Our VoiceHealth & Environment

Giving Thanks to the Immigrants Working the Processing Plant Floors

Carlos Rich • Nov 23, 2011

With the Thanksgiving holiday here, I’d like to take a moment to talk about the workers who process and pack the turkeys that so many of us will consume.   

When I drive through the state of Iowa and all across the Midwest, I pass so many fields of corn, wheat, bean, and soy, and even some hog farms and turkey farms. As I see all the fields that have been harvested, the farmers steering their equipment down the rural roads towards winter storage, I can’t help but think to myself of the abundance of food produced in this country.

And so during this season of giving thanks, I’d like all of us to think of the workers who sacrifice so much on the processing plant floors. These workers handle about 30 turkeys per minute over a 10-hour shift, and in doing so have to make more than 20,000 cuts on these turkey carcasses.

The average American who buys a turkey for their Thanksgiving feast may not realize that the top turkey-producing state is Minnesota, followed by North Carolina, Missouri, Arkansas, and Virginia. The big turkey processor in Minnesota is Hormel Foods’ Jennie-O.

Real wages for meat processing workers fell in the 1980s. In 1982, when about half of the workers in meat and poultry processing were represented by unions, the entry-level base wage under United Food and Commercial Workers (UCFW) contracts was $10.69 an hour (MacDonald and Ollinger, 2000).

Still today, however, workers continue to face petty abuse and other forms of intimidation and retaliation from some supervisors. We’re aiming to help these workers, though. And our work in the Midwest has not been in vain.

In plants here in southeast Iowa, many workers have been taking control of their situations, have began speaking more boldly about workplace mistreatment, and have been demanding better working conditions and treatment for all workers. This was not always the case three or four years ago, though. Organizing them and disseminating vital and empowering information through trainings and advocacy meetings has been a struggle, but it has paid off. 

We are on the right path; that said, we still have much ground to cover. Working with processing plant workers has made me more aware of the truly difficult-to-despicable conditions in which many immigrants and refugees are forced to work under.  

I want to dedicate this season for giving thanks to those who process, pack, and handle our food. 

I believe that this country has been blessed for a reason, so please join me in giving thanks to workers in all processing plants. Help us to continue our own efforts in these plants and to continue supporting immigrants in the Midwest by donating to the Center for New Community’s empowerment projects. Help us form new and maintain the old, strong bonds with these processing plant workers across the rural Midwest.

Thank you, and a safe holiday to all!

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