In its early days, the pandemic hit the protein industry—meatpacking and related services—particularly hard. The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting tracked 50,000 cases of Covid and 248 deaths in the first year alone. Reports of inadequate PPE, crowded killing floors and speeded-up production lines generated national indignation. Now the Congressional Select Committee on the Coronavirus Crisis has fueled new outrage with its revelation that meatpacking companies lobbied the Trump administration to keep the plants open despite knowing of the risks posed to the industry’s more than 200,000 workers.
So who are the people who have suffered, and what are the conditions that have made them particularly vulnerable? Kristy Nabhan-Warren’s ethnographic study of meatpacking workers in rural Iowa, Meatpacking America: How Migration, Work, and Faith Unite and Divide the Heartland (University of North Carolina Press, 2021), was completed before Covid arrived. But her interviews, collected over seven years of research and supplemented by her observations of one plant’s production process, add dimension to press descriptions of immigrants and poor Americans crowded in bloody, putrid slaughterhouses, exposed to the virus.
The demographics of these employees have changed drastically since Upton Sinclair’s 1905 scalding exposé of the industry. In addition to Latinos who took meatpacking jobs when the industry migrated from Kansas City and Chicago to cheaper, rural “meatvilles,” workers are African, Burmese, and Thai. “Today’s Heartland U.S.A. is an increasingly diverse global village,” according to Nabhan-Warren, who refers to all the foreign-born workers as refugees, whether they are technically eligible for that status or not. Her interviewees include guest workers, students, recipients of diversity visas, U.S. citizens, undocumented immigrants and certified refugees.
Covid notwithstanding, conditions of employment have improved in the last century. For jobs that don’t require knowledge of English, meatpacking is relatively well-paid and Nabhan-Warren’s interviewees are generally pleased with their wages and benefits. They express satisfaction with their work—even taking pride in it—and often have been rewarded on the job for experience or special skills. James, who fled political violence in Democratic Republic of Congo, was initially hired to clean up animal waste in a cattle processing plant but was soon promoted to shift supervisor and asked to translate (English, French, Swahili, and Lingala) for other workers. Joe, a Ghanaian who served in the U.S. army and is an American citizen, serves as chaplain for the Tyson plant in Columbus Junction, Ohio. Most are clear-eyed, however, in seeing their jobs as merely flagstones on the path to the American Dream. One young woman, a daughter of former plant workers from Mexico, tears up when she says to the author, “My mom used to always tell us, kids, ‘I work here so that you do not have to.’”
On occasion Nabhan-Warren seems to accept her subjects’ expressions of devotion to their work uncritically. It is a risk with this kind of book that its subjects will tell the interviewer what they think she wants to hear. This possibility also shows up in her treatment of the role of religion—Catholic, Muslim, Jehovah’s Witness—in the lives of the workers. Nabhan-Warren sees core religious commitment as a commonality between immigrant workers and native-born Iowans, but perhaps this is wishful thinking. The interviewees presumably know she comes from a university program in religious studies, and it is the local parish priest who has opened doors for her field work.
Even if religion is not the glue that binds the immigrant workers and Iowans who interact with them in social and professional relationships, a shared acknowledgement of faith and the personal ethical standards that go with it may help explain what the author describes as a relatively tranquil workplace. Nabhan-Warren interviewed supervisors who praised the work ethic of their charges and accommodated their religious commitments—at one plant Muslim women were permitted to set up their prayer rugs in a part of the locker room—in what she calls “religiously-laced paternalism.” She discusses at length the commitments by Tyson and Iowa Premium Beef to being “values-based” companies, exercising “servant leadership” to “run their businesses as caring institutions.” While a cynic might find the Faith at Work movement primarily a pacification strategy for managing workers who might otherwise complain about the hazards and demands of their jobs, interviewees expressed appreciation for what they saw as respectful attention to their needs. Nabhan-Warren quotes one Latino worker saying “That really means a lot to me, you know, that the head honcho will come down from his office to ask me how I am doing.”
The title and subtitle of this book suggest that it will put meatpacking experience in a larger political and social context. There is some effort to do that, with a lengthy chapter about traditional Iowa farm families and their efforts to bridge cultural and religious differences with the new arrivals who are rescuing their local and state economies. But it is limited, with no discussion of institutional adjustments beyond mention of an interfaith alliance formed to assist immigrants and one story about the troubles of a local priest accused of spending too much time with his new Mexican parishioners. Also mentioned briefly are hostile incidents affecting the meatpacking population in the towns where the workers live, but no accounting of their significance.
Perhaps it is too much to ask for that level of comprehensiveness. That this book is an ethnography is both its strength and its weakness. Vivid portrayal of the dailiness of people doing hard jobs that are largely hidden from public view is a supremely valuable enterprise, and Nabhan-Warren does it with insight and compassion. Furthermore, she raises interesting questions about the role of religion in the local absorption of international migrants. But the form is a sort of narrative enclave that both protects and isolates, providing intimate glimpses of individual lives but preventing the reader from discerning patterns that could shape a policy framework.
I leave this book wondering how Nabhan-Warren would treat the stories of families whose members have been deported or rejected at the U.S. border. (She gives her readers only one in this volume.) Would they still embrace religion as a refuge as they do in working on the killing floor? Does the American Dream survive in such a situation?
Diana R. Gordon is a retired political science professor. She is the author of Village of Immigrants: Latinos in an Emerging America (2015, Rutgers University Press).