The raid by the Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) personnel on six Swift & Company plants last week dominated the news. Four of the plants -- Greeley, CO; Grand Island, NE; Cactus, TX and Hyrum, UT -- are beef plants. The other two -- Marshalltown, IA and Worthington, MN -- are pork plants. ICE did not raid Swift's pork plant at Louisville, KY.
Swift's management is crying foul over the raids, claiming they violate agreements associated with its participation in the federal government's Basic Pilot worker authorization program. These aren't the first of these raids, nor likely will they be the last.
The packing industry runs on immigrant labor -- nothing new about that. Upton Sinclair's 1906 book, "The Jungle," followed the trials of Lithuanian immigrant Jurgis Rudkus as he tried to embark on the American dream working in Chicago's packing plants. Rudkus was an example of virtually the entire industry at the time, and Sinclair, an avowed socialist, used his plight to argue the benefits of socialism.
It's been said Sinclair "aimed at Americans' hearts" with his story, but ended up "hitting Americans' stomachs" with his tales of woeful sanitary conditions in the stockyards districts' meat plants. The book played a major role in the creation of federal meat inspection services.
The sector's dependence on immigrant labor declined in the post-war years as the major packing companies fell under a Master Labor Contract that increased wages and benefits. The development of the commercial broiler industry and its low-cost products, and the entry of IBP into beef -- followed by pork processing -- put major economic pressure on the old-line packers with higher wage costs.
When those packers either went out of business or escaped the Master Contract, wages once again fell, and packinghouse jobs became unattractive to much of the U.S. work force.
Enter, once again, immigrants -- this time from Mexico, Central and South America and Southeast Asia.
Last week, a reporter posed this question: "Why is this an 'immigrant labor' industry?"
The answer is two-fold. First, packing-plant work is difficult and often unpleasant. Killing and disassembling animals isn't a very pretty enterprise and many Americans simply won't do those jobs unless in dire straits.
While our economy hasn't treated everyone extremely well, it's still been good enough to provide job alternatives that don't involve cold temperatures, knives and blood. It's safe to say packing-plant jobs are probably not on the current career plans of most U.S. high school students.
Second, while these are difficult, unpleasant and low-paying jobs, relative to most U.S. jobs, they're no more difficult and no more unpleasant -- and higher paying -- relative to conditions in many immigrants' home countries. I don't offer that as a reason to exploit these workers -- they should be paid the value of what they produce. I only offer it as a statement of fact that leads many immigrants to enter the packing-plant workforce. Some take great risks to do so.
The lesson of last week was both broad and specific. The broad lesson is we as a country have to make up our collective minds about how we will deal with illegal immigrants. It's a tough question, but let's hope some politicians have some courage on this subject soon.
The more specific lesson is that livestock producers and packers need to consider what they'll do if a) this crackdown on illegal workers continues, or b) a workable guest-worker program can be devised.
Both will impact labor availability and cost and those factors should be considered when planning for 2007 and beyond.
-- Steve R. Meyer, North American Preview