Some service industries — hospitality, for example — report receiving an increasing number of applications from over-qualified but out-of-work people who are at the point of needing any job to make ends meet. With the national unemployment rate stubbornly remaining above nine percent, is the meat industry seeing a different kind of job applicant walk into the human-resources office?
A recent editorial published by the Christian Science Monitor suggested the economic recession is having an impact on the face of America’s workforce. "Recent recessions have been short enough that jobless Americans who rely on government benefits waited for a ‘good job’ to return. But this ‘Great Recession’ has been long and deep. The unemployment rate has doubled from 4.7 percent to 9.4 percent, and it may keep rising into next year. Many layoffs appear permanent as whole industries have collapsed and new fields, such as clean energy, are slow to emerge. The percentage of Americans ‘mal-employed’ – working below their skill or education – is higher than in recent recessions," the online newspaper commented.
But if over-qualified, well-educated people are now taking lower-wage positions that previously were regarded as jobs, "Americans just won’t do," to use the newspaper’s phrase, the United Food and Commercial Workers isn’t seeing it in the meat industry. "We’re not seeing droves of Anglos – white farm boys like myself – lining up to work in meat plants," Mark Lauritsen, who worked as an hourly wage employee in a meat plant as a young man and who is now UFCW’s international vice president, told MEATPOULTRY.com. "It’s always been an industry of immigrants and probably always will be."
But the Monitor noted that perhaps the whole notion that there are jobs native-born Americans won’t do may be a myth anyway. "In fact, a study by the Center for Immigration Studies used 2005-07 data to look at 465 occupations. Only four had a majority of immigrants in them: plasterers and stucco masons, agricultural graders and sorters, personal appliance workers, and tailors and dressmakers. In every other occupation, such as janitors, maids, and groundskeepers, a large majority were filled by native-born Americans. The report’s conclusion: ‘The often-made argument that immigrants only take jobs Americans don’t want is simply wrong.’"
Lauritsen pointed out that for one generation the meat industry did rely less on immigrant labor and more on native-born employees. "When the packers made the first exodus out of the cities and into the countryside, beginning around 1964, they had to use whatever labor was available, and that was farm boys. But then the industry began to revert back to itself," he said.
But with that exception, the industry has always gained workers from regions of the world that were torn by war, strife or economic depression. The Chicago meat workers described by Upton Sinclair in his watershed and industry-changing 1907 novel "The Jungle" were from Eastern Europe – Poland, for the most part, which was an accurate depiction of the demographics of the actual meat plant workforces in Chicago at the time. In later decades, a different kind of worker moved in – African-American, emigrating away from the poverty and segregation of the Deep South. Beginning in the 1970s, Southeast Asians from Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia began working in meat and poultry plants. Now there are Somalis, Ethiopians, Burmese, Croatians, Russians, Bosnians – a truly global workforce within a global industry.
"I was in a plant in Worthington, Minn., the other day, and it was like the United Nations, there were so many languages being spoken," said Lauritsen. "And of course there has always been a strong Latino presence in some locations."