COVID-19 is ravaging the upper Midwest, where meat processing plants have become viral flash points and nodes of community infection. In Iowa alone, major outbreaks have hit Columbus Junction, Waterloo, Perry, and Marshalltown, all places with significant meatpacking operations. The western Iowa packing town of Sioux City is experiencing one of the highest infection rates in the entire country, topping the list in recent weeks and sitting at number two as of this morning.
Mitigation efforts in the plants have been uneven and haphazard. Job sites shuttered after outbreaks are now reopening. Iowa’s narrow interpretation of eligibility for unemployment insurance is leaving workers few options but to return to the line. And President Trump’s executive order keeping packing plants up and running offers only unenforceable platitudes about worker health and safety. As one worker at Waterloo’s Tyson plant confided to Iowa’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration in mid-April, “I was afraid I would die if I kept going to work.”
It didn’t have to be this way. In fact, Trump’s invocation of the Defense Production Act reminds us that — when that act was passed on the eve of the Korean War in 1950 — the nation’s packing plants were very different places. In the middle of the century, thanks to the organizing efforts of the United Packinghouse Workers of America (UPWA), line workers in Iowa and around the Midwest earned decent wages and wielded substantial say on the shop floor. Today’s deadly conditions do not reflect the innate danger or character of meat processing work, but rather the loss of that union presence. The assault on organized labor, to put it bluntly, has turned meatpacking workers into sacrificial lambs.
The Lost Promise of Union Power
In the early decades of the twentieth century, meat processing was carried out in the stockyards of Chicago, Omaha, and Kansas City. Livestock came by rail from across the Midwest and was “disassembled” in huge multistory facilities — live animals herded in at the top, processed meat shipped out the ground floor. Workers in this “river of death” were subjected to low wages and brutally unsafe conditions. “It was to be counted as a wonder, “ Upton Sinclair wrote in The Jungle, “that there were not more men slaughtered than cattle.”
Early organizing efforts in the industry were sporadic and largely unsuccessful, save for the small foothold skilled workers carved out as members of the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen of North America. Workers’ fortunes began to change in the early 1930s, as laborers responded to both unbridled exploitation on the shop floor (“slave labor is what it was,” as a Cedar Rapids, Iowa packinghouse worker put it) and the political opening offered by the New Deal. A series of bottom-up efforts (most notably the Independent Union of All Workers in Austin, Minnesota) in the mid-1930s eventually coalesced around the Packinghouse Workers Organizing Committee and — after the passage of the 1935 National Labor Relations Act — the United Packinghouse Workers of America (UPWA).
Among the new industrial unions, the UPWA was known as a militant, left-led organization, fiercely committed to democratic representation (on the shop floor and in local communities) and civil rights, and a strong rank-and-file voice in working conditions, seniority, and grievance procedures. Between 1935 and the end of World War II, UPWA locals won representation at plants in Waterloo, Ottumwa, Mason City, and Sioux City. “They built strong steward systems and used job actions to empower workers and break through the fear of managerial authority,” historian Roger Horowitz writes. ”They tapped ethnic, familial, and neighborhood networks of packinghouse workers, secured support from white and black religious leaders, and brought respected group leaders into the center of the organizing drive. And they used National Labor Relations Board certification elections to give legitimacy to their efforts and to provide a focus for membership recruitment.”
But the gains were tenuous. Iowa’s “right to work” law, passed in 1947, was a setback for all unions in the state, but its provisions — including restrictions on pickets and boycotts, as well as a requirement that union leaders sign anticommunist affidavits — were especially damaging to the UPWA. An industry-wide strike in 1948 ended badly for the UPWA, as the new Taft-Hartley rules shackled union militancy and emboldened employers eager to break the “master contract” that guaranteed UPWA contract terms across company lines.
With labor on its back heel, the major packing companies galloped forward, training their sights on rural, right-to-work outposts to completely reorganize the industry. “Why should meat companies,” executives Currier Holman and Andy Anderson wondered in the late 1950s, “remain wage-locked in heavily unionized cities when unorganized workers could be hired at far lower wages out in the country?” Soon, the development of the interstate highway system and the emergence of refrigerated trucking made it possible to escape the union strongholds of Chicago, Omaha, and Kansas City. And states and small towns across the Midwest rushed to subsidize the industry’s migration.
The new firms, led by Holman and Anderson’s Iowa Beef Processors (IBP), pushed production into the cornfields of Iowa, Nebraska, and Missouri. Their exodus undercut the political and community alliances that had sustained the UPWA and eroded the union’s ability to organize across plants or secure master agreements. The map below shows the shifting scale and location of meat processing in the sixty years after World War II.
Figure 1: Meatpacking, 1947–2007
As meatpacking firms fled to rural outposts, they accompanied it with a new business model. New plants fine-tuned and sped up the disassembly line, creating jobs that involved less skill and more risk. Companies shed stable union labor for a high-turnover workforce, drawn first from surrounding rural counties and then from documented and undocumented immigrant labor. The older companies (Swift, Armour, Rath, Morrell) were soon eclipsed by the new breed — foremost among them IBP, Tyson, and Cargill.
The UPWA did its best to adjust, becoming the United Packinghouse, Food and Allied Workers in 1960, merging with the Amalgamated Meat Cutters in 1968, and then combining with the Retail Clerks International Union in 1979 to form the present-day United Food and Commercial Workers. But each reorganization sapped the UPWA of its militancy and underscored its weakening hold on a changing industry. By the 1980s, the union was fighting largely defensive battles against steep concessions and plant closings.
The trajectory of Storm Lake Packing in Storm Lake, Iowa neatly captures this story of decline. Founded in 1935, Storm Lake Packing was one of the early rural plants, employing a few hundred in the local processing of cattle, hogs, and sheep. In 1952, the plant was bought by Hygrade, which expanded the workforce to over six hundred. The UPWA local sustained high wages, topping $30/hr (2020 dollars) by the end of the 1970s.
But Hygrade began to press for concessions — vowing to close the plant if the union did not yield and delivering on this promise in 1981. The shuttered plant was purchased by IBP less than a year later. Its new starting wage was a fraction of that paid by Hygrade.
Back to the Jungle
The corporate assault on packinghouse employees reshaped the lives of workers across the upper Midwest and set the stage for the current crisis. Union losses “quickly disintegrated into a rout that not only lowered wage rates,” Horowitz concludes, “but also shredded the master agreements and de-unionized the core firms of the industry.” IBP and its colleagues, Human Rights Watch noted in a scathing 2005 survey of industry conditions, transformed meatpacking from an industry “in which workers had secure organizations bargaining on their behalf to one where self-organization is a high-risk gauntlet for workers.”
That collapse in self-organization can be seen in the graph below. Nationally, union density in meatpacking fell by more than half between 1983 and 2019, from over a third of the workforce to just 15 percent.
Figure 2: Union Density in Meatpacking, 1983–2019
The anti-union offensive, in turn, drove down wages. In its heyday, packing employment paid more than most manufacturing jobs and sustained incomes more associated with the middle class. In 1983, production wages in the industry fell below the average manufacturing wage and by 2002 were a full 24 percent lower.
The sorry story of packing wages is detailed in Figure 3. In real (inflation-adjusted) dollars, packing wages rose steadily across the post–World War II era. But since the mid-1980s, average hourly pay for line workers has plunged, dropping over 30 percent from the postwar peak.
Figure 3: Average Hourly Wages in Meatpacking (2020 dollars), 1932–2019
As union power waned and wages capsized — and production migrated to rural towns like Storm Lake that lacked sufficient local labor supply — the industry underwent a dramatic demographic shift. Firms recruited aggressively abroad, seeking not only those willing to work for low wages but new immigrants (documented and undocumented) who were either unfamiliar with labor law and labor standards or lacked the legal status to challenge employers who violated them. Meatpacking companies became synonymous with extreme exploitation, high worker turnover, and callous disregard for the law.
Postville, Iowa is a case in point. The arrival of Agriprocessors in 1987 transformed the northeast Iowa outpost (population 1,400) into a low-wage company town. The large kosher packing plant employed almost one thousand workers, with the early workforce of Russians and Ukrainians gradually displaced by Mexican and Guatemalan immigrants. In 2008, after months of planning, ICE raided the Postville plant — arresting almost four hundred workers and interring them as they awaited deportation hearings in pens at the National Cattle Congress fairgrounds in nearby Waterloo. Unfazed, Agriprocessors proceeded to churn through replacement workers — Native Americans from Nebraska, students from Kyrgyzstan, recruits from Palau, refugees from Somalia — in search of a labor pool desperate enough to toil under grueling conditions.
In the new normal of deunionized meatpacking, workers are exposed not just to low wages and horrific conditions, but to systematic wage theft. For almost thirty years, a turkey processing plant in West Liberty, Iowa used a labor broker to staff its line with developmentally disabled men. The broker collected the workers’ wages, along with their Social Security disability payments, and paid them a $65 monthly stipend regardless of how many hours they were on the clock — the equivalent of only 41 cents per hour. In 2011, Iowa Workforce Development fined the company over $1 million for over nine thousand violations of state labor laws.
Nor are such practices confined to the margins of the industry. For decades, Tyson maintained a clocking system that discounted the “donning and doffing” time needed to put on and take off protective equipment. In 2015, an Iowa court awarded three thousand Tyson workers in Iowa $5.8 million in unpaid wages. Since 2000, the company has shelled out more than $75 million to settle similar claims.
Working the packing line is now among the most dangerous jobs in the country. In a passage that could have been lifted from The Jungle, a 1998 Department of Labor Report noted workers “stationed so close together they lacerated coworkers with their knives, indicating a need for more space, more protective gear, or both.” These conditions are abetted by employer indifference, the virtual disappearance of OSHA as a regulatory presence, and an assault (bankrolled largely by Tyson) on workers’ compensation in Iowa and across the country. Even before the coronavirus pandemic, the steep decline in union power had turned meatpacking into a perilous occupation.
Worker Power Saves Lives
In its heyday, the UPWA and its allies did not just bargain for better wages; they provided meatpacking workers a ladder up to economic security. They did not just give workers a voice on the shop floor; they amplified and organized that voice in local, state, and national politics. They did not just ensure that workers were protected where they stood; they also led the political push for health and safety standards that benefitted the entire working class.
It is the collapse of worker power, and the exercise of that power inside and outside the plant gates, that has rendered packinghouse workers economically, physically, and politically vulnerable in today’s COVID-19 crisis.
None of this is inevitable. But as COVID-19 takes its toll in packing plants, as workers are ripped from their families and communities, we should remember the corporate actors and pro-business politicians that have brought about this brutal state of affairs — and laid bare the lethal cost of anti-unionism.