God and Hogs

The vertical integration of faith and death at Tyson Foods

Kristy Nabhan-Warren January 18, 2023

The following is excerpted and adapted from Meatpacking America: How Migration, Work and Faith Unite and Divide the Heartland. For our interview with the author, see here.

Tyson is a leader in a growing corporate movement to have men and women of God on the payrolls, employing full-time chaplains. Tyson promotes faith in the workplace and, in a sense, packages and promotes a new brand of faith for its employees, who in turn draw upon this workplace faith to get them through their shift. A faith in hard work, grit, and determination that relies on a Protestant work ethic pervades the contemporary Tyson meatpacking plant and corporate culture.

In rural meatpacking plants, animals are raised, killed, and sold in a pattern of vertical integration, much as religion, specifically evangelical Protestant Christianity, pervades the vertical integration process of animals from birth to slaughter. The “previously independent facets” of animals, humans and religion are now in one sprawling place—the packing plants that contain animals, people and workplace corporate faith. An evangelistic fervor is present in companies like Tyson, where the food, faith and the workplace are vertically integrated to form the American dream of values-laced success.

As the journalist Emma Green has discovered, workplace chaplaincy programs are on the rise in the United States as well as globally. Tyson Foods is unusual, however, in that it is a publicly traded company that runs its own in-house chaplaincy programs. The company is at the forefront and is part of a larger Faith at Work movement in the United States that can be traced back to the postwar 1950s and the rise of corporate America, evangelical Christianity and a new era of consumerism. In 1950s and 1960s America, a rising middle class was able and encouraged to purchase meat for growing families.

Chicken soon became, thanks to Don Tyson in the 1950s and another chicken magnate, S. Truett Cathy, who launched Chick-fil-A back in 1964, America’s most popular white meat. Tyson helped popularize a Christian business trifecta of family, work and faith in his fresh meats conglomerate. For his part, Cathy applied the evangelical work trinity to his company, employees and the popular chicken sandwiches, waffle fries, coleslaw and ice cream cones they served by the millions each year. Tyson Foods also boasts, according to religious studies scholar David W. Miller, “the largest known private-sector corporate-chaplaincy program” in the United States and globally, with more than 115 chaplains based in different factories around the country. Company-wide, this works out to roughly one chaplain on staff for every 1,000 Tyson employees.

Tyson Foods’ chaplaincy program has been around since 2000 and was founded to “provide compassionate pastoral care to team members and their families, regardless of their religious affiliation or beliefs.”

Tyson currently employs approximately 114,000 “team members” at more than 400 facilities and offices in the United States and around the world. Tyson Foods uses not-so-subtle evangelical Christian terminology such as “values,” “integrity,” “faith-friendly,” and “family” liberally in its public relations marketing. Tyson’s business approach is a blend of corporate paternalism, evangelical fervor, and capitalism. Workers are part of a “team” and, even more so, a “family.” While Tyson advertises its corporate commitment to its workers, ultimately it is bound to “creating value” for its shareholders first, customers second, and team members third.

As Americans have shifted from mainstream denominational affiliations—think Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist—in recent years, enterprising corporations have taken advantage of the “spiritual-but-not-religious”-identifying landscape in the United States and have rebranded their workplaces as religious sites.  

At Tyson meatpacking plants, the sounds, smells and sights of death are not ignored but are rebranded as unfortunate necessities to meet consumers’ dietary needs and employees’ right to work. The horror of the job is downplayed with a focus on animals’ existence to meet humans’ needs and rights. Within corporate hog culture and the larger protein industry, animals exist to serve people, and the people who work at plants like Tyson are primarily refugees whose existence is legitimated as serving others’ needs.  How do workers at places like Tyson interpret the talk of “family” and “values”? Do they feel like they are a part of a family, and does the values-talk appeal to them?

In my field work, I found that many workers are proud of the work that they do, but all of the refugees emphasized the difficulty and brutality of their jobs and did not romanticize it. Most survive by compartmentalizing their faith, families and jobs. The women and men at packing plants like Tyson work long hours, are filthy when they return home, are sore, and always carry the slaughterhouse’s pungent smell with them. None of the workers I talked with want their children working at the plant, absolutely none.

While the CEOs, CFOs and human resources management at the meat packing plants want to downplay the blood and violence and even sacralize it, the killing and cutting floors are not experienced as a religious space by the workers I spent time with. Religion is invoked by workers to deal with the onslaught of violence and the role they play in it—rosaries and scapulars are worn under smocks; prayers for protection are said—but the workplace itself is not experienced as “sacred” by the workers with whom I spoke. While I saw some women and men making signs of the cross and some of the Catholic Latino men wore scapulars under their T-shirts, religion is something the workers carried in with them that helped them cope with the horrors of their work. Religion works to make the blood, violence and squeals of the hogs bearable. It works to get them through another hard day at the plant.

The workers I encountered considered the death of the animals a heavy thing—and they did not take their role in the killing process lightly. The violence is not sacred to them, and the women and men with whom I spoke undergo a cyclical loop of atonement. Their work at Tyson and Iowa Premium Beef is something that they must do to provide for their families, but it is not something that they love. The workers on the line talked about the physical pain they are in, the nightmares they have as a result of the violent work, and the smell of death that is always on their bodies.

For as much as Tyson (and Iowa Premium Beef) sugarcoat and cloak what happens on the floor with feel-good language and employee freebies, such as baby blankets, squishy animal toys, water bottles, and lunch bags, the reality is that this is a terrible job. But this terrible job pays better than any other job a refugee or other vulnerable worker can get, because it is a gruesome job that white Americans, even the poorest, refuse to do.

The work of religion is no doubt being done in the packing plants. The paternalistic evangelical ethos of family, faith, and values permeates the entire operations of Tyson (and Iowa Premium Beef) and is all-pervasive on a meta-level. On the line, workers turn to their faith to get through the day, but the packing plant is not so much like a church or house of worship as it is a house of horror that they pray they can leave at the end of the day safely and return to their families. No, religion is present in their homes with their wives, husbands, and children and at the houses of worship that they look forward to attending. For as much as they borrow the language of faith and work to replace traditional “church,” companies like Tyson have not succeeded. Tyson’s “family values” cannot make the cognitive leap into the slaughter of animals. Family values do not include the cries of the swine and cattle before they are killed or the cutting and packaging of raw meat, and the refugees know this. While creating a faith-filled workplace that mimics church and organized religion may work for Chick-fil-A, where cooked animals are served on buns with pickles and mayo, it ultimately does not work at corporations like Tyson that deal with living animals.

From Meatpacking America: How Migration, Work, and Faith Unite and Divide the Heartland by Kristy Nabhan-Warren. Copyright © 2021 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher. www.uncpress.org. Read our interview with the author.

Kristy Nabhan-Warren

Kristy Nabhan-Warren is the V. O. and Elizabeth Kahl Figge Chair of Catholic Studies and a professor in the Departments of Religious Studies and Gender, Women's, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Iowa. She is the author of Meatpacking America: How Migration, Work and Faith Unite and Divide the Heartland.

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