Work Life

Meat Packer Narrative

Ana Avendaño, November 2010

Editor’s note: An original version of this post appeared on Nov. 13, 2010. It has been edited because my writing wasn’t as good as I thought back in the day.

Clarity surfaced during a talk by Ana Avendaño, assistant to President Obama and Director of Immigration and Community Action for the AFL-CIO.

She was in Iowa City, talking about the meat packing industry. Her narrative struck me:

Back in the 1970s, meat packing workers were among the highest paid in the country, more highly paid than some auto workers. Multinational corporations, with a strategy of busting unions, began consolidating meat packers, creating a perfect storm for labor and a perfect outcome for themselves. Union workers were replaced with a continuous stream of lowly paid immigrant workers.

“The narrative of the meat packing industry is important to remember,” she said. An emblematic consequence of consolidation has been the immigration raids in Marshalltown and Postville.

Corporate advocacy to break labor unions is a global phenomenon, Avendaño said. “What corporations can’t do in a free market, they are doing through governance,” putting pressure on law makers to make labor law more favorable to their interests. She spoke of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank as co-conspirators. They hold out loans to countries and “specifically require them to change labor laws in a way that hurts workers,” Avendaño said. “It is the hypocrisy of what we are living through today.”

I worked in a meat packing plant two summers while an undergraduate. It was easy to get a job there. I belonged to a union, the Amalgamated Meat Packers and Butcher Workmen of North America, and at $4.04 per hour, made enough money to get through the next school year. As Avendaño’s narrative suggested, wages were good.

The plant conditions were dangerous and work was physically challenging. My maternal grandmother and father had both worked in the plant and my father died in a plant accident. I never felt in danger, working as a millwright’s assistant in 1971 and on third shift cleanup crew in 1973. I got to see most of what went on throughout the plant and warehouses. It was not pretty.

Avendaño missed something. It’s true low cost operators like Iowa Beef Processors could perform the work cheaper and re-invent how meat processing was done. It’s true unions gave concessions until many of the jobs, especially slaughterhouse jobs, were consolidated in a much smaller number of places. It is also true that at a lower rate of pay, many Iowans no longer wanted to do this work. Enter immigrants.

As Avendaño spoke, adjusting her glasses, and pointing at the PowerPoint on the screen, it hit me. After my father’s death, while rummaging around in his basement workshop, I found a pay stub from his work at Oscar Mayer. He made less than $90 per week.

It was a different world then. How we acquired and made our food was different. Dad shopped at the company butcher because meat was fresher and less expensive. The rise of highly processed foods, farm subsidies that keep prices low, and the invention of a consumer society where we spend more than we earn using credit, had not begun. We made more food from scratch because many of the food items in today’s grocery store aisles did not exist. We lived close to the means of production and $90 per week was a living wage. We were working poor, but didn’t call it that. We had a decent life.

That is where the narrative unravels. Life was not about pay and benefits. It was about what else we did with our time. Even at those wages we couldn’t wait to get out of the plant. We knew we could do better with our lives than work on a production line. Avendaño was advocating improvements in a status quo that while needed for the betterment of workers were no solution to larger problems of corporate hegemony in our lives. It is as if we have stopped trying to improve society, so we can cling to the remaining dregs in a barrel of prosperity long drained by the wealthy class.

That morning, in the darkened room, it seemed a fool’s errand and that was my epiphany.