INS Declares War on Labor
Since last fall Sergio Sosa, a Guatemalan organizer with Omaha Together One Community, has been meeting with packinghouse workers, investigating plant conditions while looking for cultural threads to unify an anxious work force. "We've been trying to find the natural leaders and slowly put together a committee in the plants that can organize collective actions to change conditions," he says. Father Damien Zuerlein, who supports Sosa's group, started organizing workers at Greater Omaha Packing three years ago. "People weren't getting bathroom breaks, and even urinated in their clothes on the line," he says. "The line speed was tremendous, and lots of workers showed symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome. But management sent spies into our group, and everyone involved in the effort was fired. We concluded that we needed to root our organizing deeper in the plant."
Sosa's work led to the formation of a committee of twenty-two in-plant leaders who met regularly and were building a base. After Operation Vanguard's Omaha debut, only two of those leaders were left. As Sosa puts it, "The companies already buy people off when they begin to organize, threaten workers with immigration raids, fire people and even bring in workers from the border in a crisis. Operation Vanguard gave the companies a big gift on top of all this--almost all our leaders had to find jobs elsewhere."
The INS says the impetus for its program came from Anglo leaders in small towns like Madison, which twenty years ago were almost all white. "The community was frustrated about the unabated flow of illegal immigration," Reed says. A group of Nebraska police officers, accompanied by the state's Congressional delegation, called on INS commissioner Doris Meissner in Washington to complain about the high crime rate they attributed to the boom in immigration. According to a 1998 General Accounting Office study, the percentage of minorities living in Nebraska counties with heavy meatpacking work rose from 6 percent in 1980 to 9.5 percent today; and in Iowa, from 3.1 percent to 5 percent. In the schools the number of Spanish-speaking students with limited proficiency in English jumped from 227 to 4,600 over ten years in Nebraska and more than doubled in Iowa over the same period. Smaller Asian communities are growing at a similar pace. Those numbers, arbitrarily associated with illegal immigration and the jump in crime, gave the INS the wedge it needed. "We were challenged to do a better job in Nebraska," Reed says. "If we showed we could impact the meatpacking industry, we knew we could show a new way of dealing with the illegal-alien problem."
The "problem" in these Midwestern towns is intimately linked to the transformation of the meatpacking industry, which twenty years ago abandoned large cities and its traditional system of slaughtering the animals, cutting them into quarters and then sending the meat to markets, where skilled butchers cut it into pieces for consumers. "IBP engineered the move to rural communities," says Lourdes Gouveia, a sociology professor at the University of Nebraska. "It worked out the new system in the plants and pioneered cost-cutting by attacking organized labor."
The new system began with IBP's development of boxed beef. Now, animals are cut apart on disassembly lines, where an individual worker might cut out just one bone, hundreds of times a day. Boxes of consumer-size chunks of meat are then shipped to market. Line speeds have increased enormously, and as workers continually repeat the same motions, injuries have skyrocketed.
Although 60 percent of the meatpacking work force remains unionized, the restructuring drastically eroded the power of the union from the days when the militant United Packinghouse Workers negotiated master contracts that set wage standards higher than those of most manufacturing workers. The union culture was changing at the same time, as the Packinghouse Workers merged first with retail butchers in the Amalgamated Meatcutters and then with the Retail Clerks to form the United Food and Commercial Workers. In the first half of the eighties, meatpackers competed fiercely to force wage concessions from the UFCW, and in the process thirty plants closed between 1980 and 1982 alone. From the wreckage emerged a new group of meat monopolies: IBP, ConAgra, Cargill and Smithfield, which account for about 80 percent of all cattle and hogs slaughtered in the country. Average meatpacking wages are now between $9 and $10 an hour, the same level, adjusted for inflation, that they were at twenty years ago and $4 lower than today's average manufacturing wage.
Local 440's Nemitz says that union wages at Farmland alone declined by $1.54 in 1982. "For the last five years there's been a labor shortage because of the low wages. The human relations director tells me that they're operating with 100 people less than they need." To fill the plants, companies began recruiting Latino immigrants. "That was another IBP innovation," Gouveia explains. "They've created a whole new labor force, and the rest of the industry has followed." A 1989 memo to plant managers from Raoul Baxter, corporate human relations director of Morrell & Co., says, "With the realistic labor shortage and turnover we are facing, perhaps we could do a much better job than IBP of slowly recruiting Mexican Americans of high quality to work in Sioux City and Sioux Falls." Companies have sent recruiters to Los Angeles and other large immigrant communities. They've advertised on radio along the border, and even sent buses to pick up people as they cross over. "They're bringing people from El Paso, Durango, Zacatecas and Chihuahua," says Roberto Ceja, a worker at Nebraska Beef's Omaha plant. "They're even advertising on TV."