Immigrants Keep an Iowa Meatpacking Town Alive and Growing

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His wife, Mayela, works from 5 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the pork plant, earning $18 an hour, before handling the register at Valentina’s until the early evening. Mr. Morelos often doesn’t finish up before midnight, he said, and rarely takes a day off. He recently bought a 22-acre farm about five minutes outside of town where he is raising lambs and goats. Dedicated workers, he said, can live “a good life.”

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Behind the butcher counter, Mr. Morelos keeps a shrine to people from the community who were close to him and have died. Credit Todd Heisler/The New York Times
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Mr. Morelos is greeted by his dogs at the farm he recently bought on the outskirts of town. Credit Todd Heisler/The New York Times

‘Just Trying to Make a Buck’

Shared ambitions and a willingness to work hard command respect across cultures here.

Mr. Smith, looking back on his decades at the plant, acknowledges that a supply of immigrants makes it easier for employers to pay less, but he doesn’t begrudge them the work.

“I harbor no ill feelings for anybody who’s trying to make a better life for themselves,” he said, settling on the living room couch in his home, a corner house next to the railroad tracks, which he shares with his girlfriend. “They’re just trying to make a buck for their family, like I am.”

Mr. Smith remembers that it wasn’t the arrival of foreign workers that initially drove down wages, but the plant owners.

First was Hygrade Food Products Corporation, an old-style meatpacking house that introduced Ball Park Franks to the Detroit Tigers’ stadium in 1957 and operated the Storm Lake plant when Mr. Smith went to work there. Faced with competition from new companies that had developed a faster, more efficient method of boxing beef and selling it to supermarket chains and fast-food outlets, Hygrade in 1981 asked its workers to take a pay cut of $3 an hour. When they refused, the plant closed.

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.

The new form of meatpacking that sprang up in Iowa and the Midwest transformed the industry. “There was lower pay, faster lines and higher injury rates,” said David Swenson, a regional scientist in the economics department at Iowa State University.

Tyson Foods bought IBP in 2001, and its red oval logo greets visitors as they drive into town. Tacked onto the entry gate, a large banner announces, “New starting pay” — $15 an hour on the production line.

Even at that level, more than twice the state’s $7.25 minimum wage, workers can be hard to come by. Standing in the same spot for eight hours or more at a time, in near-freezing temperatures, slashing at carcasses that swing by at a fast pace, can numb body and soul. The poultry industry also ranks among the most dangerous in the United States, according to a new report by the National Employment Law Project.

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