How Migration, Work, and Faith Unite and Divide the Heartland
- ISBN: 9781469663487
- Published By: University of North Carolina Press
- Published: September 2021
Kristy Nabhan-Warren’s Meatpacking America: How Migration, Work, and Faith Unite and Divide the Heartland focuses on the Midwestern states where the “protein industry” is a major part of Big Ag. These states are particularly informative about religion, immigration, race, and labor in the contemporary United States. Nabhan-Warren’s study involves participant observation at church services and church events; interviews with immigrants, white farming families, church leaders, and meatpacking plant administrators; and up-close observation of the slaughtering and processing of cattle and hogs. Her primary research ended in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, when meatpacking workers were deemed “essential workers” by the Trump administration as their own bosses (at least at one plant) bet on how many of them would become infected—a perfect illustration of how immigrant labor is both needed and mistreated in the politically conservative states that rely on Big Ag to establish their own power in the global economy.
“Immigrants in Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, and Illinois are literally feeding the world,” Nabhan-Warren notes (3). Immigrants typically land first in major cities, then re-settle in rural areas because “where there is meat, there is work” (92). Multi-lingual immigrants with documentation permitting them to work are well-positioned to advance to higher wages. The result, Nabham-Warren writes, is that “packing plants employ the most—if not the most—diverse workforce in the United States today, even more than universities and colleges” (94). Meatpacking communities become sites where we can better understand how pluralism works—and doesn’t—in the US today, for “where we find meatpacking plants and Big Agriculture, we find cosmopolitan, multilingual, and pluralistic America” (9).
Nabham-Warren is optimistic about the possibilities of life in a diverse America and warmly regards both new immigrants of color and established rural whites, the latter of whom have embraced, to varying degrees, the fact that their communities underwent major demographic changes “almost overnight” (49). Rural America is stereotyped as both inhospitable and resistant to change, neither of which proves to be true as Nabham-Warren finds that familiarity breeds empathy: “‘[r]esentments against ‘immigrants’ soften when residents see how hard their neighbors work and how loving they are toward their children and grandchildren” (xii).
Making the hard and very profane work of slaughtering and processing animals—10,000 hogs a day at one site Nabhan-Warren visits, 1,100 cattle at another—sacred isn’t easy, but meatpacking plants are trying. Nabhan-Warren describes “[a] faith in hard work, grit, and determination that relies on a Protestant work ethic that pervades the contemporary Tyson [a major corporation in the protein industry] meatpacking plant and corporate culture” (97). However, workplace chaplains and other corporate efforts to “rebrand their workplaces as religious sites” (111) do not convince immigrant workers to love their work or view it as inherently religious.
Despite the industry’s efforts to respect religion—including permitting Muslim workers to step off the line to pray and creating dedicated prayer space in the locker room for it—meatpacking plants are not places that cultivate faith. Instead, religion is something workers “carried in with them” in order to help them survive another day at a nasty job (italics in original; 112). Nabhan-Warren thus concludes that “[f]or as much as they borrow the language of faith,” meatpacking plants “have not succeeded” in making work religious (112).
Still, religion is often central to the new life the workers are building, one organized around meatpacking. In their new towns, they face the challenges of a harsh Midwestern climate, especially cold winters. They live far from the plants, which are located outside cities, in part because of the odor. Their towns’ groundwater is polluted by fecal runoff. They face health and workplace safety challenges from COVID, tuberculosis, floors wet with blood and fat, sharp tools, laboring in either very cold or very hot temperatures (depending on which part of the meatpacking process they support), and long hours. They work in a vertically integrated industry, one where corporations have a high degree of control over every person in the meat producing process, from the farmer to the grocer. And these companies, located in anti-labor “right-to-work” states, are without unions. Within this system, which is simultaneously paternalistic and exploitative, religious language is everywhere: family, faith, caring, and blessing appear often in interviews with Nabhan-Warren’s participants, as is the religiously derived belief in human superiority to animals: a sense that animals’ “purpose” is feeding people. Whatever else it is, religion in this world is very useful, as it helps people endure the emotionally and physically difficult work of living as an immigrant in a hard world.
The benefits of that survival are passed on to the rural whites who have lived in the area for generations. “Drive anywhere in rural America,” observes Nabham-Warren, himself a long-time Iowa resident, “and it is all but guaranteed that if you come across a prosperous small town, you will find a thriving Latino, Africa, Burmese, Vietnamese, or other ethnic and refugee community” (66). Meatpacking, of course, is not the only way that immigrants invigorate rural towns that would otherwise be dying—rural hospitals rely on physicians born outside of the US, home health workers are disproportionately immigrants, and schools rely on comparatively large immigrant families for state funding. This does not mean, though, that all whites are equally appreciative or welcoming of the immigrants who process their food, save their lives, care for their elders, or keep their rural schools open. “The reality is complicated,” Nabham-Warren admits. “While there is some stated hostility, describing relations [in rural churches] as racist or ethnocentrism is incomplete. It is more accurate to say that insecurity, feelings of awkwardness, and microaggressions in varying degrees reflect the state of things” (64).
This conclusion invites criticism and counterexamples. In its nuance and generosity toward as many people as possible, Meatpacking America avoids drawing harsh conclusions, even when some readers may wish for more vocal opposition to labor, animal, and environmental exploitation, or more analysis of “insecurity, feelings of awkwardness, and microaggressions” as manifestations of racism. Likewise, examples of overt white supremacy are few in the book, despite being abundant in real life. What comes through most clearly in the book is immigrants’ ability to make a good life, both despite and because of the hard labor of meatpacking. This work is available to them because of the racist assumption that immigrants of color are able to do work that whites are too delicate or spoiled to undertake, even as whites consume meat, often a luxury item in the nations where immigrants come from, as a staple. Nabham-Warren treats their stories as sacred and invites readers to do so too.
Rebecca Barrett-Fox is the director of online learning and digital pedagogy at Hesston College and a scholar of religion and hate.Rebecca Barrett-FoxDate Of Review:June 14, 2023