Meatpacking, Migration and the American Dream

An interview with the author of Meatpacking America: How Migration, Work and Faith Unite and Divide the Heartland

Dayton Martindale January 18, 2023

Kristy Nabhan-Warren planned to write a book called Corn Belt Catholicism. Several years ago, the University of Iowa Catholic studies professor began visiting eastern Iowa parishes to explore how they were adapting (or not) to a growing population of nonwhite migrants and refugees. One fact quickly stood out: Almost every Latino and African churchgoer she interviewed worked in a meatpacking plant. If Nabhan-Warren, a longtime vegetarian, really wanted to understand the dynamics of race, class and religion shaping these small towns, she would need to visit a slaughterhouse.

The ensuing fieldwork was the hardest of her career, she says, and the result is the excellent 2021 book Meatpacking America: How Migration, Work and Faith Unite and Divide the Heartland. Barn Raiser spoke with Kristy about the book, religion in the workplace, and the future of Iowa’s meatpacking towns.

Dayton: How did the meatpacking industry end up in small towns in Iowa?

Kristy: We had these Midwestern urban hubs for meatpacking, cities such as Chicago and Cincinnati, where most of the animals were shipped in live, kept in pens and slaughtered. The workforce was mostly immigrant white ethnics.

In the mid-20th century, companies started to figure out that if they moved out of unionized cities, and moved to what we call red states like Iowa, North Carolina and Arkansas, among others, they could have a lot of land, they could vertically integrate, and they could control the means of production from insemination to raising the animals, and then shipping them to the “processing plants,” which is a euphemism.

When we think about the history of the meatpacking industry, it is men and women who are living precarious lives who tend to make their way to these jobs. But whereas their jobs were unionized at one point, they tend not to be now, they live in right-to-work states, and so the typical worker today tends to live an even more precarious existence.

When that shift out of cities first happened, it was mostly a white working class and Black African-American workforce. Today, the workforce is mostly Black and Latino. But not African Americans, it’s African migrants, Congolese, Sudanese, Somalians. And when we talk about Latinos, it’s primarily Central American asylees, refugees, not as many undocumented workers because the E-verify system has made it harder for companies to hire undocumented workers since the 2008 Postville raid [in which Immigration and Customs Enforcement raided an Iowa slaughterhouse].

Dayton: You wrote that the workers you spoke to want empathy, but not sympathy. How do they see their work?

Kristy: They’re not embarrassed to do that work, because they realize how important it is. And they take a lot of pride that they’re putting food on tables, not only in United States but across the world. They’re not afraid of hard work. But they would like more health protections, more safeguards, more rotation so that they don’t get repetitive use injuries. Their bodies take a beating, you don’t last long at these plants unless you’re moved around frequently. It’s work that causes damage: carpal tunnel damage, damage to wrists, necks, backs, feet.

Every single black and brown man and woman I talked with talked about racism and American society, and how virulent it is. They would say to me, “I’m like you, I want my kids to go to good schools, go to college.” They wanted me to get across in the book that they want to live the American dream, too, and they feel like they have a right to it because they’re working and they’re contributing taxes. They strongly feel they have a right to be here, and that we need to value their work and them as humans.

Dayton: How have Latino and Black Iowans been received by white residents?

Kristy: I had grown weary of the tropes of the Midwest, that we’re flyover, that it’s just this cesspool of white racism, that we’re just all white.

Those are partial truths. A lot of the white Catholic parishioners, there’s a ways to go here. White racism is alive. I know that in Columbus Junction, Iowa, it’s been a tough sell, because the white Catholics there tend to be the ones with the money. Even though they’re diminishing in number, they hold the purse strings, and they have some resentment.

But there’s a lot of activist priests in the state, white, Filipino, Latino, who are really trying to do the work of social justice. In most of these parishes it’s the priest who’s like, hey, we need to be the hands and feet of Christ. And we really need to welcome the stranger.

I see a lot of middle-age and older white women who go to Unitarian Universalist, United Church of Christ and Catholic churches, doing the work of social justice. Many white Midwesterners see with their own eyes what Latinos and African refugees are contributing, they see that their students are excellent students, they see that their yards are immaculate, and that they have statues of la Virgen de Guadalupe in the front yard. Burmese restaurants are more popular than burger and fries among white folk. So as much as I see challenges, I also see opportunities.

Dayton: At a Tyson plant you go to there’s a chaplain who works there. Why is there a chaplain at a pig processing plant?

Kristy: Tyson’s brand is faith, family and food. My positive take is that companies like Tyson want workers to be able to bring their whole selves to the workplace, and they want to be able to honor religious commitments and faith commitments. Some Latino men say, Hey, I have my rosary under my smock. And I can pray the rosary, I can touch my rosary and know that God is with me, the Virgin Mary is with me. There are several men who had tattoos as a reminder of their faith. When they’re in a really difficult, gruesome place, having tattoos and rosaries as symbols, literal material symbols, can be really reassuring, can get them through the day.

The problem? I saw the good that chaplain Joe Blay did, workers would come to him for advice. He would drive folks to the grocery store, go to their baby showers. But I also saw Joe having to drive injured workers to the doctor. And in the end, he works for the company. So I think there’s a built-in conflict of interest there. And also a privileging of Christianity.

Contrast that with Iowa Premium Beef (IPB, now Iowa Premium) in Tama, Iowa. They don’t have a chaplaincy program, but they try to honor religious diversity. You won’t find Muslim workers on the line at a pork plant, because it’s haram, anathema to their faith, but you will find Muslim men and women working at beef plants. And it just so happens that the beef processing plant in Tama is certified halal, which is even better.

Muslim women and I think men as well, though I wasn’t able to go in the men’s locker room, have crafted an area where they can go for the call to prayer. And they had their prayer rugs hanging up. They perform the ablutions where they wash their hands and face and arms. I talked to the human resources manager and she basically said, we’re fine with taking breaks for prayer, as long as it’s clear with the line manager, and as long as it doesn’t impact negatively the other workers. And so IPB I think is trying to honor and acknowledge religious diversity without privileging any.

Dayton: I think it’s easy for those not involved in the work to think, killing animals is simply part of how the world works. But meatpacking workers you spoke to see it as something heavy.

Kristy: If you’re a line worker, and you’re on the hot side, or the slaughter side, five days a week you’re dealing with warm flesh, right? And from what I heard they need to have a kind of cognitive dissonance from it in order to get through the day. But several expressed a fear that they don’t want to have such a cognitive dissonance where they’re not realizing that this animal was alive.

Now workers who are on the cold side—a.k.a. fab side or fabrication side, where the animal flesh has been de-hided and it’s been in the cooler, the blast chiller for at least 48 hours—by the time they get the meat, they’re more detached. They know this was an animal but it doesn’t look like Wilbur from Charlotte’s Web.

When I talked with Raúl, he is pretty high up at the IPB plant, he says he still struggles. He grew up in Mexico, where his family had cattle, and he believes the animals have souls and feel pain. It’s still hard for him, even though he does believe that his company does it humanely.

I always tell people, don’t eat a hamburger or pork chop right before you read the book. I kind of want the reader to be disgusted. I want to bring the reader in, show what it’s like here, I want them to smell it. I want them to feel it. I want them to imagine the mist and maybe bits of offal going into their mouth. I wanted to do that so that the reader could hopefully empathize with the folks doing this work, because it is disgusting.

Dayton: You highlight how wrong it is to call this “unskilled” labor.

Kristy: I think the way in which Americans talk about work is deeply classist and racist and gendered. Work and these plants tend to be very gendered. Men tend to do the really heavy work of the big saws and the really heavy machinery. Women by and large do the fine trimming with a wizard knife, which kind of look like the long lighters that you’d light your candles with, but they have little sharp razors. And as I watched these workers, I was amazed with like, having to know how to position your body on the line, knowing how quickly the meat is going by. You almost have to be there see it, but I wanted to get across that this is highly skilled work, and these workers should be compensated and they should be unionized.

Dayton: Can you explain the cultural difference between producers who raise the animals and processors who work at slaughterhouses?

Kristy: There’s a sort of caste system between producer towns, towns like Washington, Iowa, which tend to be whiter, wealthier. They have really nice restaurants. They smell but not like they smell in the processing towns.

And then you’ve got the processing towns, which tend to be primarily Latino-dominant, increasingly African, Burmese. And that’s where you drive in and you smell it from miles away, the smell is just astounding.

And I should add the producer towns have their confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) usually in the outskirts, so the CAFOs tend to be near to the processing towns. And so you’ve got a double whammy on these processor towns, you’ve got where the animals are being killed, the offal the smell the stench, and then you’ve got the CAFOs and the tons of manure that is being pumped out of these places. So you’ve got environmental degradation in the air, the land, the water being much closer to the processing towns than the producer towns.

Dayton: These towns have become so economically dependent on meatpacking. What does this mean for the present and future economies of these areas?

Kristy: These processing towns are dependent on the influx of money, and so you hear it in the supervisors meetings, City Hall meetings, there’s a gratitude. These companies know that a lot of these towns were dying before they came, and so they wield that dependency, they weaponize it, they have been able to get away with a lot. These are like the new coal towns, they have company stores, a lot of the workers buy their meat there because they get a discount so that they don’t need to buy it locally.

So I think that it’ll be important for these towns to really think about other ways. There is a growing number of hops farmers in the state, hemp farmers, men and women who are able to leave the plants and start small businesses. A question that I would have for the city planners and supervisors is, what kind of city do you imagine for the future? If it is maintaining your relationship with these processing plants, can you make more demands for them to clean up? Can you diversify? Can you support small farmers?

Since Covid hit these communities so hard, we’re seeing groups of workers who are like, enough is enough, Latinos in particular. There’s a group based in Iowa City called Eschucha Mi Voz, listen to my voice, hear my voice. Their headquarters are in the Iowa City Catholic Worker house, and they’re also advocating for unionization.

I’m personally hopeful that we will see a real push for unionization in red states. And hopefully, we get enough white folks like myself who can be allies in this charge.

Read an excerpt of the book here. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Dayton Martindale

Dayton Martindale is a Contributing Editor at Barn Raiser, host of Storytelling Animals podcast, and an experienced writer and editor on climate, environmental, and animal issues. His work has appeared in Rural America In These Times, In These Times, Sierra, The Ecologist, Earth Island Journal, Boston Review, The Next System Project and numerous other publications. Dayton's father was born in Beloit, Wisconsin, and grew up on a Washington farm; his mother is descended from a former Navajo slave as well as colonizing Spanish landowners in what is now New Mexico. Dayton grew up in a California suburb, just a few miles away from Los Angeles on one side and farmland on the other, and now lives in Detroit. He is passionate about building a kinder, more just world for ourselves and for the creatures wild and domestic with whom we share it.

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