Cheap meat is costly.
At the Southern Provision slaughterhouse in Bean Station, Tenn., in a recent early-morning U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement raid with helicopters, armed federal agents and road blocks, nearly 100 workers were rounded up, loaded into vans and taken to the National Guard Armory in nearby Morristown. Terrified families tried to find out whether their loved ones had been arrested. Civil rights advocates and religious groups moved in to help, then turned out to protest the forcible separation of mothers, fathers and children.
Theoretically, a public crackdown on undocumented workers, overwhelmingly Latino, sends a message that slows illegal immigration, but it is not that simple, and many people are hurt in the process. The plants go idle as communities dissolve into panicked chaos that ripples into towns sustained by worker spending power. For a time, employers will be more careful. Workers who avoid deportation will flee to other slaughterhouses, where managers are happy to hire willing people to do one of the United States’ most dangerous manufacturing jobs, in horrific conditions that drive a near-total worker turnover every year.
The cycle is familiar. Americans want cheap meat. That requires low wages. So plants hire undocumented workers. ICE raids the plants. Latino families cry. Schoolteachers are put in the untenable position of either supervising children after hours or sending them home, knowing their parents are missing. People are appalled by the human cost, momentarily. Then employers and workers become more sophisticated at evading detection and the cycle begins again.
At one time, labor unions made sure that workers were paid well and protected from injury. Then, beginning in the 1960s, meatpackers shut down the old unionized urban plants and moved into right-to-work rural states, breaking the backs of the unions. In the 1990s, the North American Free Trade Agreement helped propel thousands of Latinos — many undocumented — into meatpacking, lowering wages even further. Employers welcomed them. Undocumented workers were easier to control and much harder to unionize than U.S.-born workers. The speed of production lines increased. Injuries increased. Union representation decreased further, along with wages and working conditions.
Then came the backlash under President George W. Bush. On a single December day in 2006, ICE raided six Swift & Co. meatpacking plants in six states, arresting 1,300 workers, about 10 percent of Swift’s workforce. Workers across the Midwest were bused to detention centers, and most were deported. The Swift raids — “Operation Wagon Train” — remain the largest worksite enforcement action in U.S. history. ICE said Swift’s business plan was built on the backs of an illegal workforce. Nearly a quarter of Swift’s workers at the time were undocumented, and Swift had to raise wages by about 8 percent after the raid to stay open.
The Bush administration focused on rounding up workers rather than punishing business owners. Now, it appears President Trump has rediscovered that playbook, possibly believing that immigration enforcement in the form of high-visibility surprise raids is effective. In January, federal agents raided dozens of 7-Eleven convenience stores and say they will turn their attention to agriculture next. Agents have been ordered to quadruple worksite inspections. They have promised to overturn the Obama administration’s focus on employer audits, which doubled between 2009 and 2013. That policy has proved unsustainable in a business-friendly environment. The Tennessee raid is the largest since those carried out during the Bush administration.
But do surprise raids really solve the problem or create a deterrent? Only temporarily, if at all, because they do not address the underlying issue of the market’s demand for cheap meat and for the cheap labor to supply it. And, paradoxically, they can set up a ricochet of events that undermines corporate interests.
Within months of the Swift raids, plainclothes officers from ICE raided the world’s largest slaughterhouse, owned by Smithfield Foods, in Tar Heel, N.C. They arrested 21 workers, surreptitiously pulling Latino workers off the line, saying they were needed in the human resources department. Workers quietly put down their knives, took off their protective gear and headed to HR, where they were put in handcuffs, then driven away in the waiting vans. To disguise what was happening, the officers called in African American and white workers for drug tests.
Despite the subterfuges that agents employ, word spreads when “la migra” — Spanish slang for the immigration service — is on the way. In Tar Heel, within weeks of the raid, nearly half of the workforce at the plant — more than 2,000 employees and their families — simply left the region. The loss of workers forced Smithfield to increase wages, which attracted more African Americans, who were far more likely to vote for union representation. By 2008, workers who typically started at about $8 an hour had organized under the United Food and Commercial Workers Union and received a raise of $1.50 an hour, the largest pay raise in the history of the plant. It was an unusual victory for factory workers in the South, where right-to-work, anti-union views flourish.
The raid in Tennessee mirrors the 2008 ICE raid in Postville, Iowa, which snared nearly 400 workers: First came the sound of helicopters, then the crying. The Postville company filed for bankruptcy and then closed, devastating the economy in northeast Iowa. A similar result is likely in Tennessee. No charges were filed against the owners of Southern Provision, near Knoxville, at the time of the raid, but federal agents had been investigating the company, which processes beef, after Citizens Bank employees noticed that it was withdrawing large amounts of cash each week — possibly to pay workers while avoiding payroll taxes. Should there be charges, the result will be the familiar exodus and the rippling economic impact, altering the communities that support the plant and the companies that feed into it. More often, large employers are slapped with fines — the cost of doing business — and they lie low, then go back to business as usual.
It’s an open secret. Americans want cheap meat. We want our holiday hams and roasts. We also demand, or at least tolerate, the occasional public display of immigration enforcement, despite the human suffering.