said he made $2 an hour in 1960 (which, in inflation-adjusted dollars, would now be more than $15 an hour) to carry used cow hides from the plant's basement and pack them onto a train, one of the lowest-paying jobs at the company. In 1981, the Hygrade beef plant in Storm Lake, a four-hour drive west of Postville, paid $19 an hour as a starting salary--$47 an hour in today's dollars.
Workers at Agri Star now start out at $8.50 an hour,
Despite the lack of offshore competition and the real--or perceived--economic crisis faced by other U.S. industries (such as auto, airlines, and steel), meatpacking companies in this once-union heavy industry have been steadily attempting to drive down workers’ power and profits up since the early 1960s. This decline has transformed meatpacking jobs while a massive influx of mostly Latino immigrants has transformed the workforce.
Unlike many industries, notably auto manufacturing, meatpacking has not grown dramatically leaner over the past few decades.
“Improvements in productivity due to mechanization in the industry are very limited. The big problem for firms in meatpacking is that it still takes lots of people standing shoulder to shoulder wielding knives to process animals. Since they can't increase productivity through machines, they can only do so by keeping wages low and making workers go as fast as they can.”
Since meatpacking companies couldn’t get leaner, they got a lot meaner—forcing a free fall in real wages and benefits, and speeding up the killing floor to dangerous levels. Real wages dropped for meatpacking workers from $20 per hour in 1977 down to $10.50 in 2001, while on the shop floor workers now face one of the highest accident and injury rates in the country: over 25 percent.
The restructuring drive began with the closings of older, unionized, urban plants in the Midwest and Northeast. As these plants closed the work became more and more concentrated in newer, non-union plants in rural areas. The meatpacking companies themselves helped nudge this trend with recruitment programs targeting recent immigrants.
Following this shift, millions of immigrants came to these same rural areas in the 1980s and 1990s in search of farm work. Many immigrants drifted into the new meatpacking plants as native-born workers were driven out by worsening conditions.
"The 1980s marked a turning point in the character of work in the meatpacking industry, from a blue collar, middle class job to employment of last resort,” said Horowitz. “Union jobs that once allowed packinghouse workers to achieve a good standard of living became poverty level occupations. Real wages fell 30 percent in the 1980s. Workers fled the industry to find better jobs; in their place entered workers with limited job options, especially recent immigrants."