Immigrants, meatpacking and my town:
I confess my confusion


Managing Editor

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, Iowa.

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 of resentment.

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 papers.

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 border.

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 and determination.

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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