Undercover in a Chicken Factory

For immigrant workers in an Arkansas poultry plant, even a bad job is a labor of love -- until the bosses crank up the power
By Steve Striffler, Labor History
January / February 2004


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Just as Americans move abroad seeking a new life, the United States attracts expatriates from other countries. Many of these new immigrants have wound up working in meat plants throughout the American heartland. In the spirit of famous muckraker Upton Sinclair, who in 1904 worked undercover alongside immigrants in a Chicago meatpacking plant before writing his classic novel The Jungle, University of Arkansas anthropologist Steve Striffler got a job at a modern poultry processing plant to see what it's like. -- The Editors

Springdale, Arkansas, is an unremarkable working-class city at the center of the most productive poultry-producing region in the world. It is also home to the corporate headquarters of Tyson Foods. The company's Northwest Arkansas Job Center is a small building that resembles a government office. A sign in Spanish near the receptionist's desk says, "Do not leave children unattended." Another warns, "Thank you for your interest in our company, Tyson Foods, but please bring your own interpreter."

The receptionist seems surprised by my presence. "Sorry, hon, there are no openings for a mechanic." I assure her I'm not qualified to be a mechanic and that I want to work on a production line in one of the area's processing plants. She hands me a thick packet of forms and asks, "You want to work on the line?"

I can understand her confusion. The secretary and I are the only Americans, the only white folk, and the only English speakers in the room. Spanish predominates, but a couple in the corner converses in Lao and a threesome from the Marshall Islands in a Polynesian language. In less than two decades, the poultry industry has drawn the "workers of the world" to the American South, a region that saw few foreign immigrants during the 20th century. As I know from my research as an anthropologist, Latin Americans first arrived in northwest Arkansas in the late 1980s seeking these jobs. Today, about three-quarters of the workers in the plant are Latin American, with Southeast Asians and Marshallese accounting for many of the rest. Workers born in the United States are few and far between.

Tyson processes job applicants like it processes poultry. The emphasis is on quantity not quality. No one at the Job Center spends more than a minute looking at my application, and no single person takes the time to review it all. There are few pleasantries, but there is also no bullshit. I tell the interviewer I want a job at a processing plant, he makes a quick call, and five minutes later I have a job. Someone has already called my references, and I pass both the drug test and the physical. I'm Tyson material.

I arrive at the massive plant a few days later. At 3 p.m. sharp, the new recruits are escorted into a small classroom that contains a prominently displayed sign: "Democracies depend on the political participation of its citizens, but not in the workplace." Written in both English and Spanish, the message is clear in any language.

The nine (other) people in my orientation class are representative of the plant's second shift. Eight are Latin Americans, with six coming from Mexico and two from El Salvador. Six men, two women. As the younger men frequently lament, women in the plant tend to be slightly older than the men. In this respect, Maria (early 40s) and Carmen (early 50s) are quite typical. The six men vary in age from their early 20s to their 60s. Jorge, in his mid-30s, has lived in California for the past 13 years, mostly working in a textile factory. Like Jorge, the Mexican workers often come from rural areas in the state of Guanajuato, spend time in California working in factories or picking fruit, then find their way to the promised land of Arkansas. Not only is everything in Arkansas much cheaper, but Tyson Foods pays around eight dollars an hour, offers insurance, and consistently provides 40 hours of work a week. Poultry processing is a tough way to achieve upward mobility, but that is precisely what these jobs represent for most immigrants.

After putting on our smocks, aprons, earplugs, hairnets, beard nets, and boots, we're given a tour. Most have killed chickens on farms, but nobody is prepared for the overwhelming sounds, sights, and smells that await us. It doesn't help that the tour begins in "live hanging" (pollo vivo). Carmen says what we all are thinking: "My God! (¡Dios Mio!) How can one work here?" The answer turns out to be simple. Live hanging pays a bit more and there is actually a waiting list for the job. Chickens are flooding into a dark and hot room at about 200 a minute. The smell is indescribable, suffocating, and absolutely unforgettable. Five or six workers grab the flailing chickens, hooking them by their feet to an overhead rail system that transports the birds throughout the plant. Blood, shit, and feathers are flying everywhere.

Fortunately, I land a job on Saw Lines 1 and 2. It's not exactly pleasant, but it's a long way from live hanging. These "further" processing lines are at the heart of the revolution that has transformed the poultry industry and American diets over the past 25 years. Before then, most Americans bought chicken in one form: the whole bird. Today, Tyson produces thousands of "further processed/value-added" meat products. The poultry products include nuggets, patties, franks, pet food, and a range of parts in many shapes, sizes, textures, and flavors.

There are two identical processing lines where I work. Each takes a whole chicken, cuts it, marinates it, and breads it. With about 20 to 25 workers, each line processes what we've estimated to be about 80 birds a minute or 40,000 pounds of chicken a day. The lines are effectively divided into four sets of machinery: cut up, marinade, breading, and rebreading. Conveyer belts move the chicken from one section to the next. The birds are hung on the line, cut by rotating saws, injected with marinade (whose flavor changes depending on the day), and sent through a series of contraptions that lightly breads the parts. From there, the chicken is conveyed to another area to be cooked, packaged, and placed on tractor-trailers. Live birds enter the plant at one end; patties and nuggets depart from the other.

My coworkers are an interesting and diverse bunch. Of the 20 or so on the lines, two (excluding myself) are white Americans. Most white workers left the poultry plants during the region's economic boom in the 1990s, and those who remain tend to fall into two categories. An older group has been working at Tyson for more than 20 years, and they're hanging on to the benefits that seniority bestows. The few white workers who started more recently have few other options. Jane, for example, is well into her 60s. Factory work is all she knows. The language barrier keeps her from conversing with most of her coworkers, but she has a peculiar habit that endears her to nearly everyone. When the line stops, she often dances with an unsuspecting young man, embarrassing the victim but giving everyone else a much-needed laugh.

Most line workers are women, many in their 40s and 50s. In a plant where about two-thirds of the workers are male, this fact is telling. On-line jobs are the worst in the plant -- monotonously, even dangerously, repetitive. These workers stand in the same place repeating the same motions for an entire shift. Women are concentrated in on-line jobs because they're excluded from all jobs that involve heavy lifting or running machinery. Mario, Alejandro, Roberto, Juan, Jeff, Carlo, and I come from all over the world, but in the plant we are "young" men who clean up waste, bring supplies, lift heavy objects, and operate hand carts and forklifts. As auxiliary workers, we do on-line work, but only intermittently.

I am to be the harinero, the breading operator, or as my 22-year-old supervisor Michael likes to call me, the little flour boy. Michael can't do the job himself and his instructions are simple: "Do what Roberto does." With five years on the job, Roberto can do every task on the line, fix the machines, and carry on a conversation at the same time. But he gives me little formal training, which makes learning my new job a bit tricky. Roberto is neither friendly nor cool at first; and unlike virtually everyone else in the plant, he is unimpressed that I speak Spanish. We would eventually talk about everything from his wife's struggles at a nearby turkey plant to his kids' achievements at school. I would even visit his parents in Mexico. In the beginning, however, I just watch, hoping to gain his respect and learn enough to survive the first week.

I learn quickly that "unskilled" labor requires immense skill. The job of harinero is extremely complicated. In a simple sense, the harinero empties 50-pound bags of flour all day. The work is backbreaking, but it takes less physical dexterity than many jobs on the line. At the same time, the job is multifaceted and cannot be quickly learned. The harinero constantly adjusts the breader and rebreader, monitors the marinade, turns the power on and off, and replaces old flour with fresh flour. All this would be relatively manageable if the lines ran well. They never do.

Problems with the rebreader are the main reason the line shuts down. It is here, with Roberto, that my education as both harinero and worker begins. One of the first things I learn is that I'll be doing the job of two people. There have always been two harineros, one for each line. However, Michael, the supervisor, recently decided to run both lines with only one harinero. He is essentially doing what he has done, or will do, with virtually all the on-line jobs. Two workers, not three, hang chicken; two, not three or four, arrange parts; one, not two, checks the marinade levels. This downsizing has been going on throughout the plant. About six months earlier, a generation of supervisors who had mostly come up through the production lines were more or less forced from their jobs by a new set of plant managers. The new managers ordered the older supervisors to push the workers harder and harder. Knowing how hard work on the line could be, many supervisors refused by simply leaving the plant. The managers were then free to replace them with younger, college-educated supervisors like Michael.

Michael is a working-class kid clawing his way into the middle class. One of the first in his family to attend college, he just graduated form the University of Arkansas with a degree in poultry science. Supervisors start at under $30,000 a year. Although he "never imagined" earning that much right out of college, the trade-off is considerable. Michael arrives every day at 12:30 p.m. and never leaves before 3:30 a.m. Unlike the workers, of course, he enjoys a job with some variety, almost never gets his hands dirty, and can hope to move up the corporate ladder. At least in the short term, however, he's as consumed by the plant as the rest of us.

Nevertheless, Michael is the focus of our anger. Michael (guided by his bosses) oversees the downsizing. One reason he succeeds -- besides the lack of a labor union and binding job descriptions -- is that cutting workers on the line doesn't necessarily halt it. The fewer workers just have to work faster. But as Roberto pointed out, the breading operator is different. When the breading operator falls behind, the entire line stops. And Michael would soon be replacing two experienced harineros, Roberto and Alejandro, with a single trainee -- me.

When Michael told them there would soon be only one harinero, Roberto and Alejandro used their seniority to find other positions. Michael posted the job but no one in the plant wanted it, Roberto says. "It was too much work. So he had to get a new guy who couldn't say no -- someone like you."

Roberto is right, but he's being less than candid. Giving up the position did matter to him. Alejandro is more blunt: "I had eight years as harinero. I like the job. It's like family here. It doesn't mean anything to Michael. For him it's just a job and we're just Mexicans. He doesn't know anything anyway. I wanted to stay, but why? Fuck that! Twice as much work for the same salary. I did my job well. I have nothing to be ashamed of."

During my first weeks, the line keeps shutting down. Few of the problems are tied to me, but the entire process is slowed by the fact that there is only one real harinero -- Roberto. The harinero has to fix everything, but the main problem is that the rebreader apparatus simply doesn't have enough power to circulate the flour while pushing the chicken along the belt. In short, when enough flour flows through the valves to bread the chicken, the machine bogs down and the chicken piles up and falls on the floor. This results in loud shrieks from just about everyone. As breading operator, Roberto has to shut down the line and figure out which part of the rebreader isn't working.

The possible solutions to this problem shape an ongoing struggle between Michael, Roberto, and (now) me. First, the plant mechanics could feed enough power to the machine to handle both the chicken and the flour. This is clearly what Michael wants. Second, we could run less chicken, which, by reducing the weight on the belts, would allow the rebreader to operate properly at the current power level. This is simply unthinkable to Michael. His goal is to keep the line running at top speed and at full capacity all the time.

Roberto and I adopt two strategies to keep the rebreader running. First, we change the flour frequently. Fresh flour that's not yet wet and clumpy from the chicken circulates better. Michael, however, rejects this option because it costs more. Second, we try using only as much flour as the rebreader can support. But here again Michael insists that the rebreader can handle more (old) flour and that we're running it at levels that don't bread the chicken enough.

The difficulty for Roberto and me is that Michael is simply wrong. He passes by every hour and tells us to use more flour. He then leaves, and with remarkable precision the machine bogs down. We stop the line, clean up the mess, and lower the flour to a workable level. Michael then returns, calls for more flour, and the process begins again.

This uneasy and somewhat absurd tension continues all day. Only occasionally does Michael see the rebreader bog down because of his miscalculations. Roberto and I relish these moments. Roberto suddenly forgets how to fix the machine and simply watches as Michael frantically calls a mechanic on his walkie-talkie. After talking to Michael and staring at the machine for 10 minutes, the mechanic swallows his pride and asks Roberto what the problem is. Roberto then looks at Michael, smiles at me, and fixes it.

Looking back, it's hard to explain why this petty struggle seemed so damn important. The irony, of course, is that it was in our interests to follow Michael's (uninformed) directions and let the line stop. It was a pain to keep fixing the machine, but we got paid the same whether it ran or not. Finally, the shutdowns benefited all the workers by giving them a break.

Why, then, were so many of us profoundly irritated when the lines stopped? Several factors were at work. The first was Michael's attempt to use not only fewer harineros, but fewer workers in general. It confirmed our collective perception: Michael's inexperience led to decisions that made our lives intolerable. They were also economically unsound. We believed we could run the lines better. Second, and most important, by concentrating decision making in his own hands, Michael removed the very thing -- control over the labor process -- that gave the harinero job its meaning. Finally, almost all the workers took great pride in jobs that likewise had been largely degraded.

Despite our protests, Michael forges ahead, and in my fourth week I begin running both lines. What he does not tell us, however, is that he has finally gotten the mechanics to boost the power. Roberto and I quickly discover that Michael has won. With more power, the rebreader almost never bogs down. Running the lines no longer requires the expertise of someone like Roberto. But while the job demands less skill, it takes more work. I now fill the flour for two lines running at a faster pace. The intensity and monotony are almost unbearable. For the on-line workers the change is devastating. By the end of the week, Blanca, a Mexican woman in her 50s, is overwhelmed. She has been hanging chickens for too many years and her body can't keep up. Hoping to stay at Tyson until she retires, she quits within a week.

Noise, supervision, and the job's intensity limit communication on the plant floor. The break room is a different situation. Twice a shift, for 30 minutes, workers watch Spanish-language television, eat and exchange food, complain, and relax. Supervisors almost never enter the room, and they're uncomfortable when they do. I was often the only American present.The few other Americans on the second shift almost always gathered in a smaller room where smoking is permitted and the TV is in English.

A telling moment occurred in the break room only three weeks after I arrived. Although I'd eventually tell my new friends that I was an anthropologist, no one knew at the time. However else they viewed me -- as a strange gringo who spoke Spanish, as a blanco who was too stupid to get a good job, or as an inept breading operator -- I wasn't yet seen as an anthropologist or professor.

After pushing us hard that day, Michael gave us free boxes of fried chicken to thank us. He'd do this half a dozen other times while I worked there, and it always got the same reaction. After looking at the chicken, we'd stare at each other until someone said something like this in Spanish: "Pure asshole. I am not going to eat this shit." For an awkward moment we'd glance at each other, look away, and pretend not to know what was going on. Then someone would say: "We can't throw away good food and we're all hungry. Let's eat this shit." And so we would, more pissed off than ever.

Michael's gesture was insulting for many reasons. First, he wasn't just giving us food; he was giving us chicken. Second, it didn't come close to making up for what the workers had just gone through on the plant floor. As paternalism, it was pathetic and transparent. (Why Michael didn't see this is a different question.) Finally, it was insulting because even as we hesitated we knew we'd eat the chicken.

As we chewed the chicken that day, we had the following exchange. No one directly mentioned Michael's gesture, as if all of us had agreed not to relive the humiliation.

Roberto welcomes me into the group: "Ai, Steve, you are almost Mexican. All you need is a Mexican wife to cook you some decent lunch and you would be Mexican."

Alejandro, also from Mexico, chimes in: "Yes, Steve is a Mexican. He speaks Spanish, eats with Mexicans, and he works like a Mexican. It's pure Mexicans here. We all eat chicken."

Elisa, three years on the job, kindly protests: "Ai...I'm not Mexican. I'm Salvadoran."

Alejandro, gently explaining: "Look, we're all Mexicans here [in the plant]. Screwed-over Mexicans." He points at Li, an older woman from Laos. "Look, even she is a Mexican. Pure."

We laugh as Li, who's too far away to hear, quietly devours a chicken wing.

Ana, catching on to Alejandro's point, finally agrees: "Yes, it's the truth. We are Mexicans here in the plant."

I ask, somewhat interested: "And outside the plant, in Springdale, Fayetteville, and Rogers? Are we all Mexicans outside?"

Roberto quickly responds: "Outside, we are all fucked. We're in Arkansas."

Everyone laughs.

Alejandro, more seriously, says to me: "Outside, you're a gringo. You are from here. Outside, we are Mexicans, but it is different. We're still screwed, but in a different way. We are foreigners. We don't belong. At least here in the plant we belong even if we are exploited. Outside, we live better than in Mexico, but we do not belong, we are not from here and keep to ourselves."

I then ask: "And in Mexico? Who are we in Mexico?"

Roberto says to me: "In Mexico, you are a gringo. You are a foreigner, but not like we are here in Arkansas. You are more like a tourist, treated well. We are not tourists here. We are treated more like outsiders. In Mexico, we are normal people, Mexicans, just like everyone else. But in Mexico there is no future. My children were all born here, they are Americans. They have a future. Now, when I return to Mexico I feel like a tourist. I have money, travel, visit people. Our future is here now."

Alejandro ends on a light note: "At least in Mexico the chicken has some fucking taste."

When Alejandro looks around at people from Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, Vietnam, Laos, and the Marshall Islands, and says we are all Mexicans, he is making a statement about class. He is not confused by the bright lights of the postmodern world, or unclear where he is located, socially, racially, and geographically. Rather, he is playing with the label, using it almost as a synonym for worker. "Yes, we are all Mexicans here" is almost the same as, "Yes, we are all workers here." And not any kind of worker -- but those who do what society sees as the worst work. Shit work. In this respect, Li, from Laos, is not singled out by accident. She is Mexican, one of us, because she does the same crap; because she eats Michael's chicken; and because she is Mexican to Tyson's management.

We've yet to appreciate the full impact of transnational migration, especially on people like my coworkers at the plant. In the process of crossing borders in search of opportunity, their experiences may be leading them to question the national loyalties that borders reinforce. As they work together, both immigrants and the native-born may be developing new identities that run counter to old notions of citizenship. And some of these new identities are grounded in class. Could it be that globalization internationalizes not only capital, but also workers? It's worth considering. Poultry plants are, after all, one of the places where workers of the world come together.

Such sites will not automatically unite this diverse working class any more than factories did in 19th-century England. But if we really want to understand the global migrations that are reshaping today's world, we need to look at culture not just in terms of ethnic rituals and customs. We also have to confront the realities of class. The Mexicans, Salvadorans, Vietnamese, and Americans at the plant experience cultural differences every day when they exchange tortillas, tacos, rice, beans, and turkey sandwiches. But they also share -- in different ways -- the class experience of eating chicken that is as painful to swallow as it is to process.

Adapted from an article in Labor History (Vol. 43, No 3, 2002), a quarterly journal founded in 1960 by the Tamiment Institute, a foundation with origins in New York's garment workers' unions. Labor History has recently published essays on such topics as "the rebirth of the living wage movement" and "race relations in the early Teamster's Union." It was sold to the academic publishing group Taylor & Francis in 2003. Subscriptions: $63/yr. (4 issues) from Taylor & Francis Ltd, Rankine Road, Basingstoke, Hants, RG24 8PR, UK; www.tandf.co.uk/journals


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