Our VoiceImmigration

Meatpacking workers ready for struggle in 2011

Carlos Rich • Jan 05, 2011

It has been about 30 years since the turkey plants began to open in the Iowa and other parts of the rural Midwest.  The location was ideal for corporations.  After breaking up the labor unions in places like Chicago and St. Louis, the industry was able to perfect a system of hiring which relies mostly on immigrants, refugees and workers of color.

These plants operate with little regard for their workforce.  They treat workers as if they are sub-human. They also take advantage of and prey on the fact that most employees have families to feed as well as limited access to education concerning their rights as workers.

There has been some progress, however, mostly due to immigrant workers like my friend Maria, who began working at a plant a year ago.  I met Maria about 2 years ago after she was unjustly fired from another plant close by.  She was fired because she refused to put up with the abusive behavior of her supervisors.  When she approached the upper management about the issue, the company found reasons to fire her.  She came to me looking for assistance.  I tried to resolve the issue, but did not have much success.  She started working at other places, but it was only temporary work.  Finally, last year at about this time, she was called to work at another plant nearby.

By this time, I was hosting a monthly meeting with people from her community.  She attended monthly meetings now and then, but it wasn’t until March that she wanted to get more involved in the group, officially named the Health Action Council.   She had always been concerned about issues pertaining to immigrants within her community and wanted to help as much as possible, but she didn’t known how or where she could find support.

Meanwhile, Maria continued to endure abuse from supervisors at her new job.  Work-place favoritism, working long hours and not getting paid for all hours worked, supervisors yelling at employees, not being able to attend parent-teacher conferences, as well as  passive-aggressive and sexual harassment, were all problems she and other employees faced.  She was tired of putting up with it, and tired of seeing her coworkers put up with it.  Maria began to encourage more workers to join the Council so that they could start addressing the issues they were facing in the workplace.
But this is more than just a workplace issue.  The abusive conditions at the plants have had a negative impact on the community as a whole.  She sees education as the biggest problem within her community.  For example, their school is ranked 345th out of 392 schools in the state.

Maria and others, however, are determined to fight for these issues to get resolved, so that they can begin to address one of the most important issues for her and her coworkers: their children.  She, like many other mothers and fathers in the community, has made a commitment this year to her children, so that they can have a better future, and, in her own words, “So they don’t have to put up with what I have been putting up with all these years that I have spent working in theses plants.” She added, “My children are the reason for getting up at four in the morning and working 8 to 10 hours a day.”

Maria is a strong leader and she is ready to take on these issues left over from last year and many years before that.  But it takes courage and perseverance to see these changes take place.  Maria says, “seeing my child’s face every morning is what gives me strength.”

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