Mechanization has changed meatpacking industry

(AP) The meatpacking industry that Jack Cagle knew is gone.

Cagle, 76, a retired meat inspector for Swift & Co., could hardly believe it was his old company where workers were led out in handcuffs two weeks ago during an immigration raid. But changes like automation and falling wages have remade his industry radically.

Those jobs once paid $15.67 or more in today's dollars. Federal statistics show they pay about 30 percent less today.

"I don't know when it began to change," Cagle said.

The change began in the late 1960s with two farmers from northern Iowa who thought up a radical departure from the industry's usual practice. Instead of sending a hanging carcass to butchers, they would cut up the animal at the meat processing plant, sending their product to supermarkets as boxed beef or pork.

Shipping costs dropped. High-paying butcher jobs dried up. Meat plants were run as assembly lines, with one person making the same cut over and over as the animals moved down the line.

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The company, Iowa Beef Processors Inc., later known as IBP, put plants in rural areas away from the unionized workforces of the cities. The company was eventually bought out by Tyson, the nation's largest meatpacker, and its practices became the industry standard.

"They provided meat to the market much more cheaply," said Brian Buhr, a professor of applied economics at the University of Minnesota.

That mechanization led to one of the most contentious episodes in Minnesota's labor history, the 1985 strike at the Hormel plant in Austin, when 1,529 men and women walked off of their jobs. The strike ended in disarray 15 months later, without the pay raises workers sought.

Hormel eventually hired replacement workers at lower wages and resumed operations. The union never recovered. In 1980, about 46 percent of meatpackers were unionized. Today, about 21 percent are.

The wage slide that was already under way worsened. Meatpacking wages once ran 14 to 18 percent above the average manufacturing wage, according to James Mintert, an agricultural economist at Kansas State University. Today, it's 25 percent below the average manufacturing wage.

"Our packing jobs used to be very sought-after jobs in the Midwest," said Jill Cashen, a spokeswoman for the United Food & Commercial Workers Union. "People stood in line and hoped to get a job at the plant."

The loss of coveted jobs led to an exodus of young people from rural communities such as Worthington, said Katherine Fennelly, a professor of public affairs at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs.

Immigrants have filled that gap. A study last year by the Pew Research Center estimated that about 27 percent of all butchers and food processing workers are illegal immigrants. Overall, immigrants make up 50 percent of the workforce today, according to the union.

The immigration has remade Worthington, where the enrollment of minority students nearly tripled during the 1990s. One out of three Worthington kindergartners is a minority student.

On Friday, the town's mayor was still grappling with the fallout from the immigration raids. Swift has told Mayor Alan Oberloh that it wants an immigration reform bill to provide guest workers. Oberloh, who met Friday with representatives for Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., and Rep.-elect Tim Walz, D-Minn., said everyone agreed on the need to bring in legal workers. The question is how.

"There are people who say Worthington is a defeated community," Oberloh said. "To them I say, 'Look down the street at all the activity. There's not a parking spot on the street.'

"The people who have jobs here, stay here," he said.