Raiding the Packing House

Early in May, federal immigration agents raided a slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa, where they arrested almost 400 illegal immigrants from Guatemala and Mexico. This sort of thing happens frequently throughout the Middle West. The only thing new about this raid was that many of those arrested were sentenced to five months in prison for illegal use of social security cards.

Whenever anyone asks why companies like this one hire illegal immigrants to work in their plants, the bosses always say that native-born Americans won’t work in packinghouses. This statement is a lie and an insult to every worker in the United States. Let me tell you a story.

In 1962, I got a job at the John Morrell and Company packinghouse in Ottumwa, Iowa.  The man who hired me wore a crisp gray suit that summer morning.  He told me he hoped I wouldn’t join the union, by which he meant Local 1 of the United Packinghouse Workers of America (UPWA).  He also said the company would pay me $2.50 an hour. By the standards of that distant era, two-fifty an hour was good pay for a kid like me.

I didn’t tell the guy that three of my uncles worked there and that all of them belonged to the union. I didn’t mention my father and all my other relatives who worked for railroads and other industries and that all of them belonged to unions. I didn’t want to get fired before I had even begun, so I kept all those statistics to myself.

Off I went into the belly of the slaughterhouse, a clandestine union sympathizer surrounded by over three thousand union members.  I worked first in one place, then another.  Sullen foremen gave me the least instruction possible, then went away and seldom came back.  In the bacon department, all the workers were woman.  After the foreman (a man) walked away, a middle-aged woman took a motherly interest in my welfare.  “Watch out,” she said.  “You’re getting too close to the saw.”

I was getting too close because the blade of the band saw moved so fast I couldn’t see it.  A band saw slices bacon as neatly as you like, but it can also slice fingers and thumbs.  The nice lady then showed me what the foreman hadn’t, the safe way to slice bacon with a band saw.  That short, plump, brown-haired, fair-skinned woman in a white dress, wearing the required hair net, sent me home that night with the required cap on my head and my fingers and thumbs still on my hands.

I never worked in any department more than two or three days.  The noise level usually prevented conversation.  Finally I arrived in the canned-ham department, which stood on the top floor of one of the many interconnected buildings that formed the plant.  During my brief career as a packinghouse worker, this huge room was the only place I recall that admitted natural light.  Every other department could have instantly become as dark as Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher’s cave simply by turning off the lights.

The foreman was an agitated little man of about my own height and weight, but twenty years older.  He led me to many stacks of cans on many pallets, located at the head of the five-pound-ham line.  While speaking faster than I thought humanly possible, he said, “Keep the conveyer belt full of cans.  Never drop one on the floor.  If you drop it, throw it away.  Sanitation laws.  They’re expensive.  Don’t drop them.  Don’t stack.  Keep the belt full.  Got it?”

I started to say I got it, but the man had already turned and walked away.  I began my task.  The belt started and stopped for reasons I never learned.  I kept it full.  Didn’t stack.  Didn’t drop.  Didn’t throw away.  Noticed sharpness at top edges of unsealed cans.  Noticed cuts on hands.  Foreman returned.

“Faster,” he said.

I looked at the belt.  “It’s full,” I said.

“No, no!  Like this.”  He picked up three cans in each hand and shoved them onto the end of the conveyer belt.  A few feet down the line, two or three cans fell off the belt.

I’d worked at the packinghouse over a week by then and had begun to doubt the judgment of the foremen.  “You told me not to drop them on the floor,” I said.  “They’re expensive.”  I picked up the cans and started to throw them into a trash hopper.


“They were on the floor.”

He ignored my concern for the clean food and drug laws.  “You can’t throw that many away.”

I took this opportunity to raise another issue.  “I’m getting these cuts,” I said, showing him my hands.  “Can I wear gloves?”  I took a pair of jersey gloves out of the back pocket of my jeans.  Since I never knew what job I’d have when I got to the plant, I always brought a pair of gloves.

“No cloth gloves.  Rubber gloves.”

“Where can I get them?”

“Company store.  Down front.  Look!  More cans!”

I looked at the belt.  A tiny beachhead had opened.  I filled it and turned back toward the foreman.  Vanished.  I’d have to find the store on my own.

The line stopped for lunch at about eleven o’clock every day.  In addition, each worker got a number of short breaks each day.  You knew your turn had arrived when a man appeared at your side and said, “Piss break.”  The women in the bacon department didn’t use that vulgar term, but there were no women in the canned-ham department.  The union and the company had negotiated all these arrangements for the functioning of the human bladder, and the contract spelled everything out.  I don’t know how the contract spelled the part about the pee breaks.

When the line stopped for lunch, I gulped down the food my mother had prepared, then ran downstairs and found the company store.  An old guy with thin gray hair commiserated with me about the cuts and fixed me up with a pair of black rubber gloves.  I don’t remember how much they cost.  I returned to the canned-ham department, after which my blood no longer added its flavor to the hams.

* * *

The next day, I arrived at the canned-ham department with my rubber gloves, only to learn that I no longer needed them.  The foreman led me to the end of the room, where the line curved around and stopped someplace that I never saw.  He pointed at four men, all of whom were older and larger than I.  “Work with them,” he said.  “They’ll show you what to do.”  He walked away without making introductions.

Before the belt started to move, the tallest of my four comrades, a middle-aged man with an authoritative voice and manner, showed me what to do.  “We cut the hams,” he said, “and push the pieces down the cutting board to you.  You take a can off the belt, put the pieces in like this, put in a scoop of this brown powder, and put the can back on the belt.”  He demonstrated all this with perfect clarity.  From my new vantage point, I saw that five-man crews stood all along the line, ready to do exactly what we did.

I told my workmates my name, they told me theirs, and I promptly forgot them.  At the cutting board on my left, the man who’d shown me what to do stood beside me.  Another middle-aged man, shorter than the other, stood beyond the first one.  On my right, a short stocky black man about thirty stood closest to me.  A younger man—tall, lean, and white—stood beyond him.  At exactly seven o’clock, the belt started to move.

Each of the four men beside me made a variety of cuts on an entire ham.  No one made the same cut repeatedly.  So no one developed carpal tunnel syndrome, unlike the men and women in today’s disposable-worker packing plants.  The men worked steadily but without frenetic haste.  Each piece of meat reached me in the perfect size and shape.  I had the easiest job and managed to keep up with my coworkers.  The foreman maintained a studious absence.

As we got into the rhythm of the day, the two older men on my left began to talk.  Among other things, they talked about union matters. They were proud of their union and didn’t hesitate to say so. It turned out that the man who had shown me my job was the union steward in that department. He, not the foreman, was the most powerful man in that department, and I cannot begin to tell you how much joy it brought me when the steward later ordered the foreman to get out of his sight and never come back.

I subsequently learned that many of the workers at the plant were the children or grandchildren of coalminers. When John Morrell sent his nephew, Thomas Foster, from England to Ottumwa to open a packinghouse in 1877, Foster hired out-of-work coalminers because he knew they would work hard. He forgot or never knew that they were also rabidly pro-union. For example, John L. Lewis was born in a coal camp near Lucas, Iowa. Lewis eventually became the leader of the United Mine Workers (UMW) and later the CIO. Ottumwa really isn’t a good place to tell someone that American workers refuse to work in packinghouses.

The strike of 1948 is one of the most memorable events in Ottumwa’s union history. The strike was long and sometimes violent. On one occasion, when hundreds of workers, both men and women, blocked a boxcar loaded with meat, the company asked the county sheriff to use fire hoses on the strikers. But Sheriff Everett Orman, a Republican, refused.  “These are human beings,” he said. (Shelton Stromquist, Solidarity & Survival, University of Iowa Press, 1993, pp. 185-86)

But for the most part, Morrell could rely on all the elements of state power to side with the company. Nonetheless, for Local 1, the strike confirmed the wisdom of its faith in worker solidarity. For better or worse, many packinghouse workers across the country regarded Local 1 as the most militant local in the history of the UPWA. Nothing, however, could save the plant from ultimate extinction. It was too old and inefficient, the owners said. They wanted packing plants that were new, shiny, and more profitable.

In 1973, Morrell and Company closed the Ottumwa plant forever.  One thousand seven hundred men and women lost their jobs.  The company had already laid off hundreds of others.  By 1979, after two union mergers, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) represented all Morrell retirees in Ottumwa and other cities in the United States.  On January 25, 1995, after finding a loophole in its contract with the UFCW and making its case in court, the company cut off all health and life-insurance benefits for over three thousand retirees nationwide, including those for my last surviving uncle and hundreds of other retirees in Ottumwa.

The Morrell Retirees Club in Ottumwa sought an injunction against the company’s actions, but failed to get it.  A bill introduced in the U.S. Senate by Tom Daschle of South Dakota failed to pass.  One elderly man in Ottumwa shot himself to death.  He did this, his son told the Ottumwa Courier, when confronted with hundreds of dollars in monthly prescription-drug costs he couldn’t pay.  John Morrell and Company won its final battle with the veterans of Local 1.

* * *

In 1974, Hormel built a small packinghouse near the remains of the old one and hired 120 production workers. The workers soon organized a union local, and by the early 1980s, employment had risen to over 800. For new workers, the starting pay was about $11 per hour. After a long dispute later in that decade, the union granted wage concessions, but Hormel soon asked for more. In 1985, workers at the Hormel plant in Austin, Minnesota, went on strike to protest these new company demands. The following year, Ottumwa’s workers, always faithful, struck in sympathy with the workers in Austin.

Hormel responded by firing 507 workers in Ottumwa. When an arbitrator later ordered Hormel to rehire the fired workers, Hormel hired some but not all. Instead, after many threats and delays, it announced that it would close the Ottumwa plant in 1987.

This event led directly to the arrival of Excel, which leased and eventually bought the Hormel plant. Excel is one of the “Big Three” packinghouse companies that now dominate the industry. Like ConAgra and Iowa Beef Processors (IBP), Excel obtains high profits by paying the lowest wages possible, opposing unions with fanatical zeal, and using high-speed production techniques requiring repetitive motions that often lead to cuts, carpal tunnel syndrome, and other injuries. Meatpacking is now one of the most dangerous industries in the United States.

Despite all this, when Excel advertised 450 jobs, over 3000 local workers applied. Although the workers successfully organized Local 230 of the UFCW, Excel threatened to close the plant if the workers asked for too much, which effectively reduced the union’s bargaining power. In the fall of 1988, the union and the company ratified a new contract. This contract rewarded workers with starting pay of $6.80 per hour and two weeks of vacation after three years on the job.

Faced with these wages, work without end, and repeated injuries, most workers found it impossible to continue by the time they reached middle age. Workers at Excel have told me that the company makes it as difficult as possible for employees to win benefits for injuries on the job.

Despite its frequent threats to close the plant, Excel continued to hire more employees. By 1998 over 1000 people worked there, although low pay, few benefits, and approximately 1000 injuries per year maintained a brisk turnover in the work force. Excel announced that it wanted to hire between 500 and 700 new employees. (Wilson Warren, Struggling with “Iowa’s Pride,” University of Iowa Press, 2000, pp. 123-131) Then the big lie went to work in Ottumwa.

Excel (now grandly renamed “Cargill Meat Solutions”) complained that Ottumwa had too few workers. By this time, the news media had already convinced millions of people in the United States that our workers would no longer take certain jobs. Something was wrong with our workers. We were all spoiled and lazy. Times had changed.

The big lie always reminds me of the history of the Morrell plant in Ottumwa, which at one time employed almost 4000 men and women, most of whom were either black or white, just like the people who had once mined the coal of southern Iowa. But now, suddenly, no one would work.

Paul McCrory didn’t know that no one would work. On November 16, 2005, McCrory, age 41, was on the job at Excel in Ottumwa. At about 9:20 AM, the overhead rails of a conveyer belt collapsed, fell on McCrory, and trapped him where he lay.

The paramedics, police, and fire fighters all arrived quickly, freed McCrory, and carried him to the Ottumwa Hospital, where at 10:03 AM, doctors pronounced him dead. (Ottumwa Courier, Nov. 17, 2005)

McCrory was married and had one child. He coached T-Ball, Little League, and Babe Ruth baseball. He loved music. The Iowa Department of Labor eventually fined Excel $80,000 for safety violations associated with McCrory’s death. (Ottumwa Courier, Feb. 10, 2006) I assume the company had no trouble finding another worker.

Because of the alleged labor shortage in Ottumwa, Excel said it would have to begin recruiting elsewhere. According to the Ottumwa Courier (Nov. 13, 2007), Randy Zorn, general manager of Excel, later said that the company had done its recruiting primarily in the U.S. Southwest. As a result, Ottumwa now has a new Latino population of between 2000 and 3000 people. I’ve talked to many Anglos in Ottumwa, and they all agree that the Latinos are hard workers.

But other statistics come to mind. Excel began recruiting in 1998 when it had about 1000 workers. (Wilson Warren, p. 130) It now employs about 2300 people, and about 30 percent of those are Latinos. (Ottumwa Courier, Nov. 13, 2007) If you do the arithmetic, you’ll see that the workforce now includes about 690 Latinos and 1610 black and white locals.

In other words, Excel now employs 1610 Iowa natives who allegedly won’t work and 690 Latinos who will work. What do the 1610 natives do all day, fry bacon for supper? It’s all part of the big lie, and one goal of the lie is to prevent a unified labor movement that includes both the locals and the Latinos. The bosses in this country want the black and white workers to blame the Latinos for their problems. If the workers want to win concessions from the companies, they have to resist this trick and build union solidarity.

The claim that working-class Americans won’t work is a lie. But they don’t want to die of injuries received on the job. They want jobs with safety, good pay, and good benefits. The lie was invented by industries that want huge profits and a surplus of throw-away workers.

The only thing that will correct this problem is a strong union movement that includes workers of all colors and ethnicities. A federal government sympathetic to the rebirth of healthy unions would help, but don’t sit around waiting for it to arrive. Now, as always, workers have to take control of their own lives.

Welcome to Iowa, amigos.  Venceremos!

Footnote: A portion of this essay first appeared in A Firefly in the Night, Ice Cube Press, 2007.

PATRICK IRELAN is a retired high-school teacher. He is the author of A Firefly in the Night (Ice Cube Press) and Central Standard: A Time, a Place, a Family (University of Iowa Press). You can contact him at pwirelan43@yahoo.com.





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