The New Midwest – A Conversation with Kristy Nabhan-Warren

Kristy Nabhan-Warren is the V.O. and Elizabeth Kahl Figge Chair of Catholic Studies and Professor in the Departments of Religious Studies and Gender, Women’s, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Iowa. In her new book, Meatpacking America: How Migration, Work, and Faith Unite and Divide the Heartland, she examines the how meatpacking plants are changing the face of the Midwest.

ECM: How important is the meatpacking industry to the economies of heartland states like Iowa?

KNW: Incredibly important. In the 1960s and 70s, the meatpacking industry moved from urban bases like Chicago out to small towns and rural settings in states like Iowa, Kansas, and Nebraska. They did this for a number of reasons, from cutting costs to preventing unionization among their workers. In Columbus Junction, Iowa, where I did a lot of my fieldwork, the meatpacking plant is the economic lifeblood of the community—for better and for worse. The plants have revitalized towns that once were struggling, but they have done so by polluting the air, the water, the land, and the bodies of the people who live there, all while killing tens of thousands of animals every day. It’s a complicated story. I didn’t intend to demonize the industry, but I didn’t want to let it off the hook, either.

ECM: What goes on in these plants, and who does the work?

KNW: When I started this project, the working title was Cornbelt Catholicism. I was really focused on parishes in rural Iowa and how these places are changing with the arrival of migrants from Africa, Asia, and Central America. When folks think about Iowa, they probably imagine a population of white farmers. But what’s really fascinating—and what ultimately changed the course of my project—is that meatpacking plants, specifically, have become an engine of diversification in the Midwest and on the plains. When you walk into one of them, you hear a variety of languages being spoken. The first time I walked into the Tyson plant in Columbus Junction, the first thing I saw was an enormous sign stating “welcome” in fifteen languages. It is obvious, right away, that white folks are a minority in that building. The majority are brown and black folks from Central America and Africa.

Refugees—and in the book I refer to all of the immigrants as refugees, regardless of their legal status, because they have all fled a certain kind of violence—perform all sorts of job within the plant. On the slaughter side, also called the “hot side,” they cut, slice, and trim fat before the carcass goes to the chiller. Some jobs are gendered as trimmers who use whizzer electric knives tend to be women. The sawing of carcasses tends to be done by men. They are “hide rippers,” “kidney poppers,” “de-jowlers,” and they burn the hair from the sows to give them the clean pink piggy look. In short, they do difficult, dirty, dangerous jobs and at a very fast pace. Refugees who work on the fabrication or “cold” side dissect the dehided carcass into the various cuts of meat that we find in supermarkets. Others work in the distribution centers, or as translators. Refugees literally run the plants, and without their labor meat would not be served on tables across the United States and around the globe.

I learned in the course of my research that the rural Midwest is much more complicated than most people assume. When we put in the time and do the work—and I should note that I did my fieldwork over more than six years—we can see that these are dynamic places where refugees, migrants, and asylees from all over the world are coming together to find work and provide for their families. Their presence is changing the face of the heartland.

ECM: How are religious traditions tied up in this work?

KNW: One of my goals with this book was to demonstrate how workers in meatpacking plants bring their faith to work with them—often in the form of material objects like rosaries and scapulars, or inscribed in their bodies through tattoos, and many of them incorporate prayer into their work routines because their jobs are very dangerous. At Iowa Premium Beef, another site where I did fieldwork, there is a group of Sudanese Muslim women who have cleaned a small area in the locker room where they go a couple times during a shift to pray. They perform ablutions in the sink, they cleanse themselves, they unroll their prayer rugs, and they say their prayers. In these ways, individuals are able to craft meaning in a really violent, bloody, profane place. Another thing that fascinated but also troubled me was that Tyson has the largest chaplaincy program of any company in the United States. Every one of their plants has a chaplain, whose responsibilities include counseling workers, taking them to the doctor when they get hurt, and serving as a sort of spiritual guru. That program is part of a larger effort at companies like Tyson—Bethany Moreton documents this really well in her book about Wal-Mart—to implement a corporate religious lexicon from the top down. I try to show how religion permeates the plant from the grassroots, originating with a diverse group of workers, as well as from the CEOs, CFOs, and the managerial class, who promote a business-oriented version of evangelical Christianity.

Read the whole thing at Religion & Politics.

About Eric

Eric Miller teaches in the Department of Communication Studies at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania.
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