The Jungle of the Plains -- Mexican-Americans and Meatpacking Work

Dan Bryan, May 8 2012

Crete, Nebraska. Meat PackingMeat Packing work in Crete, Nebraska.

One of the great social changes in the United States over the past thirty years has been an influx of Mexican and Hispanic immigrants into the South and the Great Plains. One of their primary means of employment in these regions has been the meatpacking industry, which has become increasingly centralized since the 1980s.

One of the states where this can be most clearly seen is Nebraska. Long one of the most homogenous states in the country, it has attracted a steady flow of new arrivals over the past three decades -- arrivals drawn by its status as a center of the beef processing industry.

The revolution in meat processing in the United States

In the United States, meat had traditionally been cut and processed by local butchers. When a cow was slaughtered, for instance, its carcass would be shipped in whole to a local butcher, who chopped it apart into its various cuts.

Towards the end of the 20th century, the industry consolidated using economies of scale. Most animals came to be raised via factory farming. Costs for feed and labor were reduced. Large meatpacking plants in the Great Plains took on greater importance and were expanded, while four companies -- Tyson, Cargill, JBS (formerly Swift), and National Beef -- came to control about 80 percent of the market by 2009.

This facilitated an increase in total American meat production, and it centralized the processing of meat into a smaller number of factories -- usually located in rural locations near the largest concentrations of ranches and farms. Compared to older methods, this also shaves some amount from the price of meat, although the overall price in recent years has increased due to more consumption in emerging world markets (particularly in Asia).

Cattle Feedlot in the Great PlainsA centralized, open-air feedlot in the rural plains.

Working in the meatpacking industry

Meat companies turned to Mexican immigrants because the costs for labor were lower. Legal immigrants who were relatively new to the country typically demanded lower wages than long-time American citizens. Immigrants who were not legal were also prized because they were unable to file workers compensation claims and did not count against a company's health costs. An undetermined number of meatpacking employees were (and are) illegal, though a series of high profile raids in the mid-2000s seemed to have some effect on combating this.

The work is grueling and the pay low by American standards. The accident rate is traditionally among the highest of any occupation, including logging and mining. Particularly in beef processing, the carcasses involved weigh several hundred pounds and can severely injure or kill a person if proper care is not taken. Most rooms are refrigerated barely above freezing, workers are prone to repetitive motion injuries, and accidents are widespread. The machinery itself is designed to slice and cut through animals of a very large size. Thus, lacerations are widespread and loss of limb is not unheard of.

A true injury rate is difficult to determine. Plants have repeatedly been caught under-reporting such incidents -- both to reduce worker's compensation payouts, and to avoid workplace safety fines. Some estimates put the number at 20-25% of workers who are injured in a typical year.

The wages of the meat packing industry have steadily declined since Mexicans and Hispanics began working in it. In 1976, for instance, the average wage in a meat processing plant was $17.41/hour (in 2006 dollars). By 2006, the average wage had declined to $11.47.

Mexican communities in the Great Plains

Some Nebraska towns where meatpacking is prominent are now majority Hispanic, as of the 2010 census. Schuyler is 65 percent Hispanic. In Lexington that number is 60 percent. Grand Island -- the fourth largest town in the state -- is 27 percent Hispanic.

These communities have all the trappings of Mexican neighborhoods seen elsewhere in the United States -- Catholic Churches, taco stands, older vehicles, and bargain stores. In the schools, the proportion of children who are Mexican is usually higher than in the surrounding town. It seems likely that Nebraska will continue to become more Hispanic over the coming years.

Nebraska Meat Packers, 2000sMeat packers in Nebraska, mid-2000s.

The new arrivals have sometimes mixed uneasily with the old Nebraska residents. They tended to cluster in cheaper neighborhoods, where they packed themselves densely into small houses, apartments, and trailers. While many formed families, there was a higher ratio of men compared to women, and the neighborhoods took on the rougher character that usually accompanies that situation.

However, in relation to most of the United States, crime remained very low in most Nebraska towns (including Schuyler, Grand Island, etc.) throughout the 1990s and 2000s. The population is humble, but not destitute.

Economic mobility over time

As with other places, Mexicans became more assimilated into American culture the longer their families lived in Nebraska. It is dangerous to assume that history repeats itself, but in this case the parallels with the earlier meat packing industry are so striking that they are impossible to ignore.

When meat packing was located in large cities in the early 1900s, the plants were worked overwhelmingly by immigrants from Europe. They took wages that were far below the American norm, worked long hours, lived tightly packed in small houses and apartments, and were resented by established American workers for their effect on factory wages. Over time, they built communities and raised kids who largely pursued education and jobs outside of the yards. Even now their descendants make the Great Lakes and Northeastern cities heterogeneous (assuming Irish, Poles, Czechs, Italians, etc. are to be counted as different groups) in comparison to regions like the South and the Mountain West.

Among Mexican families who have lived in the United States for more than a few years, subsequent generations have also tended to improve their economic fortunes. Most Mexican immigrants quit the meatpacking work after some time as they become established and find better jobs (or also when they become badly injured). Others start their own stores and companies. Some of these entrepreneurs are quite prosperous in their own right.

The immigration cycle continues with other groups, however. In the past few years, the plants have begun to hire workers from Somalia and other countries with a shorter history in the United States. It remains to be seen how these groups will adapt to factory life.

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About the Author

Dan Bryan

Dan Bryan is the founder and editor of American History USA. He holds a B.A. in American History from the University of Chicago. He has created this site to empower Americans of all backgrounds to increase their historical literacy.

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