running the toughest ship in the toughest business
in the world. But it is successful. It revolutionized meatpacking by putting
beef into boxes, giving it longer shelf life and making it easier for supermarkets
to further process. Storm Lake was its entree into the pork business. The
plant here is said to be the most productive in the world, slaughtering
13,000 hogs a day.
A lot of locals came to dislike IBP. The same old family atmosphere wasn't
there - and the wage/benefit package was about half as much. Old Hygrade
workers drifted away, while IBP continued to add jobs. It put on a second
shift, and a night clean-up crew. The workers had to come from somewhere.
Shortly before all this, Iowa started the nation's most extensive resettlement
program of refugees from the Vietnam War. Churches brought families to live
in small towns, and helped them find jobs. IBP became a magnet for Laotians.
The Southeast Asians had a tremendous work ethic. IBP had lots of work.
It was a fit. Many of those who started with IBP a decade ago are there
today. Barry Thongvanh, for example, rose to become a plant liaison with
the Southeast Asian community. And, they told their many friends and relatives
of the good life in Storm Lake: No crime, steady work, health insurance,
vacation, profit sharing.
The same was true for Bil-Mar.
Meantime, IBP was recruiting workers around the country. Latinos started
to come in from Texas and California. They, too, told friends and family
about steady work in Storm Lake, and they flocked here. It is the subject
of much dispute whether IBP recruited in East Los Angeles or even Mexico.
Regardless, the effect has been a steady influx of Latinos over the last
five years, to the point that they now outnumber the Laotians.
In fact, Latinos and Laotians now outnumber Anglos in the meatpacking plants.
There are 1,065 "non-Anglo" workers, while there are 847 Anglos.
Storm Lake will never be the same. Then again, should it be?
When I was a boy the only black person I ever saw was a tremendous basketball
forward that Buena Vista College recruited from New York City. Later, I
made friends with a black football player at BVC. That was the extent of
my multi-cultural awareness, other than knowing Germans and Dutch people.
It was easy being open-minded back then, when Storm Lake was all white.
We could not understand why the South in the 1960s couldn't get with the
program. Why, we were better than that.
Today, there are two camps in Storm Lake - the do-gooders, who want to have
a multi-cultural food fest once a month (we Iowans love to eat!); and the
rednecks, who think all those foreigners ought to take their smelly fish
and all the troubles they've brought back to the jungle.
I overstate, of course. But those views are made public at the extremes.
The good news is that we in Storm Lake have made friends with people of
different cultures. This is a rare experience in Corn Country. We have learned
a lot. We have grown to admire people who swam the Mekong River for freedom.
We want to help our new friends from Mexico who are trying to feed poverty-stricken
families back home.
The bad news is that this has put a heavy burden on Storm Lake. Half of
the kindergarten class in our public schools now speak English as a Second
Language, if at all. There are 17 languages, from Somali to Portugese, spoken
in our schools. New, powerful strains of tuberculosis are causing panic
among parents. And, here is the most sensitive topic: crime.
There were three murders in six months in Storm Lake last year. The first
was a baby whose body was found in a dumpster at a trailer court populated
almost exclusively by Latinos and Laotians. The second involved a former
CIA operative from Laos, working at IBP, who executed his wife and father-in-law.
(She was fooling around; he had threatened to chop her head off with a machete
as he had so many in the war, and send it to her mother in a box.) The third
involved an Ethiopian accused of butchering another Ethiopian with the skills
he had learned at the pack, or possibly as an insurgent back home.
These crimes shocked the community. Storm Lake is not used to this stuff.
Fortunately, we have a sophisticated and fair-minded police chief who formerly
was a homicide detective in East St. Louis. He knows how to handle this
stuff. He also knows to count up his numbers, and they add up like this:
With the exception of the murders, the crime rates among Anglos, Latinos,
Laotians, Somalis and whatever other category the census identifies, are
virtually identical. The Smiths do the same number of wrong things proportionately
as the Sanchezes.
The police chief notes that urban problems are moving to rural areas, blind
to race or culture. We now have crack and meth and any other drug of the
moment. We have robbery and rape and other assorted mayhem. And we have
fear among the locals. Many of them blame it squarely on the immigrants,
and on the meatpackers.
Enter the politicians. Sensing the mood, US Attorney Steve Rapp, a Democrat,
organized a raid last May complete with helicopters and dogs and a press
conference for the benefit of US News and World Report. About 80 Latinos
were shipped out. Some Asians were detained briefly, too, despite the INS
knowing full well that they are almost all political refugees with working
They also know full well that another 80 Latinos would replace those deported
within a few days.
What we were left with was a good show and a lot of broken families.
The police chief, who participated, is now disgusted with it.
IBP helped, too.
Other politicians have taken note. Sen. Tom Harkin, a Democrat, and Sen.
Charles Grassley, a Republican, each tries to take credit for opening a
second INS office in Iowa. Our congressman, Republican Tom Latham, has secured
funding for a third office in Sioux City. So now we can have more raids.
It is not clear that this is what the people want. I am confused by the
whole issue, and I think most of the voters are. We had a Democrat who ran
for county attorney against IBP, and got thumped. We had a Democrat who
ran for state representative against IBP, and got thumped. (That was Jim
Gustafson, who we featured in our first issue of the Progressive Populist.
The independent pork producer also ran against corporate hog farms. Not
a good formula, I guess.)
Here is the crux of my confusion: IBP provides more than 1,300 jobs in Storm
Lake for an average wage around $8 an hour. Bil-Mar provides another 500
jobs for a like wage. It's terribly tough work for not great pay. But it's
not bad pay by rural Iowa standards, where a nice two-story, four-bedroom
house sells for $50,000.
My neighbor, Gus, came here from Mexico and has risen to shift supervisor
at IBP. He drives a nice car, lives a good life, helps out his sister who
works there, too. The family has been here for several years, and likes
it. They have no intentions of leaving.
US News, meanwhile, showed a different side of it - the workers who were
injured on the line and thrown back into their lives of poverty south of
The workers are not making what Hygrade workers did. Hygrade was on the
rocks, however. IBP is making good money. Its chairman is making millions.
Just last week it bought Foodbrands for $600 million in cash.
The UFCW has not tried to organize this plant, or Bil-Mar, in years. Former
UFCW Vice President Louis Anderson says that the union has a sweetheart
deal where it gets half of IBP's plants in return for keeping hands off
the others. The union counters that National Labor Relations Board rules
are such that they cannot effectively organize anymore - Reagan destroyed
it with the air traffic controllers.
So we have these people, many of whom lived in grass huts in a former life,
making eight bucks or more an hour as opposed to 10 cents a day. The Iowa
plowboys are not exactly breaking down the doors at IBP for a job. They're
going to Iowa State University instead to major in electrical engineering,
or learning how to get in at the top of a corporate hog farm.
Meatpacking is work that requires no education but a lot of physical stamina
Further, we have already seen pork production move away from Iowa to the
deserts of Utah. What is to prevent shipping corn south of the border, and
building a maquiladora plant down there to slaughter it, too? Nothing. For
the moment, we are set up to slaughter hogs efficiently in Northwest Iowa,
because it is cheaper to move Mexicans here than hogs there.
It's that simple.
So why don't we leave the poor Mexicans and Somalians and Laotians alone?
They're not hurting anyone anymore than the Irish or Italians or Heinz 57's
are. The immigrants are just chasing the American Dream, and trying to escape
the horrors behind them, as did my ancestors fled the Potato Famine. I'm
still corny enough to believe that the Statue of Liberty means something
- let's help these people.
Well, right, you might say, but aren't they being mistreated? No, not if
they show up for work on time and don't get injured.
What if they do get injured? Workers' comp laws pre-empt any big money being
sought from employers. That is something we could change.
Why don't they get paid more? The average manufacturing wage in Iowa has
fallen 50 percent since 1975. It's the global economy, stupid! And the unions
either don't care or they are so eviscerated that they cannot act. The union
plant in Waterloo offers the same pay as the non-union Storm Lake plant,
except that the Storm Lake workers get profit sharing. Ask the union worker
at the John Deere plant in Dubuque - long the leading pay provider in Midwest
manufacturing - how much his life has improved since the farm crisis wiped
out half the production. These are not good days for the blue-collar workers.
I don't know what to do about it. If a union did organize here, the packs
could move south of the border. (Note in this issue that Osh Kosh B'Gosh
is moving its plant from Osh Kosh, Wisc., to India!)
We all wonder where this leaves our town. IBP just announced that due to
a shortage of hog supplies, it was laying off more than 1,000 workers in
Council Bluffs and Columbus Junction, Iowa. Bil-Mar is having a terrible
year because of a glut of meat on the market.
This scares me, as the part-owner of our little family business.
So I am confused: Yes, I wish that meatpackers were nicer, but they are
meatpackers after all. (Even IBM has gotten surly in the past few years.)
Slaughterhouses do not attract Ward Cleavers, just people who handle cleavers.
The average worker at IBP makes as much as I do, and I have put my entire
family's future at risk by starting this newspaper, so what?
I can't sort it out. But I know that we will not solve our problems by shipping
out 80 immigrants at a time, or wishing Hygrade and the old Amalgamated
Meatcutters would return. I know we cannot solve anything through resentment.
And I know that whatever hog market farmers have left would absolutely collapse
without a resident meatpacker. It happened here once.
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