I spent a lot of time in rural Nebraska, so I have enjoyed following Chris Arnade’s tour of the forgotten parts of rural America. His tweets are a highlight of a Twitter feed filled with self-promotion and nasty bickering.
On July 3rd, Arnade made it to Nebraska and stopped in a place I know fairly well, Lexington, Nebraska.
Lexington is home to Tyson beef packing plant that employees roughly 3500. I have been travelling to Lexington since 2006 to represent clients who have been hurt at Tyson and other employers. My father Rod, has been doing the same thing since about 1990.
Like many other outside observers of Lexington, Arnade’s attention was drawn to the presence of a large Somali community in Lexington Arnade and other commenters immediately drew the connection between the Tyson plant and the Somali population. Comments about the Somali population in Lexington broke down into three categories:
- Vile racist alt-right comments.
- Comments from “locals” like me that amounted to “This isn’t news to us” but that were sympathetic towards immigrants.
- Comments that were generally sympathetic to the immigrant population made by commenters from coastal and urban areas.
The first group of comments doesn’t deserve a response. The more sympathetic comments from urban areas do deserve a response. Underlying the well-intentioned sympathy for immigrant meat packing workers in rural areas is an assumption that these immigrants are doing work that native-born workers refuse to do.
This assumption is not true. I can argue this anecdotally because I have represented several native-born Americans in meat packing cases over the years. But there are other explanations of why meat packing plants in rural areas hire a substantial number of immigrants.
The first reason is population. Rural areas have a difficult time finding employees to fill highly-paid professional jobs. Meat packing doesn’t pay particularly well and is notorious for being hazardous. A combination of dangerous work and a small population base makes even good paying jobs difficult to fill. As an example, Nebraska placed a maximum security prison in rural Tecumseh, Nebraska in 2001. The combination of dangerous work and the lack of nearby workers has contributed to chronic staff shortages at Tecumseh. Large meat packing plants in rural areas need more labor than those rural areas can provide on their own. Immigrants help fill the need.
Meatpacking plants also draw in native born workers for urban areas. I recently represented a man from Denver whose wife was from New York City who worked at a packinghouse in rural Nebraska. His family didn’t want to move to an urban area because of crime and a higher cost of living. My client is representative of many former urbanites who have moved out of cities into urban areas. Much attention has been drawn recently to the drastic decline of the African-American population in Chicago. The decline is attributed to crime, the cost of living and lack of jobs in Chicago. Again, anecdotally, I have represented several transplanted Chicago residents in Nebraska workers compensation claims over the years. Former Chicago residents are making their home in rural Nebraska for the same reasons that immigrants are: lower cost of living and the availability of jobs
Despite the overwhelming evidence that native born employees are willing to work in meatpacking, the myth that only immigrants work in meatpacking is persistent. The persistence of this myth rests on several assumptions. The first assumption is based on a romantic notion about manual labor, usually spread by people who never had to support themselves by manual labor. Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse is a prominent proponent of this myth. The myth is something along the lines of people are is soft “too soft” and some hard work will just toughen you up. This myth can deflect legitimate concerns about workplace safety into wimpy and politically correct griping.
An even more insidious basis for the myth that native born Americans won’t work in meatpacking is scientific racism. Scientific racism is the belief that certain ethnic groups are better at some tasks than others. When urban liberals state “Immigrants do the jobs that natives won’t do” they probably don’t mean that there is something inherent in the DNA of Latinos and east Africans that allows them to not to get bi-lateral carpal tunnel and epicondylitis from trimming 3000 briskets over an 8 hour shift. But there is an assumption that immigrants are willing to tough it out while native born workers can’t. This isn’t true. Lots of immigrants can’t handle the physical demands of meatpacking working, but some can. The same goes for native born workers.
Another reason for the myth that native born workers won’t work in meatpacking is the subtle bias of those who report on working conditions in the meatpacking industry. Much of what America knows about meatpacking in rural America is reported by urban journalists like Arande or Fast Food Nation author Eric Schlosser. You almost get the impression that when journalists like Arande see an east African restaurant paired with a Hispanic clothing store in rural Nebraska they feel some intense wave of nostalgia for some idealized crime free but non-gentrified urban neighborhood free of hipsters and artisan cheese shops. The shock when a journalist happens upon a mosque and African restaurant in rural Nebraska overwhelms the larger story about the impact of meatpacking on the labor force in rural America.
Arnade has gone out of way his way to be fair to rural residents. However not all writers share Arnade’s fair-minded attitude towards rural Americans. In December, liberal commentator Markos Moulitsas wrote that people should be glad that coal miners who voted for Donald Trump were going to lose their health insurance. Coal mining is probably as hazardous a job as meatpacking. But to an urban liberal audience, immigrant meat packers deserve sympathy for working in a dangerous job, but Trump-supporting native born coal miners who work in an equally hazardous job deserve contempt.
The ugly sentiments expressed by Moulitsas found a more hideous expression from New York Times columnist Bret Stephens. The toxic Tory “joked” that the U.S. should deport native born working class people, but that nobody would want them. Stephens “ironic” comments draw an eerie parallel with the ironic racists of the alt-right. it’s disturbing that a so-called liberal publication would give this jerk a bi-weekly forum.
The ugliness of Bret Stephens class prejudice follows from well-meaning assumptions that native born Americans will not work in industries like meatpacking. There is a shared assumption that immigrants have particular virtues and native-born Americans have particular vices and defects. These misconceptions fuel resentments and backlash that opportunists can exploit. A better understanding of the workforce in rural areas will help honest-minded people overcome views that help perpetuate anger that works to undercut rights and benefits of all workers regardless of race or citizenship status.