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What Does “Ready For Work” Mean in an Iowa Town that Values Low Wage Meatpackers?

May 30, 2017

I just read an article by Patricia Cohen in today’s NYTimes that was alternately heartwarming, infuriating, and perplexing. “Immigrants Keep an Iowa Town Alive and Growing” describes the evolution of Storm Lake, Iowa from a community that was about to lose its one and only factory to a corporation who was ready to move because it could not extract huge concessions from its union employees to a community that has absorbed hundreds of immigrants willing to work long hours at arduous work in arguably dangerous working conditions.

The stories of the immigrants is heartwarming. They moved to this sleepy town in Iowa from war town countries in Southeast Asia and Central America and are proud of how hard they work and are thrilled at the material possessions and relative comfort they have attained. After some initial resistance from the community members whose jobs they effectively displaced, Ms. Cohen describes Storm Lake as a community that has achieved a multi-cultural hegemony that is comparable to that achieved in urban neighborhoods and that described in the aspirational speeches of the nations most progressive politicians.

But Storm Lake is part of Steve King’s congressional district, and Mr. King is one of the most strident anti-immigration political figures in the nation. As a extreme nativist, Mr. King plays to the Caucasians in his region who are resentful of the immigrants who “took their jobs”. But Mr. King also champions deregulation and opposes unions, effectively championing the businessmen who told the union workers four decades ago to accept low wages, longer shifts, and deplorable working conditions before closing their doors completely. Ms. Cohen uses the story of a 66-year old Caucasian who is about to retire as an example:

When Dan Smith first went to work at the pork processing plant in Storm Lake in 1980, pretty much the only way to nab that kind of union job was to have a father, an uncle or a brother already there. The pay, he recalled, was $16 an hour, with benefits — enough to own a home, a couple of cars, a camper and a boat, while your wife stayed home with the children.

“It was the best-paying job you could get, 100 percent, if you were unskilled,” said Mr. Smith, now 66, who followed his father through the plant gates.

After nearly four decades at the plant, most of them as a forklift driver, Mr. Smith is retiring this month.

The union is long gone, and so are most of the white faces of men who once labored in the broiling heat of the killing floor and the icy chill of the production lines. What hasn’t changed much is Mr. Smith’s hourly wage, which is still about $16 an hour, the same as when he started 37 years ago. Had his wages kept up with inflation, he would be earning about $47 an hour.

Later in her essay she describes a decision Mr. Smith made when the factory closed and then re-opened under new ownership without a union:

With vigorous support from town leaders, the upstart Iowa Beef Processors (later known as IBP) bought and reopened it a few months later — slashing wages by more than half and shunning the union.

At that point, Mr. Smith returned to do night cleanup, earning $5.50 an hour with no benefits, but a vast majority of his former co-workers were turned away, he said, because the new owner did not want to hire union supporters. Instead, the company began actively recruiting in Mexico and in immigrant communities in Texas and California.

“They learned real fast to keep a sharp knife and didn’t complain if they had a sore arm,” Mr. Smith said.

Ms. Cohen describes what happened to communities that didn’t forego decent paying jobs: they experienced a flight of those seeking work and a hollowing out of their businesses and a loss of community spirit. And here is what is both infuriating and perplexing: instead of linking the practices of the businesses to the decline of their towns the Iowans outside of Storm Lake link the decline to the immigrants who are willing to work long hours in tough working conditions for low wages… immigrants who, in the words of Dan Smith, Ms. Cohen’s proxy Caucasian who worked side-by-side with them, are “…just trying to make a buck for their family, like I am.”

After reading this article and looking at this dynamic through the lens of an educator, I am left with the question that serves as the site of this post: “What Does “Ready For Work” Mean in a Town that Values Low Wage Meatpackers?” Does the next generation of immigrants who are now attending Storm Lake HS seek a better life than their parents or do they stay in the community they grew up in and take over their parent’s jobs? If they DO want to accept the work their parents are doing, are they willing to forfeit wage increases that match the CPI? If they DON’T accept the work their parents do, what work will there be for them in Storm Lake? These children-of-immigrants are not be the cohort to face this question, but if the wall that Steve King wants is built, they could be the last…. and if they ARE the last, will the factories pay higher wages to attract more employees or will they flee Storm Lake for other communities where desperate workers are willing to work longer hours for lower wages?

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