The raid by the Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) personnel on six Swift & Company plants dominated the news in mid-December. Four of the plants — Greeley, CO; Grand Island, NE; Cactus, TX; and Hyrum, UT — are beef plants. The other two — Marshalltown, IA, and Worthington, MN, — are pork plants. ICE did not raid Swift's pork plant at Louisville, KY.

Swift's management is crying foul over the raids, claiming they violated agreements associated with its participation in the federal government's Basic Pilot worker authorization program.

More raids likely

These aren't the first of these raids, nor will they likely be the last. ICE's forerunner, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), conducted raids on several beef plants in fall 1998. Subsequently, workers at several pork plants did not show up for work for fear that INS would expand its scrutiny. Those missing workers were critical that fall, as plants were taxed to work through the large number of hogs available.

The packing industry runs on immigrant labor — nothing new about that. Upton Sinclair's 1906 book, “The Jungle,” followed the trials of Lithuanian immigrant Jurgis Rudkus as he tried to embark on the American dream working in Chicago's packing plants. Rudkus was an example of virtually the entire industry at the time, and Sinclair, an avowed socialist, used his plight to argue the benefits of socialism.

It's been said Sinclair “aimed at Americans' hearts” with his story, but ended up “hitting Americans' stomachs” with his tales of woeful sanitary conditions in the stockyard district's meat plants. The book played a major role in the creation of federal meat inspection services.

The sector's dependence on immigrant labor declined in the post-war years as the major packing companies fell under a Master Labor Contract that increased wages and benefits. The development of the commercial broiler industry and its low-cost products, and the entry of IBP into beef — followed by pork processing — put major economic pressure on the old-line packers with higher wage costs.

When those packers either went out of business or escaped the Master Contract, wages once again fell, and packinghouse jobs became unattractive to much of the U.S. work force.

Enter immigrants once again — this time from Mexico, Central and South America and Southeast Asia.

In December, a reporter posed this question: “Why is this an ‘immigrant labor’ industry?”

The answer is twofold. First, packing-plant work is difficult and often unpleasant. Killing and disassembling animals isn't a very pretty enterprise, and many Americans simply won't do those jobs unless in dire straits.

While our economy hasn't treated everyone extremely well, it's still been good enough to provide job alternatives that don't involve cold temperatures, knives and blood. It's safe to say packing-plant jobs are probably not in the current career plans of most U.S. high school students.

Second, while these are difficult, unpleasant and low-paying jobs relative to most U.S. jobs, they're no more difficult and no more unpleasant — and higher paying — relative to conditions in many immigrants' home countries. I don't offer that as a reason to exploit these workers; they should be paid the value of what they produce. I only offer it as a fact that leads many immigrants to enter the packing-plant workforce. Some take great risks to do so.

Broad and specific lessons

The lesson of December was both broad and specific. The broad lesson is we, as a country, have to make up our collective minds about how we will deal with illegal immigrants. It's a tough question, but let's hope some politicians have some courage on this subject soon.

The more specific lesson is that livestock producers and packers need to consider what they'll do if a) this crackdown on illegal workers continues, or b) a workable guest-worker program can be devised.

Both will impact labor availability and cost, and those factors should be considered when planning for 2007 and beyond.

Steve Meyer, Ph.D., is president of Paragon Economics, Inc., Ames, IA. Email him at steve@paragoneconomics.com. This article is excerpted from North American Preview e-newsletter.