Although President Trump has ordered meat plants to remain open, his executive order did nothing to address the unsafe working conditions in these facilities and the vulnerability of these workers. All workers in grueling industries need and deserve better working conditions and wages that reflect the risks they take to perform essential work. But foreign-born workers face particular challenges — and they always have.
In the early 20th century, social worker Sophonisba Breckinridge investigated the horrific conditions in Chicago’s meatpacking plants. Then, as now, much of this labor was performed by immigrants. And then, as now, immigrants were an especially vulnerable group of workers.
Far from entering a cultural “melting pot,” foreign-born workers struggled to survive a toxic stew of inadequate workplace protections, unwelcoming immigration policies and unscrupulous employment practices — often without the ability to speak or write English.
Language barriers, combined with rudimentary safety measures, fostered dangerous working conditions. For instance, in 1906, a clubwoman wrote to Breckinridge about “a Polish Boy unable to read a word of English and therefore unable to read the signs of direction and warning on the machine at which he was placed who was killed caught in the machinery.”
Legal difficulties dovetailed with financial need to pave the way for exploitative practices, including wage theft and sexual harassment. Breckinridge encountered a young immigrant woman who was “so eager for work … that she had taken the first job she could find — in a saloon,” only to be fired when the saloonkeeper “turned her out when he found that she was to become the mother of his illegitimate child.” Outrage at the situation prompted Breckinridge to establish the Immigrants’ Protective League in 1908.
Although originally inspired by Breckinridge’s desire to address the problem of “lost immigrant girls,” the Immigrants’ Protective League served all of the Second City’s newcomers — women, men and children. One of the League’s first major accomplishments was establishing “a kind of immigration station” to welcome new arrivals. Agents provided new arrivals with information about employment opportunities, social services and evening classes. In only four years, the League served close to 80,000 immigrants at its welcome station.
As its name suggested, the League was dedicated to protecting immigrants from all forms of abuse. In its first decade, the League investigated approximately 25,000 complaints about forms of economic victimization, including being cheated by fraudulent employment agencies. It frequently referred immigrants to Chicago’s Legal Aid Society for assistance in obtaining unpaid wages.
Like U.S. citizens, immigrants were at risk of being exploited by their employers. But they also faced the additional threat of deportation. In addition to helping foreign-born workers negotiate with employers, the League helped them navigate restrictive immigration policies. The League increased its advocacy in response to the Immigration Act of 1917, which allowed for denial of entry to or deportation of a wide range of “undesirables,” including individuals judged likely to become a “public charge” and those suspected of subversive political activity.
During World War I, the League sought asylum for political refugees and assisted immigrants from war-torn countries to gain entry to the United States. In addition, the League provided interpreters for non-English speakers at Selective Service Bureaus and legal counsel for immigrants threatened with deportation.
During the Great Depression, the League protested the treatment of Mexican migrant workers. According to League reports, both documented and undocumented workers were “treated like cattle,” rounded up without regard to their legal status and detained for long periods without legal representation — before being ousted from their adopted homes.
At times, this work was politically dangerous. In fact, Breckinridge’s membership in the American Committee for the Protection of the Foreign Born eventually placed her on an official government list of suspected communists. But she persisted because she believed in the idea of a “national minimum”: a basic standard of living that the government should guarantee to all residents — citizens and noncitizens alike. This principle informed her contributions to the welfare state during the New Deal, when she not only promoted the Social Security Act of 1935 but also helped implement the programs it established, such as Aid to Families With Dependent Children.
This principle also is reflected in the ongoing work of the League and its successor organization, the Heartland Alliance. Still in operation today, this group is dedicated to ensuring “equity and opportunity for all,” including immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers.
Other groups, such as the Southern Poverty Law Center, carry on the work of the League by providing legal representation to foreign-born workers, such as the packing plant sanitation workers who have filed complaints with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Despite the ongoing work of these and other advocacy organizations, foreign-born workers remain vulnerable. Today, the high incidence of covid-19 among the largely immigrant workforce in the nation’s meatpacking plants, employers’ failure to provide health warnings in multiple languages, and federal policies that pressure immigrant workers to continue to work in unsafe conditions by denying unemployment benefits to undocumented workers and refusing permanent residency to visa holders who claim such benefits all demonstrate that the United States is not providing its essential workers with sufficient support. Breckinridge’s call for a “national minimum” is more urgent than ever.