Our VoiceHealth & Environment

Don’t Bash Immigrants With Your Mouth Full

Rev. David L. Ostendorf • Feb 18, 2009

There is no one in this country who eats unless immigrant workers provide the food.

From the ground to the grocer, low-wage immigrants, refugees, and other workers of color are the very backbone of the nation’s food system. There is virtually nothing that is produced, picked, processed, packaged, and purveyed that does not have their touch. 62% of the workforce in the nation’s meatpacking and poultry processing industry is Latino/a and Black. 77% of the hired crop labor force is Latino/a, with 75% born in Mexico and 2% from other Central American countries. 40% of some 13,000 hired dairy farm workers in Wisconsin alone are immigrants. The largest employer of immigrants in the entire nation is at the other end of the food chain, in the restaurant industry.

This is certainly not a new phenomenon. Since at least the late nineteenth century the U.S. food system has grown on the backs of low-wage workers of color and immigrants. From the fields of California to the stockyards of Chicago to the groves of Florida this has been an abiding characteristic of U.S. food production. When President Theodore Roosevelt pushed his relentlessly enduring “cheap food” policy in order to feed a dramatically expanding and politically volatile urban population in the early twentieth century, the cost was imposed on both family farmers and food sector workers. A cheap food system is fundamentally based on low commodity prices and low wages for its workers, and little has changed since Roosevelt’s policy came into play.

Within this political and economic structure, organizing food sector workers has been a daunting challenge. That struggle in meatpacking alone is one that stretches across decades, and that continues to this day. By the early 1980s unionized packinghouse workers had secured a good living wage, earning from $12 to $16 an hour for some of the most dangerous work in America, exclusive of benefits. A decade later, however, wages for those jobs had plummeted by half, to some $8 an hour, as packers broke union agreements and returned to their old practice of hiring low-wage immigrant labor. While the United Food & Commercial Workers Union continues its organizing commitments in the packinghouses, it faces daunting challenges from an entrenched and powerful oligopoly that makes a mockery of worker rights and Anti-Trust laws. Smithfield Foods, for example, vigorously fought off the UFCW for sixteen years before its Tar Heel, North Carolina workers finally won a contract late last year at the country’s largest pork processing plant.

As for cheap food… it too has gone the way of fair wages. Milk and other commodity prices have plummeted in recent months, but there is no indication of price fluctuation at the grocery store where a half gallon of milk—even in “America’s dairy state”—still costs $2.49. Basic food items—bread, milk, eggs—are increasingly out of reach for many families. There is bitter irony here as immigrant workers themselves are compelled to pay premium prices for a food product that came from the grueling work of their own low wage labor. While “agricultural industry” proponents still tout the wonders of the nation’s cheap policy as they reap its profits, workers and consumers are increasingly left at their mercy. As the “industry” creeps toward a remaining handful of dominant corporations, there will be no cheap food.

In the depths of the rural crisis of the 1980s a provocative bumper sticker appeared across the heartland as family farms faced economic disaster and built public support for their organized struggle—“Don’t bash farmers with your mouth full.” That bumper sticker remains in play today. But a second, newer one is at the heart of the emerging struggle for justice in a food system gone awry—“Don’t bash immigrants with your mouth full.” If you eat today, you do so thanks to their labor.

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