A Story of Jobs, Immigration and the Reagan Revolution in Iowa

Part One of a series on labor and immigration in Iowa

Because of the complexity of the labor and immigration relationship, Blog for Iowa will make regular posts on this issue during the coming weeks.

The relationship between the decline in the number of jobs and immigration is easy to see in Iowa. The state continues to issue permits for workers to come from Mexico to pick melons and strawberries and prune apple trees and grape vines. These jobs have few benefits, but the hourly wage is competitive with factory work in urban centers like Cedar Rapids, Council Bluffs and Sioux City. Many of the same Mexican workers come year after year to places like Conesville and Williamsburg, providing growers with a stable, well trained work force. Most of the money earned is paid through an intermediary, or “job broker” and immigrant workers take most, if not all of their earnings back to Mexico to support their extended families. We will know the Iowa economy is really hurting when someone makes an issue that these well paying, seasonal jobs should be going to Iowans.

Those of us who have worked in the meatpacking industry have witnessed the evolution of workforce in Iowa. I made $4.04 per hour when I worked at Oscar Mayer & Sons in Davenport during my summer break from college in 1971. At those wages, plus overtime, I was able to fund the entire following year of school expenses not paid by my scholarship from Oscar Mayer.

None of my high school friends had difficulty finding factory work that summer if they wanted it, as Davenport was a manufacturing center, and Case, International Harvester, John Deere and many other businesses needed summer help.

My co-workers at Oscar Mayer were people much like my parents: union members and living a reasonable life with their pay and benefits. Even though Iowa is a right to work state, when given the choice at my hiring event, we all joined the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen of North America Local 431.

There were a few Hispanic workers and they were friends and seemed no different from the rest of us, trying to meet our economic needs. In a nation of immigrants, working for a family business, a lot of Oscar Mayer’s workers’ families had immigrated before the 20th century.

We hear a lot these days about the Reagan revolution. During the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan was president, there was a transformation of American business and the meatpacking industry was part of this. This transformation was particularly hard on working families, as companies grew and consolidated their operations.

Meatpacking continued to require a local workforce, but large operators like Iowa Beef Processors were building very large slaughter operations in Western Iowa and in South Dakota. Eventually, slaughter operations for cattle and hogs were consolidated. The plant where I had worked in college later eliminated the kill floor and used swinging (transported by truck on meat hooks) and boxed animal carcasses to make Oscar Mayer products with a reduced workforce.
With the Reagan revolution began the exodus of United States jobs to Mexico and overseas, where labor was less expensive and there was less government regulation. This era saw the rise in large, international conglomerates that evaluated costs of production in a global paradigm. What began with the departure of jobs from the United States during the Reagan administration continues today.

In Iowa, the meatpacking industry continued its consolidation throughout the 1980s and eventually large operators had trouble locating an adequate workforce, despite an overall exodus of jobs. The work had not changed, but the pay and benefits had. This gave rise to the immigrant worker issues that are so often associated with the towns Dakota City, Postville, Sioux City, Council Bluffs and Marshalltown. (…to be continued…).

We hope you will read the second post on this timely and important issue next Sunday.

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2 Responses to A Story of Jobs, Immigration and the Reagan Revolution in Iowa

  1. Anonymous says:

    I hired on as a millwright/mechanic at the Davenport OM plant and four months later when the kill floor was closed, as the last-hired I was the first let-go. That was right after the dead ex-refrigerator salesman was elected. Thus began a period of short-lived jobs which finally became an eight-year unemployment. We survived and became better for it. So much though for any sympathetic leanings toward 'business' and ultimately so went my work ethic.
    We were what some of us at that time referred to as Ronald Reagan Refugees.


  2. Anonymous says:

    I enjoyed the history lesson on immigration in Iowa — for two or three reasons: (1) We lived in Iowa for three years while my husband was going to college and still have friends there, (2) we are now living in AZ and you know what we are going through here on the issue of jobs/immigration and (3) we grew up in Michigan — one of the hardest hit states economically with issues related to unions, government actions, lack of diversification and job loss. Will watch for your follow up post.


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