Divide and Rule: Notes From the Hidden Abode in Global Iowa

shutterstock_328795391Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock.com

Iowa City, Iowa

Liberals and progressives in the United States are stunned and horrified by the success that the blustering arch-misogynist white nationalist Donald Trump has enjoyed in rallying white U.S. working class people behind his call to build a “giant wall” (and “make Mexico pay” for the southern portion) to keep immigrants out. It’s not the only card Trump has played in his effort to turn white working class people into “Trumpenproletarians” (Eric Draitser’s entertaining term). The Donald also talks about imposing tariffs to keep “foreign goods” from “taking American jobs.” He rails against “free trade” measures that drain U.S. jobs, against the purchase of U.S. politicians by wealthy election investors (Trump’s own wealth makes him immune to that), and against business owners who close down their U.S. operations to set up shop abroad. As Matt Taibbi recently noted in Rolling Stone, “Reporters have focused quite a lot on the crazy/race-baiting/nativist themes in Trump’s campaign, but these comprise a very small part of his usual presentation. His speeches increasingly are strikingly populist in their content…His pitch is: He’s rich, he won’t owe anyone anything upon election, and therefore he won’t do what both Democratic and Republican politicians unfailingly do upon taking office, i.e., approve rotten/regressive policies that screw ordinary people.”

Still, there’s no doubt that Trump’s nasty nativist rhetoric against immigrants is a significant part of his success with white workers. That success might be distressing but is it surprising? For what, really, is the mystery about the support Trump and other right wing white-nationalist Republicans get from many among the white working class on the immigration question in a time of stagnant wages, a shrinking “middle class,” and ubiquitous economic precariousness and insecurity? The white (and for that matter the Black-American) U.S. working class does not really have to be propagandized by Donald Trump or anyone else to think that immigrant workers might pose some threat to their interests, after all. Under the longstanding divide-and-rule of capitalism, proletarians (people who must rent out their labor power to employers in order to gain the income required to obtain basic life necessities) are pitted by the profit-chasing employer class against one another in the dog-eat-dog struggle for decent wages, conditions, and status. The bigger the “reserve army of labor” that capital has at hand to wield as a club against those already employed, the greater the strength of the bourgeoisie in its constant conflict with the proletariat over working conditions and the division of the economic surplus. Desperate and peripatetic newcomer laborers who are largely immune to collective working class protest and organization (more on that below) are a very real problem for existing social labor standards in the host city, region, or nation. That’s just a simple fact of working class life in the U.S. and everywhere else capital reigns. Professional-class liberal Democrats who don’t understand that should spend some time on the bottom rungs of U.S. labor market and workplace.

The Hidden Abode of Procter & Gamble

Let’s take a peek into what that supposedly irrelevant dead guy Karl Marx called “the hidden abode of production.” Here in and around the liberal bastion of Iowa City, a university town where wage-earners’ working class lives are all but invisible to a large local cadre of privileged and mostly white academicians, the lower end of the workplace and the job market – the factory and warehouse positions filled by temporary labor agencies, custodial jobs, taxi drivers, etc. – is crowded with immigrants. It is chock full of nonwhite people who feel fortunate to have any kind of job that helps them escape danger, misery terror, and oppression in far-away places like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, Sudan, Honduras, Mexico, and Haiti.

Does anyone really believe that Iowa City’s giant Procter & Gamble (P&G) plant – my low-wage, finger-wrenching workplace between from September of 2015 through February of 2016 and the origin point for many of North America’s leading hair-care products – is crawling with Congolese and Sudanese workers, along with a smattering of Central Americans, Caribbean islanders, marginal whites, Black Americans, and Africans from other states, because P&G (the nation’s 25th largest company and its top consumer packaged goods firm by far) is nobly committed to racial and ethnic diversity and a world without borders? Of course it isn’t. P&G reserves its better paid and more “skilled” and secure “career” production jobs almost completely for non-Hispanic whites [1]. These “plant technician” jobs require no more than a GED (high school equivalency) degree and start at around $20 an hour. They are staffed by harried and serious-looking young and middle aged white men and women wearing black shirts with yellow trim. These are the people featured in the company’s promotional videos on “entry-level careers” at P&G. You can find a small number of Black American and Latino/a people in these jobs but the plant technicians are very disproportionately Caucasian.  They have difficult and sometime irritating jobs keeping production lines going around the clock (P&G runs three eight hour shifts in continuous sequence all day long and seven days a week) but the chance to make $20 with just a high school degree (or GED) is good enough to keep these workers obedient, outwardly company-loyal, and out of unions. They also enjoy some of what the left historian David Roediger has (building on the work of the great Black Marxist thinker WEB DuBois) called “the wages of whiteness”: a sense of privilege and power relative to non-white people with considerably less income and power in and beyond the workplace.

P&G relies on a leading temporary or “contingent” worker agency to fill its large number of lower-paid – $10 to $11.85 an hour depending on shift – and casually employed production positions with primarily African immigrants, many of whom are quite highly educated. These mostly Black- workers speak Arabic (the Sudanese), French (the Congolese), some English (the Sudanese in the lead, followed by the Congolese, with non-Puerto Rican Latin Americans far behind) and wear long red t-shirts to make them visible to speeding fork-lift drivers who pose a constant threat to life and limb. I beheld a white plant technician with no education beyond a GED and a mindset fit for guard duty in Dachau, dress down African workers with medical degrees and PhDs on more than one occasion.

The temp firm is Staff Management/SMX, which describes itself as “a recognized leader in comprehensive staffing and contingent workforce solutions. We partner with Fortune 500 and mid-sized companies,” SMX boasts, “to deliver innovative staffing solutions with superior results across a multitude of industries and geographies.” SMX specializes in labor “flexibility.” I was told that it skims off $6 an hour for every lower-level “light industrial” working hour it delivered to P&G, making the manufacturing and packaging giant’s real wage bill for first-shift production workers $16 an hour. That’s no small rake-off for SMX.

Here’s some comparative context for that parasitic skimming. I recently temped in a unionized bakery next to a Congolese woman who makes $16 an hour working four ten hour days a week. The work she performs is much less difficult and much more regular than the production work at the multinational behemoth P&G, whose annual profits exceed $10 billion. Wow: work for a regional bakery with a union and make $16 an hour. Work for a Fortune 25 corporation with a a temp agency and no union and make $10 an hour.

The immigrant and African presence delivered to the “hidden abode” at the Iowa City P&G (where the company puts the slogan “Bring it On” above the employee entrance) is quite pronounced. I remember one very atypical day working at P&G being astonished to look around and see that nearly half the workers on my line were white. It was completely atypical. “What’s with all the Caucasians,” I (myself white) said to my Congolese “line leader” (a curious job category I will describe below): “I’m just not comfortable working with all these white people!” “Paul,” my African co-worker said, “tu es fou” (you are crazy). True enough, no doubt.

Staff Management and P&G designate one red-shirted worker per packaging line and work group to be paid a laughably small $1-an-hour premium for serving as a “line leader,” responsible for “training” and assigning tasks and keeping the line going. An especially productive worker is chosen to be paid this small supplement for the task of driving his fellow workers. Some of the “line leaders” become quite absurdly full of themselves over this honor, rewarded with a pittance compared to the added responsibility. It is a clever and nasty little way of pitting workers against each other.

I never once worked under a white line-leader at P&G. Due to language difficulties, I often could not understand what my line leaders were saying and had to consult with the black and gold-shirted P&G plant technicians to understand the tasks to which I was being assigned.

Still, I got along well with the immigrant African P&G/SMX workers despite being a middle-aged semi-proletarianized white guy. Not being racist was part of that. So was knowing a little French, a tiny bit of Spanish, and some history of the countries from which my immigrant co-workers came (more on that below) and of what Europe and the United States had done to those countries (more on that as well). Maybe it also mattered that I grew up in an integrated Chicago neighborhood where it was nothing unusual to have Black authority figures, from bus drivers, to crossing guards, police, and school teachers.

Nobody taught the history of Africa, Latin America, and Western imperialism to my white P&G co-workers, one of whom quit not long after informing me that he “can’t stand taking orders from niggers anymore.” He wasn’t the only Caucasian worker I witnessed who couldn’t deal with the racial inversion at P&G.

Sources of Labor Stability

African workers predominate in the P&G plant’s dozens of difficult, lower-end jobs because they are ready, willing, and able to perform without open complaint or protest the plant’s most menial tasks. The work includes filling boxes on rapidly moving assembly lines with shampoo, conditioner and mouthwash bottles, building and wrapping pallets at the end of never-ending packaging-assembly lines, putting stickers on one shampoo or conditioner bottle after another, and more and worse. It’s all performed in exchange for inadequate wages (far lower than they ought to be thanks to the SMX rake-off) and at constant risk of being sent home early and without warning since there’s often “no more product today” (that’s called “labor flexibility” and it’s no small problem for workers who already paid for a full day’s worth of child care). There’s no protest or resistance beyond an occasional argument with a line-leader who waits too long to give his fellow workers their occasional work breaks.

For what it’s worth, the only union presence I ever saw in the plant was some big white International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers guys who came into the plant one day to do some contracting work – and to guffaw over “all the little Black immigrants” (a strange comment since many of the African workers are quite tall) they saw “running around this place.”

Why no protest or organization? For the better-paid white workers, the plant technicians, employer-friendly labor stability is rooted in relatively high wages and benefits. For the bottom-rung workers, the logic of quiescence is different. Their subordination to the employers (technically Staff Management though the visible shop-floor authorities are actually the P&G plant technicians) is rooted in a number of factors: the positive comparison they reasonably make between life and work in the U.S. and the misery and trauma they left behind in their homelands; their understanding that continued presence in the U.S. depends on staying employed to satisfy the requirements of work visas; the common prior experience of extreme repression in Africa or Latin America; language barriers to communication and hence solidarity with workers outside their ethic group; internal ethnic divisions including continuing “tribal” conflicts between Hutus and Tutsis among and between Congolese and Rwandan workers; the existence of other workplaces to escape to (for example, the big Whirlpool plant over in Amana, Iowa or the meatpacking plants in West Liberty and down in Columbus Junction) if work at P&G proves too difficult. (It proved too difficult to me: after five months of being compelled to repeatedly open hundreds of glued boxes, I was starting to experience difficulty making even a mildly closed fist with either of my hands. Full and pain-free finger dexterity returned a week after quitting).

Along the way, the sharp differences and inequalities between the immigrant and mostly Black workers brought in by SMX and the white plant technicians hired direct through P&G militates against anything remotely close to working class solidarity. They live in very different worlds. The immigrant workers’ worlds are themselves quite significantly divided by religion, language, and culture, all related to their diverse origins across what the Marxist environmental sociologist John Bellamy Foster has called “the global treadmill of production.

World Systemic Iowa

It really is a world capitalist system. Here in “rural” white Upper Midwestern Iowa, far from all the nation’s land and ocean borders, a giant state of-the-art and significantly automated plant owned by a massive multinational corporation makes and packages shampoo, conditioner, mouthwash and other products for all of North America [2] with workers from North and Central Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean. Meanwhile, the University of Iowa Campus and adjacent Iowa City town (inhabiting a wildly different petit-bourgeois space filled with coffee shops and lecture halls just a mile and half away) is crawling with an ever-increasing number of well-off, and Lexus-driving Chinese students, children of parents who got rich off “communist” China’s emergence as the leading zone of mass consumer good manufacturing for the global capitalist market. Just two miles to the north, one can often hear the never-ending roar of Interstate 80, teeming with speeding trucks carrying commodities to and from remote regions and nations. The Iowa Utilities Board is about to approve the building of an eco-cidal pipeline to carry fracked, planet-cooking North Dakota (Bakken field) oil across a diagonal path through 17 Iowa counties on the way to Illinois, the Mississippi River, the Gulf of Mexico, and the global petroleum market. Despite living atop some of the world’s most fertile and naturally watered agricultural soil, Iowans absurdly purchase more than 80 percent of their food from outside the state. Most of the state’s farmland gets planted post-fence to post-fence with chemically fertilizer-saturated corn and soybeans grown largely to provide animal feed and to supply regional, national, and global grain and Ethanol markets. Military operatives stationed before glowing killing screens in a new U.S. Drone War base outside Des Moines. They target officially designated enemies of Washington’s global war of (“on”) terror in North Africa, the Middle East, and Southwest Asia.

Driving Immigration With Empire

One thing to support in light of the aforementioned divide-and-rule is of course the abolition of capitalism and its replacement by a democratic-socialist system of workers’ self-management and public welfare – a system of actual popular sovereignty wherein people are no longer compelled to compete with one another for the right to decent work and lives. I’ve backed such revolutionary transformation by and for “the associated producers” (Marx’s wonderful term) ever since I first came into contact with socialist ideas after working a number of alienating, low-wage jobs (busboy, dishwasher, and bellhop) on the North Side of Chicago in the wake of high school. Such transformation has little to do with Bernie Sanders’ neutered definition of “democratic socialism,” which explicitly and absurdly leaves the means of production (and much more) in private, profit-seeking hands.

Other things to support in the absence of – let me optimistically say “prior to” – such radical-democratic transformation include easing barriers to full citizenship for immigrants (something that would help workers from other nations feel safer about standing up against employers) and the building of a new U.S. labor movement strong and inclusive enough to join immigrant and non-immigrant workers in the same militant and fighting working class organizations.

What about restricting immigration? Also much to be recommended is pursuing that goal in a progressive, non-nativist way, very different from the false Republican white-nationalist “solutions” of “humungous walls,” increased border patrols, mass deportations, and other draconian measures. And here I’m talking about acknowledging and dealing with some of the terrible ways in which the imperial United States causes the very in-migrations that do so much to provoke reactionary, white-nationalist and even proto-fascistic,arch-authoritarian Amerikkanner sentiments in “the homeland.”

One of the things that really leapt out at me during my recently concluded stint as a second-shift lower-end production worker (a red-shirted white in a sea of Black, red-shirted fellow “temporarians”) in the aforementioned Iowa City P&G plant (an episode brought to a conclusion by my realization that he repeated opening and breaking down of cardboard boxes was causing to me lose strength in my fingers) was the basic fact that most of my various and constantly changing [3] co-workers had recently come to nations and regions where U.S foreign and trade policies had helped created terrible misery. The biggest number of my fellow workers came from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where literally millions of Hutu civilians have been massacred and maimed by Rwandan and Ugandan militias that are backed by the U.S. and who engage in “the large scale pillage of natural resources for the benefit of U.S. and European companies. The illegally looted resources,” Diana Johnstone notes in her expose of Hillary Clinton’s long imperialist record, “include tropical timber, gold, cobalt, diamonds, zinc, uranium and especially the world’s largest deposits of coltan, a mineral essential for the computer industry.” (D. Johnstone, Queen of Chaos: The Misadventures of Hillary Clinton [Counterpunch Books, 2015], p.53).

The second largest number of my coworkers hailed from Sudan, where the U.S.-funded South Sudanese Civil War has forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee for their lives – a reflection of the Obama administration’s determination to gain control of the rich Abeye oil fields, currently developed by Washington’s most feared global-economic rival China.

My co-workers included also workers from: Honduras, where the population has been pulverized by many decades of savage, mass-murderous U.S.-funded and U.S.-equipped government repression and where a U.S.-sponsored coup in the spring of 2009 overthrew the democratically elected president Manuel Zelaya because of his effort to reduce inequality and poverty and increase democracy there (deadly repression. corruption, violence, and poverty have re-expanded there ever since); Haiti, where terrible mass poverty (the worst in the Western hemisphere) has long been imposed by the world-capitalist partners the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, Wall Street, the White House, and the Pentagon; Puerto Rico, a deeply impoverished U.S. “protectorate” (colony) driven to bankruptcy the leading U.S. financial institutions and their allies in Washington and the global financial institutions; Ecuador, long subject to U.S. imperial control and impoverishment; Mexico, where millions have been displaced by U.S. agricultural exports under the rule of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA); and even the former nation of Yugoslavia, broken apart and bombed by Western Europe and the U.S. in the false and fake-humanitarian name of “preventing genocide.”

Ironic Loyalty to Hillary Clinton

Besides their happiness at their “good fortune” to be working alienating, dangerous, exploitative, and underpaid jobs at a giant, multinational and stupendously profitable corporation (all too understandable give the conditions they’d left behind), the next most distressing thing to emerge from my shop-floor and break-room discussions with immigrant workers at P&G was the considerable allegiance many of them expressed for Hillary Clinton in the U.S. presidential race. The identification with Hillary is understandable in light of Trump’s bellicose anti-immigrant statements (well known to P&G’s African immigrant workers, many of whom expressed their dislike of Trump to me), Hillary’s liberal-sounding criticism of those statements as contrary to American values, and the U.S. corporate media’s downplaying of the far more liberal Bernie Sanders (an almost complete unknown to the immigrants I worked with at P&G.) The identification was especially strong among the many devoutly Muslim Sudanese I toiled alongside, for they knew very well that Trump had marked Muslims out for an immigration ban.

Still it’s a little disheartening to reflect on the savage irony of these immigrant workers aligning themselves with Mrs. Clinton. Hillary, her former U.S. president husband Bill, and the aggressive fake-humanitarian imperialism they have together advanced (along with fellow cruise-missile and drone war liberals like Barack Obama, Madeline Albright, Richard Holbrooke, Susan Rice, and Samantha Power, just to name a handful) over the last two-plus decades are key forces behind the terrible policies that have created misery in the nations and regions my co-workers had fled. The Clintons are good friends of Rwanda’s blood-soaked head -of-state Paul Kagame, the butcher of millions of Congolese Hutus. Hillary’s U.S. State Department advanced and protected the Honduran putsch and fueled the Sudanese Civil War. It was Bill Clinton who passed NAFTA, which has caused so much economic disruption and dislocation in Central America as in the U.S. The bombing of Serbia, urged on Bill by Hillary (in the preposterous name of stopping “genocide”) was the Clintons’ crime – eagerly supported by then U.S. Congressman Bernie Sanders, by the way. The Clinton administration permitted the popular Haitian leader Jean Baptiste Aristide to return to power (he was removed in a CIA-assisted coup in 1991) in 1994 but only on the condition that he not continue his past efforts to reduce poverty and inequality and accept the “free market” dictates of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. Hillary’s aggressive imperialism as Secretary of State (2009-2012) has helped generate devastating ethnic strife in Libya and Syria, where hundreds of thousands of North Africans and Arabs have been forced to flee to Western Europe and other, safer destinations. (I recently worked next to my first Syrian co-worker.)

Wages of Empire

When I talked to white workers about the terrible “developing nation” (what we used to call Third World) conditions that drive millions to immigrate to the U.S., a common response is “well, that’s too bad, but it’s got nothing do with me.” But it’s got plenty to do with white, so-called ordinary working- and middle-class Americans. “Our” federal tax dollars (absurdly high in comparison to those paid by parasitic finance capital) help pay for a U.S. government that spends more than half its discretionary budget on maintaining a Pentagon system that accounts for half the world’s military spending and maintains more than 1000 military installations (some the size of small cities) across more than 110 “sovereign” nations. “Our” taxes fund U.S. imperial military and trade policies that help fuel the immigration that Trump uses for neo- fascistic campaign fodder. Most of the incomers that nativist thugs like Trump rail against would very much prefer to be able to make a decent living and live good lives in their home countries. They can’t, however, and the U.S. global Empire, which we pay for, is a big part of why.

Along with the “wages of whiteness” there’s also the equally self-defeating psychological wage of Empire: the related sense that one’s status is enhanced by living in the world’s only military superpower – a sense that is sometimes deepened by commonly inter-generational military “service” in working class households. Ironically or perhaps appropriately enough, the global Mafia Don Uncle Sam’s potent and richly bipartisan capacity to wreak havoc and spread misery in distant places like North and Central Africa helps feed the stream of traumatized immigrant workers that the U.S. employer class wield as part of its never-ending war on the American working class. The problem will continue under the merely nominal rule of a Donald Trump or, more likely, Hillary Clinton.


1 The only significant exception I saw to this at the Iowa City P&G plant was in “Building 40,” where highly labor-intensive packaging lines required P&G plant technicians to verbally communicate with the red shirted production workers more than was common in other parts of the plant. Here two of the P&G employees were Hispanic and fully bilingual, reflecting the fact that Building 40’s workers were mostly Mexican until recently. With the African influx, fluency in Spanish is no longer much of an asset.

2 As a plant technician explained to me, the “heaviness” of the product manufactured and packaged in Iowa City is what makes the company’s Iowa City plant “still viable.” If the product was lighter, lower transportation costs would permit the firm to shift operations to a lower-wage location in Mexico or China.

3Another part of the Staff Management-P&G control system is a constant shifting of people between and across production lines, something that militates against the formation of cohesive informal work groups. One is thrown into a new situation with completely new co-workers from one day to the next

Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).