In comments last night, dollared said this about the decline of unionized meatpacking:
Allowing free immigration and mass union busting by illegal aliens. Never, ever, ever should have happened. 800,000-1M union jobs lost in meatpacking. Bill Clinton.
Now I don’t want to pick on dollared except for his demonizing of migrant labor through describing human beings as “illegal aliens,” which he has an unfortunate tendency to do and then claim those who call him out on it “don’t give a shit” about the American working class. Rather I want to use this comment as a way to understand how corporations use capital mobility as a way to bust unions while concealing the real reasons for job loss behind blaming immigrants (or environmentalists or many other scapegoats). I talk about meatpacking for a couple of pages in my forthcoming capital mobility book. Let’s look real fast at why those union jobs were lost in meatpacking and who is to blame. I’m basing a lot of this off Shane Hamilton’s Trucking Country: The Road to America’s Wal-Mart Economy, which you should read.
Most readers here probably have some sense of the early history of American meatpacking, thanks to Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. Sinclair wrote his novel to expose the terrible lives of workers and convert readers to socialism. But Americans mostly ignored those messages. Workers stood on floors soaked in blood and water in very cold temperatures, with flying hooks and knives risking their limbs and lives every second. They began forming unions in the 1890s to improve their lives but it was not until the creation of the CIO-affiliated United Packinghouse Workers of America in 1937 that they achieved major gains in pay and working conditions. Organized labor increasingly played a big role throughout the nation’s food economy in the 1930s. UPWA members cut beef in Chicago. Milkmen delivering glass jars of fresh milk to your doorstep were Teamsters. The conditions that led Sinclair to write his novel faded. The UPWA was one of the nation’s most progressive unions. It worked for racial and gender equality and had a strong tradition of internal union democracy. By the 1960s, unionized meat cutters made twenty-eight percent more money than average workers made for nondurable manufacturing.
While meatpackers came to terms with the UPWA, for trucking companies, grocery store chains, and the Republican Party however, unionization and good wages were a bad outcome. Here starts the recent history of capital mobility in food production. A 1955 union contract won by the meatpacker unions put a collective $50 million dollars in workers pockets. This frustrated Eisenhower Administration officials who faced heat over high beef prices. Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson and his undersecretary Earl Butz, who later created the modern farm subsidy system, wanted to raise farm profits without raising consumer costs. The answer was to undermine unions and squeeze wages through moving meat production out of the cities and into nonunion plants in the countryside, near where the cows and pigs were farmed.
New upstart meatpackers, with the support of trucking and grocery chains who profited from cheaper meat, introduced refrigerated trucks that allowed meat processing in union-free rural areas. This undermined the big Chicago packinghouses and their unions. The new rural corporations had ruthless anti-union mentalities. Iowa Beef Packers (IBP) became a leading meatpacker in the 1960s. Today part of Tyson Foods, IBP rapidly consolidated the rural meatpacking operations in the Midwest, built enormous feedlot operations on the Great Plains, and created nonunion workplaces with low wages. In 1969, IBP workers in Dakota City, Iowa went on strike. IBP hired scabs to replace them. Violence broke out on both sides and one person was killed. When union butchers in New York City refused to sell IBP beef, the company made a deal with the mafia to break the boycott, undermining the strike. Wages were soon fifty percent lower than in the Chicago plants. The big meatpackers could not compete, closed their unionized slaughterhouses, laid off 12,000 workers, and moved to the Plains as well. Further IBP hardline anti-union strategies led to the rapid weakening of what was now the United Food and Commercial Workers.
The new geography of meatpacking, with its decentralized production, low wages, and poor working conditions meant that farmers earned more money and consumers maintained low beef prices. Workers were caught in the middle, people never seen by meat consumers. Nonunion factories demanded vastly increased production from workers. Fatigue, repetitive motion injuries, serious accidents on the job, and high turnover followed. One IBP manager considered an average annual turnover rate of 96% at a plant “low,” showing how little the corporation cared to provide labor dignified enough work to keep them on the job.
Companies might not have wanted unions, but many in the new rural workforce did. The UFCW had major successes organizing southern poultry factories during the 1980s. Poultry truck drivers joined the Teamsters in North Carolina. The largely African-American workforce in these plants took major personal risks to improve the low wages and unsafe working conditions. Companies responded by closing unionized factories and opening new non-union plants nearby, threatening new hires into signing union decertification petitions, and declaring bankruptcy and then reopening the plants without union contracts. They also began replacing African-American workers with immigrants from Mexico and Central America, often undocumented. Beef plants in Iowa and Nebraska did the same thing after workers went on strike in the 1980s. An Immigration and Naturalization Service investigation led to 1991 accusations that Tyson Chicken paid smugglers to bring employees up to their plants from Mexico and Guatemala. Most unionized plants faded in the face of this determined effort.
In other words, Republicans, trucking companies, and anti-union rural business interests teamed up to reshape the beef industry for each group’s political gains. That forced Hormel and other big meatpackers to do the same to compete. Each were more than willing to sacrifice the American working class to make this happen. Capital mobility was the tool to see this project through. Yes, if the borders are closed to migrant labor, the new anti-union meatpackers have a harder time treating labor poorly, but they were determined to find a way to do this anyway. In any case, undocumented migrants are hardly to blame for the situation. Yet dollared, like so many people, first points to the workers forced to take jobs in this new system as the problem, not the underlying causes of why these factories moved. IBP, Tyson, and other meat companies covered up their own culpability through creating the same kind of scapegoating of migrant labor that has separated the American working class since the arrival of the Irish in the early 19th century.
And let’s note, if a president deserves blame for this situation, it isn’t Clinton, as dollared claims. It’s Eisenhower. That isn’t to say that Clinton did enough on this issue, but it’s important to place blame where it most properly belongs.