Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Armour Packing Plant in Kansas City, Kansas

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The employment of Latinos in the meatpacking industry of the Great Plains first took place between 1900 and 1930. Many Mexicans had entered the region to perform sugar beet work for the Great Western Sugar Company. Mexican communities formed near the refineries at sugar-beet-producing centers like Scotts Bluff County, Nebraska, and Weld County, Colorado. By 1927 half of the 58,000 Mexicans employed by the sugar beet industry worked in Wyoming, Colorado, Iowa, and Nebraska. Other Mexican immigrants entered the meatpacking industry after coming to the region through Kansas City, Kansas, to work for the Union Pacific, Burlington Northern, Santa Fe, and other railroads. The Mexican section hands settled in towns along the rail lines like Lawrence, Garden City, and Kansas City, Kansas, and Sidney, Ogallala, Grand Island, and Omaha, Nebraska.

Mexican immigrants obtained work in the slaughterhouses and meatpacking plants of Wilson and Company, Swift and Company, Cudahy, and the Omaha Company in Nebraska, South Dakota, Kansas, and Iowa. They established settlements near the packing plants in Omaha, Kansas City, Sioux City, and Sioux Falls. Many meatpackers and their families became permanent residents of the Great Plains, though large numbers were repatriated to Mexico during the 1920–21 depression and the Great Depression. During and after World War II, Mexican meatpackers in Omaha, Kansas City, and Fort Worth played an important role in the unionizing drives of the Packing-house Workers Organizing Committee.

The Great Plains meatpacking industry continues to attract Mexicans and other Latinos because of the labor needs of processing plants that have moved from the big urban centers to the Plains rural areas and small towns like Lexington, Nebraska, and Emporia and Garden City, Kansas. From 1980 to 1990 the beef, pork, and poultry processors in Nebraska, Kansas, and Iowa recruited workers from South Texas and California. The percentage of Latinos throughout the meatpacking industry continues to increase, representing more than 20 percent of the workers in some meat plants, like those in Emporia, to twothirds in others, like those in Finney County, Kansas. Most workers are young males born in Mexico and in Guatemala. Fewer than half of the Latino immigrant meatpackers have lived in the United States for five years. More than one-third are in the country legally through provisions of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, while more than onefourth lack legal residence, resulting in frequent arrests and deportations.

Illness, high injury rates, and stress caused by repetitive work plague meatpackers, who often quit after a few months or are forced off the job by the company. More than two-thirds leave because of poor working conditions. Low wages, limited mobility and advancement, and poor relations with management also account for high turnover rates in this industry. Latino meatpackers are burdened with housing shortages, poor health care and other social services, and racism and discrimination. The passage of "English only" ordinances and other such laws has been prompted by the increasing presence of Latinos in the meatpacking centers of the Great Plains. That presence, however, which is only the latest wave of immigration to a region populated by the descendants of immigrants, is not likely to diminish in the foreseeable future.

Zaragosa Vargas University of California, Santa Barbara

Gouveia, Lourdes. "Global Strategies and Local Linkages: The Case of the U.S. Meat Packing Industry." In From Columbus to ConAgra: The Globalization of Agriculture and Food, edited by Alessandro Bonanno, Lawrence Bush, William Friedland, Lourdes Gouveia, and Enzo Mingione. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1994: 125–48.

Lamphere, Louise, Guillermo Grenier, and Alex Stepick, eds. Newcomers in the Workplace: New Immigrants and the Restructuring of the U.S. Economy. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994.

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