In a rare look inside a meatpacking plant, line workers disassemble turkey carcasses in 2011 at West Liberty Foods in West Liberty, Iowa, the first majority Latino town in Iowa, largely because of the local immigrant workforce. REUTERS/JESSICA RINALDI
The essential workers who fought for their lives during the pandemic are now fighting for a union.
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Gloria Ortiz’s parents spotted a sign one day looming over the fields of strawberries in California’s Central Coast. It was announcing $11-an-hour wages for meatpacking in Iowa. They had been picking strawberries for $35 a day.
“So we came from Santa Maria, California, to this town, for Tyson,” Ortiz says.
Her parents took jobs at the Tyson Foods pork processing plant in Columbus Junction, Iowa, in 1994, just as the meatpacking industry was in a race to the bottom. In the 1980s, meatpacking companies had begun vertically integrating their operations to control the whole supply chain, from the farmers who raise the animals to the workers who kill them and package the meat. Companies shuttered plants in union strongholds like Chicago (famously dubbed “Hog Butcher for the World’’ by Carl Sandburg), Omaha, Neb., and Kansas City, Mo., to flock to low-wage outposts like Columbus Junction in right-to-work states. There, the industry could hold off union drives and take over bankrupt farms.
Companies recruited immigrants, mostly undocumented, to work the nonunion plants. Wages and benefits plummeted while injuries soared. Human Rights Watch, in its 2004 report on meatpacking industry abuses, “Blood, Sweat and Fear,” details how meatpacking transformed from an industry in which “workers had secure organizations bargaining on their behalf to one where self-organization is a high-risk gauntlet for workers.” Meanwhile, union density in the industry fell from 90 percent in 1952 to 33 percent in 1983 to just 18 percent in 2020.
Ortiz struggled to acclimate to her new home and her parents worked “nonstop,” she recalls. She was bullied at school, singled out as one of the few Latinas in a predominantly white town. She dropped out at 13.
Ortiz’s mother, 62, still works at Tyson, on the cut line, and the work has taken a toll: carpal tunnel and chronic shoulder pain. She comes home totally exhausted, Ortiz says.
Ortiz, too, works in meatpacking, at a meat processing plant 22 miles away, in West Liberty, Iowa. The West Liberty Foods plant is owned by the Iowa Turkey Growers Cooperative, and Ortiz earns $18.90 an hour working the line.
Working at West Liberty is “stressful,” says Ortiz (who requested a pseudonym for fear of retaliation). She describes a draconian “points” system, under which six penalty points for lateness or absence results in termination. “They don’t think about the people,” Ortiz says. “If you’re sick and you miss days, you’re out.”
Soft-spoken and reserved, Ortiz, 36, has a steely determination imbued by her Christian faith and a righteous indignation at injustice ingrained from years of advocating for her immigrant parents.
When immigrant communities were denied pandemic relief, she sprang to action, joining faith-based community group Escucha Mi Voz (“Hear My Voice”) to organize in 2021.
Now, Ortiz is among a number of workers with Escucha Mi Voz who are laying the groundwork for a unionization campaign at Tyson and West Liberty. A union, she believes, would boost wages, sick leave, bonuses, vacation time and, most importantly, respect.
In more than 20 interviews with current and former workers at both meatpacking plants, In These Times heard complaints ranging from understaffing to abusive supervisors to punitive attendance policies. Meatpacking workers say a union would also address the breakneck pace of the line and the unremitting production pressures, which they say make injuries all but certain. They lift heavy turkey carcasses onto hooks at West Liberty and cut into pork limbs with dull knives at Tyson. Workers say they have soiled themselves trying to keep the line going by skipping bathroom breaks and suffered cuts and stab wounds from wielding knives elbow-to-elbow.
The union drive is just a few months old and is freighted with risk. With 1,400 workers at Tyson and an estimated 600 at West Liberty (the company would not confirm), it would be the largest U.S. meatpacking drive since 2012, when 1,200 Pilgrim’s Pride poultry plant workers in Alabama joined the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union Mid-South Council. The largest in recent memory was the 2008 unionization of the world’s largest hog slaughterhouse, in Tar Heel, N.C., where 5,000 workers were processing some 32,000 hogs a day. That campaign took 15 years.
But the Iowa workers have several winds blowing in their favor. The pandemic stirred empowerment around collective action and outrage at bosses’ disregard for their lives. The reform leadership at the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 431 is committed to new organizing. And with roots — through Escucha Mi Voz — in Catholic social teaching and a record of success winning pandemic relief for their communities, the campaign comes from a place of strength.
David Goodner, co-director of the Catholic organization Escucha Mi Voz, wears horn-rimmed glasses and has thin, silvery blond hair. He is a seasoned labor and community organizer with an excitable and conspiratorial mien, a firecracker encased in a human body.
“After years of surviving the worst abuses of corporate greed and Covid-19, worker resistance to exploitation has grown organically,” Goodner explains, “from leaflets and pickets for pandemic relief to spontaneous wildcat strikes and walkouts, all the way to the current drives to unionize the plants.”
Escucha was founded in April 2021 to organize for pandemic relief for undocumented workers and their families, who were often excluded from federal relief despite making up, in many places, as much as 10 percent of the essential workforce. Meatpacking worker-organizers with Escucha won cash assistance in Iowa City and utility relief in West Liberty.
In late 2022, the organization was tasked with distributing $600 checks from the Department of Agriculture’s new relief program to cover farm and meatpacking workers’ pandemic-related expenses. Escucha also surveyed workers about their working conditions. According to Escucha, a survey of 927 workers at Tyson and 426 workers at West Liberty Foods revealed that more than 85 percent wanted a union.
A typical workplace union campaign would take years to compile such detailed information, but Escucha offered UFCW Local 431 access to the survey results and invited union staff to table the relief clinics where Escucha was distributing the aid in late December 2022 and early January 2023. Since, worker-organizers with Escucha have been meeting at churches and going door-to-door talking with meatpackers about pandemic relief and workers’ rights.
Goodner offered to take me on the road to introduce me to a few, and we start with Ortiz, in Columbus Junction. On the way, the Tyson plant — where 10,000 hogs at 200 pounds each are killed daily — comes into view. A sign on a chain-link fence reads: “Our work feeds the nation.”
Tyson denied my request for a plant tour, but ethnographer Kristy Nabhan-Warren was given access for her 2021 book, Meatpacking America: How Migration, Work and Faith Unite and Divide the Heartland. She saw firsthand the “sawing, cutting, peeling, and disemboweling, the kinetics of light and sound.” Each worker, she writes, performs a distinct job — sawing off the hogs’ torsos, plucking their toenails and ears, slicing off the hooves, burning off remaining hair — a bloody symphony of synchronized labor that earned Tyson $3 billion in 2022, another in a series of record-setting years since the pandemic began.
Goodner takes me to meet a worker-leader who, while not public with her union support, has clandestinely supported the union drive at Tyson, educating others about pandemic relief and management reprisals. Sofia Mercado strides into an empty party rental space after refusing to invite me, a stranger, into her home. She grills me about unions and assesses my answers. She wears a mask more to hide her identity than as a Covid precaution and insists on keeping the lights off.
Mercado (a pseudonym) has worked on the killing floor at Tyson for decades. She blames pandemic understaffing for giving her a repetitive motion injury in 2021, explaining that, before the pandemic, there were typically 18 workers on her section of the kill floor; as the virus spread through the plant, Tyson didn’t adjust production targets, and instead put the heavy toll of maiming thousands of hogs onto the shoulders of just five workers.
When In These Times asked Tyson about complaints of understaffing and the likelihood of injuries, spokesperson Liz Croston replied in a statement: “Team member safety is our highest priority. Our operations run at a level to ensure team members’ safety, animal welfare and food safety, including at our Columbus Junction, Iowa pork plant.”
Workers agree that “animal welfare” is prized, at least. “If the plant closes, it’s because something happened to the hogs,” Mercado says, such as hogs freezing to death on their way to the slaughterhouse. “But if it’s something that affects workers, the plant doesn’t stop.”
When Mercado was out sick with Covid-19 in April 2020, she says managers incessantly called and pleaded with her to return. “They never did anything to save our lives despite having the economic means to do so,” Mercado says.
As the pandemic receded into the background, Tyson printed shirts claiming the mantle of frontline worker hero. “They gave me a shirt saying ‘My work feeds the nation,’ with the image of a fork and an American flag,” Mercado recalls.
Meatpacking workers are a largely invisible workforce, occasionally nabbing headlines after fleeting cycles of public outrage. Earlier this year, a New York Times investigation exposed a nationwide shadow workforce of child laborers as young as 12 at major national brands, including slaughterhouses, even as GOP legislators in Iowa and a half dozen other states proposed loosening child labor laws.
In the early days of the pandemic, too, the spotlight turned squarely on meatpacking workers as they were forced back into slaughterhouses by former President Donald Trump’s April 2020 executive order. The nation’s attention was swiftly drawn to stories of their deaths. Less attention was paid to their collective actions, including walkouts, sickouts and petition drives to demand transparency on Covid infections, social distancing policies, paid sick leave and wage increases.
Those actions often won.
In summer 2021, hundreds of meatpacking workers at West Liberty put down their knives and strode into the company’s cafeteria, refusing to work. Because of pandemic-related shortages, their shifts stretched to 11 hours — 5 a.m. to 4 p.m. — says former meatpacker Rodrigo Hernandez Quiroz. (He was fired after 10 years for accumulating six points.)
Workers presented managers and a company Spanish interpreter with their demands: a wage increase from $16 to $18 and a return to the first shift ending at 2 p.m. so they could see their children after school, according to pro-union worker Pedro Sánchez (a pseudonym).
The company caved. Pay rose to $18 and the workday was shortened.
But as the pandemic marched on, Sánchez says, the company regressed to long-documented industry abuses, such as punitive attendance policies and line speedup. Sánchez typically works with five others; they’re down a worker, he says, and yet have even tougher quotas.
Sánchez and his coworkers saw collective action make gains for them during the pandemic, and they see unions as the durable institutions to make those gains in pay, benefits, dignity and respect more long-lasting.
“We need to have rights,” Sánchez says. Another West Liberty Foods worker, Fernanda Salazar (a pseudonym), who grinds sausage meat and cooks ham, is still angry the plant only shut down for three days during the pandemic. Salazar, who’s pro-union, recalls management simply saying: “The American people need to eat.” West Liberty Foods didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.
For a union drive to be successful at Tyson or West Liberty, workers will need to knit together cross-national and multi-ethnic coalitions. After high-profile Immigration raids of meatpacking plants in the mid-2000s, including a 2008 raid in Postville, Iowa, companies turned to recruiting refugees, asylum seekers and other documented immigrants. Today, the range of countries and languages spoken in the plants could fill a UN summit.
Escucha’s survey data suggests workers hail from 23 countries at Tyson, with the biggest tallies from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mexico, Myanmar, Liberia, El Salvador and Angola. The most widely spoken languages are French, Lingala (a Central African creole), Spanish, Swahili and Portuguese. At West Liberty, workers from the Democratic Republic of Congo are the largest group, with the majority overall from Mexico, the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico and Central American countries.
Many of the Congolese workers come to the United States with advanced degrees from their home countries, some even bringing union traditions from home. Allain Elenga works at Tyson cutting the stomachs out of hogs. Back home, he was a union member in the country’s customs department. He supports the union because he wants an end to at-will firings, the points system and mandatory overtime.
But overcoming racial divisions will be a challenge for the nascent union drive. Many Congolese workers see Latinos as part of the power structure in the plants, as supervisory positions are often filled by Latino workers. “The whites, they are all powerful; then it’s the Mexicans, and we, Africans, are like shit to them,” explains Jonathan Mamokbo, who worked at Tyson until 2018. (In December 2018, dozens of African workers at Tyson called out en masse to protest a Latino supervisor who monitored bathroom breaks by standing outside company bathroom stalls. The kill floor was slowed to a trickle, and the supervisor was eventually fired.)
For their part, many Latino workers resent U.S. newcomers who arrive with greater benefits than they could have expected as undocumented workers (before their status was regularized), and some feel they are actually treated more harshly by Latino supervisors who don’t want to be accused of racial favoritism or who use cultural familiarity as cover for jibes.
Inflaming ethnic and racial divisions is part of the deep history of how meatpacking plants have operated since the 20th century. In Down on the Killing Floor: Black and White Workers in Chicago’s Packinghouses, 1904-54, Rick Halpern writes how Chicago’s meatpackers deployed this “labor market segmentation” to undermine solidarity. “They tapped one market [of European immigrants] for skilled labor and another, larger one for the remainder of their requirements,” according to Halpern. “A third pool of workers, consisting of African Americans, was held in reserve for use during periods of unrest or labor shortage.”
UFCW Local 431 President Simplice Mabiala Kuelo has personally seen how management plays on ethnic lines to keep workers divided. Kuelo, the first African immigrant to lead one of Iowa’s largest labor unions, arrived first in the Bronx in 2011, coming from the Democratic Republic of Congo after being selected through a visa lottery. Despite the law degree stuffed in his suitcase, he struggled to find work in New York. Upon the gentle urging of a friend, he moved to Illinois to process pork.
“There were lines where you only see French or African,” Kuelo explains. “There were lines where you see Spanish. Or there were departments where they were only whites.”
At a workers’ rights training in early March, Kuelo spoke to a crowd of a few dozen Latino farmworkers and meatpackers through a Spanish interpreter. “Diversity means everyone is at the table,” Kuelo said. “Inclusion means everyone can talk. Belonging means when you talk, they listen. Workplaces are diverse because they need workers, but what’s missing in the workplace is inclusion and belonging — and that’s what the union brings.”
When I meet with Kuelo in February at his union office in Davenport, Iowa, he peppers me with questions with disarming charisma, blending his background as a union organizer, Catholic youth preacher, campaign advisor and life insurance salesperson.
“How was your drive? Did you speed or what?” he teases. As we talk, he pauses to field questions on the frequently ringing office phone. One of his campaign promises for his 2021 presidency was responsiveness to members.
Kuelo’s election was seen as a referendum on a bungled pandemic response from former Local 431 President Bob Waters, according to the Des Moines Register. As Covid-19 raged through a unionized Tyson meatpacking plant in Waterloo, Iowa, in April 2020, Waters was reportedly out hunting. Nearly 600 scared and angry workers — out of a workforce of 2,800 — spontaneously called out sick April 13. By May 2020, more than 1,000 workers had tested positive and seven had died.
Meanwhile, Waterloo managers callously made a betting pool about the number of workers who would get sick, according to an unsuccessful wrongful death lawsuit filed by five of the deceased workers’ families.
Among the workers who died was Axel Kabeya, a shop steward at the plant and a friend of Kuelo’s from the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“It was a wakeup call,” Kuelo says. He launched a YouTube channel, SimpliceBest TV, with Covid information in French and Lingala in summer 2020. It amassed more than 15,000 subscribers.
In 2021, Kuelo ran for Local 431’s presidency with a commitment to new organizing and eschewing a cozy relationship with employers. Toward those aims, Kuelo echoes the reformers who have recently taken power in the 1.4-million-member Teamsters union and the 400,000-strong United Auto Workers — as well as a pandemic-inspired reform effort in his own union.
The meatpacking drives in Iowa are arguably some of UFCW’s most important in decades, and reformers are making a run for key leadership spots at its April convention. It was once, in 1979, the largest affiliate of the AFL-CIO, but the 1.2-million-member union is now the smallest it’s been in 20 years. In that time, it lost almost a quarter million members.
Kuelo possesses an organizer’s instincts and skills, but the role of union president comes with its own commitments and constraints. If he were to go into battle against a meatpacking giant like Tyson or the formidable West Liberty, he’d want the support of the entire labor movement and UFCW International. As this story goes to press, Kuelo is tightlipped about next steps, adamant about the patient work of organizing with correct assessments.
Meanwhile, it’s clear workers are self-organizing, talking with each other about what a union could do to rebalance power between bosses and workers. The workers I spoke with did share reservations, ranging from dues to fears the plant might shutter should a union drive be successful, but they were signing union cards and speaking out.
What’s unclear is whether UFCW Local 431 will seize this momentum. If the union hesitates, it risks not only starting over but also losing credibility. And those union cards come with a clock — they typically expire after a year.
Goodner and I drive north on highway 70 through eastern Iowa, mounds of snow beginning to melt, salt-and-pepper corn fields with shrubs poking through. Then the smell of hog shit hits us, just outside Conesville. There, the factory farms that raise the sows to be slaughtered spray liquid manure. Iowa’s population is 3.2 million people, but the state’s fecal waste from hogs, chickens, turkeys and cattle is the equivalent of 168 million people, according to Christopher Jones, a University of Iowa research engineer.
Back in Iowa City, Goodner and I meet a Congolese worker at a laundromat and talk in hushed tones over the whir of tumbling bundles of soapy clothes. He is visibly scared. A mechanic at Tyson, he had participated in the pandemic relief clinic and spoken with union organizers. He ran through every possible rationale for how supporting the union might jeopardize his job. After all, he said, he was an immigrant. He had to care for loved ones at home.
Tyson has yet to launch a full-court anti-union onslaught, but it has signaled that it’s watching the campaign. According to Escucha Mi Voz, Tyson managers began showing up at pandemic relief clinics in December 2022, allegedly stealing a union card to post on social media, which Goodner sees as an intimidation tactic.
In a January 6 memo to workers, Tyson Foods plant manager Brent McElroy accused Escucha of coordinating with UFCW Local 431 to “pressure” workers into signing union cards to petition for an official election with the National Labor Relations Board. The memo’s Spanish translation seemingly implied workers would have to quit if they signed on.
In a plant suggestion box January 17, someone anonymously asked, “Why is Tyson so afraid of the union?” Another: “Why did you tell us in your posting last week that if we signed a union card, we would have to resign?”
Tyson replied: “We apologize but there was a miscommunication in our translation. Regardless of whether you signed a Union card or not, there will be NO retaliation, and no one will have to resign or lose their job because they did so.” In an emailed statement to In These Times, Tyson spokesperson Liz Croston said the company has “encouraged our team members to apply” to the pandemic relief program and had “addressed confusion and questions brought to us by team members on the requirements to obtain these funds.”
According to Kuelo, the memos are tantamount to Tyson “doing a commercial for the union. We don’t look for people to organize. People come to us to organize.”
On the subject of a union, Tyson spokesperson Croston added, “We respect the right of our team members to choose, in fact it is included in our worker bill of rights posted in our plant facilities. Our Columbus Junction plant has been union free since opening in 1986 because we have a good relationship with our team members and provide answers to their questions so that they can make informed decisions.”
But the “Blood, Sweat and Fear” report from Human Rights Watch names Tyson as a prime example of how “employers in the U.S. meat and poultry industry carry out systematic interference with workers’ freedom of association and right to organize trade unions.” It describes past attempts by the company to decertify unions, break strikes and keep out union sympathizers. Workers at the Columbus Junction plant say Tyson discourages joining a union during orientation for new hires.
West Liberty may pose a somewhat less daunting target — its owner, the Iowa Turkey Growers Cooperative (a farmers’ co-op whose profits are not public), employs only 2,700 workers across three states — but it still has a track record of union-busting.
Workers at West Liberty have previously tried to unionize twice with UFCW Local 431. The first drive, in 2004, lost by five votes, 303 to 308. In 2005, the union lost 231 to 322. In a settlement, West Liberty admitted it had violated labor law, including by distributing anti-union literature during the vote and threatening to close the plant. The company was required to post a notice that it would not make such threats in the future, but the damage was done.
The Tyson plant, too, has seen a union loss — a failed Teamsters Local 238 drive in December 1989, when it was owned by Iowa Beef Processors.
Goodner tells me the time is now, pointing to “the pandemic and the impact it had on workers, the recent change in union leadership to reflect the growing diversity and fightback mentality of plant workers, and Escucha Mi Voz’s two-year history of organizing, fighting and winning for immigrant and refugee communities.”
He adds: “This is a now or never, go big or go home, moment.”
Gloria Ortiz is convinced a union is the only way forward. “As workers, as people, we have to come together,” she says. “If we don’t come together, change is not going to happen.”
This is part one in a two-part series. Click here for part two.
This story was supported by the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.
Luis Feliz Leon is an associate editor and organizer at Labor Notes.