Landing in Storm Lake: Immigrant Meatpackers in the Heartland

Revolutionary Worker #920, Aug. 17, 1997

Giant meat-packing plants shape life in the small northwest Iowa town of Storm Lake. Unemployment among the 10,000 people who live here is only 2 percent. And nearly every family has someone working at either Iowa Beef Processors (IBP) or Sara Lee's Bil-Mar turkey plant. These plants provide nearly 75 percent of the area's manufacturing jobs.

Situated on rich farmland in the northwest corner of Iowa, Storm Lake was settled by German and Scandinavian immigrants and, up until about 10 years ago, the population was almost all white. Today 1,500 Laotian immigrants and 600 or more Mexican and Central American immigrants live in Storm Lake. IBP runs the world's second-largest pork factory here and immigrant workers now make up the majority of the work force at this plant.

In the last 10 years, three groups of immigrants have arrived to work in Storm Lake's meat-packing plants: Refugees from Laos, a small influx of Mennonites from Mexico, and more recently hundreds of workers from Mexico. In 1982 there were only 28 non-English-speaking students in Storm Lake schools. By 1996 the fall kindergarten class was 47 percent "non-Caucasian"--students speaking Spanish, Tai Dam, Lao, Cambodian [Khmer], German, Korean, Chinese, and other non-English languages.

And these changes in Storm Lake mirror what's happening in other heartland towns in the U.S. midwest. From the Dakotas through Minnesota, Nebraska and Iowa, and down through Kansas into northern Texas and the foothills of the Missouri Ozarks, dozens of once all-white meat-packing communities have become home to tens of thousands of poor immigrant workers. In Marshall, Minnesota, 150 Somalis recruited from San Diego now work in the town's turkey plant.

Reactionary politicians have pointed to these dramatic developments in American small towns to bolster the government's war on immigrants. In 1996 Republican presidential candidate Patrick Buchanan held a noontime rally in Storm Lake. He denounced the local meat-packing plant for hiring what he called "illegal aliens" and then demanded that English be designated the country's official language. And the relocation of immigrant workers to these once all-white towns has resulted in a new kind of heartland apartheid. In Storm Lake Latino and Laotian immigrants mainly stay out of the all-white downtown area where they don't feel welcomed. And they restrict their shopping to the Wal-Mart and Hy-Vee supermarket on the town's outskirts. One Latino community worker in Storm Lake put it, "Race determines everything here. Where you live, where you work, how much you earn, where you worship, even where you shop."

Changes in the Meat Packing Industry

What has brought about this unique migration? How did workers from as far away as Southeast Asia, Africa, and Latin America come to live and work in America's heartland?

To understand the situation in Storm Lake today, you have to look at how the U.S. meat-packing industry has been shaped by imperialism--the capitalist drive for profit and the never-ending search for new ways to exploit the proletariat.

Meat-packing has been a big part of the economy in Storm Lake for decades and there have been big changes in the U.S. meat-packing industry over the last 25 years.

Through the 1950s, U.S. meat-packing plants were located in large cities. Cows and pigs were trucked in from outlying farm areas and the slaughter and processing of meat mainly took place in many small, scattered factories. But as the refrigeration, processing, and packaging of meat improved, fresh and processed meats could be easily shipped long distances without getting spoiled. And one after another, meat-packing plants moved from the big cities to the countryside. Here, they were closer to the animals, which meant less transportation costs, and the cost of living was a lot lower than in the cities.

Changes in the processing of meat have also affected the nature of the work meat packers do. In the past, animal carcasses were shipped whole to grocers in the cities. But over the last 20 years, meat-packing plants have been boxing and vacuum-packing more meat which means the workers have to slaughter, cut up, and trim the meat before it is transported to the cities.

During the 1960s and early 1970s meat packers were highly unionized and, up to 1979, the average hourly earnings of workers in this industry was about 17 percent above the overall manufacturing rate. But from 1979 to 1984, technical changes, the relocation of plants, and a drop in consumer demand for meat, all led to a worsening situation for meat-packing workers. Butchering and processing plants require more, but less-skilled workers--who are paid low wages. And more plants have become non-union. The industry's hourly pay, including benefits--which peaked at $19 in 1980--fell to $12 an hour by 1992.

As meat-packing jobs have become less skilled and lower paid, meat-packing companies have begun to rely on--and take advantage of--the working poor and poor immigrant labor.

In the late 1970s and early '80s, big meat-packing firms like ConAgra, IBP and Cargill drastically changed their workforce--replacing high-paid workers with new employees who got only $6 an hour. In 1983 they bought 13 Armour plants and lowered 3,000 workers' pay from $10.69 an hour to about $6.

Meat Packing in Storm Lake

The first meat-packing plant in Storm Lake opened in 1935. In 1953 the Hygrade Food Corp., bought the plant and set up a typical "old line" pork packing plant where most of the meat was shipped in sides to groceries, where skilled butchers cut the meat into consumer-size pieces.

Hygrade workers at this point were primarily white men who lived in Storm Lake and the surrounding communities. There was a low turnover rate at Hygrade and many workers put in 30 or more years at the plant. Hygrade paid its unionized workers an average salary of $30,000--the equivalent of $51,800 today--which gave these workers a comfortable lifestyle.

Then in 1981, when workers at Hygrade refused to take a $3-an-hour pay cut, the company shut down the plant and put 500 workers out of a job. Six months later, Iowa Beef Processors (IBP) bought the plant for $2.5 million and set up its first pork plant--a high-volume operation that required a larger work force.

Hundreds of former Hygrade workers re-applied for the new jobs. But IBP didn't want workers who had been in the union and expected decent wages and work conditions. They hired back only 30 workers. Then with no union, IBP set starting pay at $6 an hour and set higher productivity rates.

Today, over 15 years later, wages at this plant have only gone up to $7 an hour. Meanwhile, IBP earned a $257 million profit on sales of $12 billion in 1995. And this same year, IBP CEO Robert Peterson made $1 million in salary and $5.2 million in bonuses.

Meatpacking is a $94 billion-a-year business and more than half of the beef and pork industry is dominated by just three companies: IBP, Cargill's Excel Corp. and Con-Agra's Monfort Inc. The Big Three control 80 percent of all beef production alone and are continuing to expand.

In the mid-1980s, beef, pork and poultry companies started aggressively recruiting immigrant workers to come work in meat-packing plants for as little as $6 an hour. And local and state governments have aided this exploitation by giving meat-packing companies millions in tax rebates and subsidies. This is what has brought increasing numbers of immigrant workers, from different U.S. cities and from around the world, to small towns like Storm Lake, Iowa. And according to Mark Grey, an anthropologist at the University of Northern Iowa who is an expert on the restructured packing industry, "Food processing in America today would collapse were it not for immigrant labor."

The War in Storm Lake and the Mexican Underground Railroad

"Living here is like living on the moon. Our people don't know the law, their rights or where to go when they are sick. We work, we pay taxes and we have problems like everyone else. But there isn't a single person in the government who speaks our language."

Rev. Tom Lo Van--born in the U.S. Embassy in Laos, his father worked
15 years for the CIA-created airline,
Air America.


The first wave of immigrant workers to come work in Storm Lake's meat-packing plants were from Laos.

In the mid-1970s, the U.S. government relocated 24 Laotian families to Storm Lake. Most of these refugees were reactionaries--veterans of the Royal Laotian Army and their families, who had aided the U.S. in the Vietnam War.

Six years later, when IBP opened up its pork plant, it hired some of these local Laotians. Then, in its search for low-wage workers, IBP offered Laotian workers $150 bounties to recruit relatives to come to Storm Lake. And IBP also sent out its own head-hunting teams to other Laotian communities in the United States. As a result, the Laotian population in Storm Lake grew to more than 1,500. In 1991 there were 149 Lao households in Storm Lake and 125 Laotians working at IBP. By 1992 more than 300 Laotian immigrants worked at IBP--making up more than a fourth of the company's entire workforce.

The next wave of workers to come to Storm Lake were from Mexico.

In 1992-93, IBP recruited 70 people to come to Storm Lake from Mexico. IBP hired a Texas-based recruiter familiar with the Mennonite community in Mexico to approach men in settlements in the Chihuahau Province, tell them about jobs in Storm Lake, and assist them in getting immigration papers. These first immigrants to come from Mexico were a diverse group in terms of language, citizenship and nationality. For example, in one family the father had Mexican citizenship, the mother was Canadian, and the children were Mexican or American citizens. The adults usually spoke German and the children also spoke Spanish and/or English.

After this, IBP continued to recruit workers more broadly in Mexico, as well as in Texas and Southern California. Today, IBP relies on dozens of small towns in Mexico to supply them with a steady stream of low-wage labor. And like with the Laotian workers, they offer their Mexican employees a $150 bonus to recruit people from Mexico to come work in Storm Lake.

Workers now talk about a kind of underground railroad, stretching from rural Mexico straight to America's heartland--a human pipeline that stretches some 2,000 miles between Storm Lake and small towns like Santa Rita, Mexico.

Unlike the Laotian immigrants in Storm Lake, about half the Latino workers here are undocumented. One Mexican immigrant in Storm Lake said, "The company loves to work with illegals. When you are illegal you can't talk back. You keep your head down and follow orders. We say you can't do nothing. Dices nada porque la planta es del gobierno." (You say nothing because the plant is the government).

A typical Mexican immigrant working at IBP's storm Lake plant brings home $300 for a six-day, 48-hour week. One paycheck goes to rent a trailer home, another is sent to relatives in Mexico. According to the Storm Lake postal clerks, about $5,000 in money orders is mailed south of the border each week.

The Most Dangerous Work

Trucks loaded with hogs rumble through Storm Lake day and night. The beasts are herded into the plant where workers use a 300-volt prod to stun them, and then slit their throats. The carcasses are hung from their rear feet on a chain and bled and then travel through the plant, as workers cut away their parts with knives and electric saws. The 250-pound hogs are disassembled at the rate of about 1,200 per hour, or 16,000 to 18,000 per day on two eight-hour shifts. About one production worker is required for each 10 hogs slaughtered. The plant runs two shifts a day and a cleaning shift at night, six days a week.


Juan Garcia's hands, even after surgery, are useless. No one will hire him. He has been without work for 22 months. He says IBP paid about $9,000 for his medical treatment and that the company asked him to sign a paper saying he was taking unpaid "vacation." Not understanding, Garcia signed, and was out of a job.

Meatpacking has the highest injury rate of all U.S. industries--36 percent of the workers are seriously injured each year. Many workers suffer from repetitive-motion injuries, cuts and back injuries. And the actual rate of injury is probably even higher than statistics show because many immigrant workers don't report injuries because they are afraid they will lose their job.

Workers say the company "headhunts" injured workers--targeting them for dismissal or demeaning work. In 1987, one IBP plant was found to have kept two sets of injury logs. And while Latinos make up about a quarter of the work force at IBP and have the most dangerous jobs, Latino last names showed up on less than 5 percent of the worker comp claims filed between 1987 and 1995.

IBP workers are not eligible for the company health plan for their first six months on the job. After this, a worker is eligible for health coverage that covers 80 percent of cost. But many immigrant workers can't afford to pay even 20 percent of skyrocketing health costs.

Some workers end up working only a few months before they are injured, fired, or forced to quit. And the IBP plant in Storm Lake, which now has 1,200 workers, has an annual turnover rate of 83 percent!

In an article about Storm Lake in The Nation, Marc Cooper tells the story of one Laotian worker named Symery who took a job cutting the meat off backbones. In his fifth month on the job, 30 days before the company would begin to grant its limited health insurance, Symery slashed his palm open. He paid for the medical care himself. A second accident left him disabled and he now has a permanently crooked wrist. But IBP only recognizes the report of the doctor it employs, so Symery is certified as fit to work and is now without a job and without any income.

La Migra

The local police chief in Storm Lake, along with the INS, had built up a database of some 600 suspected "illegal aliens." Then on May 10, 1996:

Armed Border Patrol officers, backed by agents from the Immigration and Naturalization Service and units from local law enforcement, sealed off the perimeter of the IBP plant. A surveillance plane circled overhead. Inside, workers were summoned to the building's cafeteria. Sixty-four undocumented workers were arrested. All were Mexican immigrants, except a Guatemalan and a Honduran worker. The next week local police and the state highway patrol arrested 14 more immigrants after doing door-to-door searches, setting up roadblocks and stopping all cars with Latino occupants.

The whole town became an immigration checkpoint for anyone Latino. One Native American was asked for her documents at a grocery store. People started calling each other to report on which neighborhoods were being invaded by the INS. Police used chalk to mark the houses of suspected "illegals." And some of the white people in Storm Lake hid their Latino friends.

Most arrested immigrants were immediately deported.

When hundreds of fearful workers didn't show up for work the pork at IBP started to rot and management panicked. They had given total cooperation to the INS raid. But now they needed their workers. According to several reports, IBP executives started calling community workers. As one social worker recounted, "IBP told us to tell everyone to come back to work that afternoon. It was OK now. The INS was gone and nobody was going to check anything."

This INS war against immigrants has been going on, not only in Storm Lake, but in many other small heartland towns where immigrant workers have relocated.

In Iowa and Nebraska alone, since 1992 the INS has raided 15 meat-packing plants and arrested more than 1,000 workers. In the summer of 1996, as part of a six-week regional sweep ordered by the Clinton administration, 209 undocumented workers were detained in Iowa. The average pay for those arrested was $6.02 an hour. The four biggest meat packers, including IBP and Swift, have agreed to participate in an INS program that will use computers to check IDs.


Immigrant workers have brought big changes to Storm Lake and other small towns throughout America's heartland. And immigrants from countries oppressed by U.S. imperialism are changing the face of major cities in the United States. The ruling class regards these immigrants as troublesome and dangerous. But as Bob Avakian, Chairman of the RCP, said:

"The imperialists see in such immigrants a source of instability and upheaval, a force weakening the internal cohesion of the home base and potentially undermining the power of the U.S. as an international overlord.... The imperialists react by asserting more aggressively the white, European, English-speaking identity of the American Nation.

"For the revolutionary proletariat it is just the opposite. We renounce that nation, we denounce any such identity--we are proletarians, not Americans and our identity is that of the international proletariat. We insist on the equality of nations, including equality in culture and language. And more, we recognize in such immigrants a source of great strength--a vitally important force for the revolutionary struggle to overthrow U.S. imperialism and to create over its grave a powerful, living expression of proletarian internationalism and a powerful base area for the world proletarian revolution."

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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