April 17, 2014
“Making a Home in a Company Town” PDF Print E-mail

At MacMurray College on October 2, Dr. Faranak Miraftab, professor of Urban and Regional Planning, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, discussed her new book, to be published next year, about Cargill’s impact on Beardstown. She talked about the economic impact of the company, employing approximately 2,500 workers, via wages, property taxes, new and sustained businesses and increased real estate sales and values. But her central focus concerned the labor force: How “a multinational corporation recruited Hispanic and African workers to a Midwestern rural town that was previously all-white. How do local and global, transnational and trans-local practices and processes shape the global mobility of a migrant labor force?”
In her forthcoming book on Beardstown’s immigrant experience, Dr.  Miraftab “studies the processes of the rapid change there, and focuses on how local dynamics play a role in the global, by paying close attention not only to the constraints but also the opportunities that the small town may offer in transnational processes and practices.” Initially, why did Cargill find it necessary to recruit immigrant workers in the first place? Many locals believe the immigrants displaced a large percentage of the white labor force that had previously worked for Oscar Mayer before Cargill, then Excel, purchased the plant in 1987.
Dr. Miraftab believes the reverse is true. The immigrants did not displace the former employees but replaced them after a significant percentage of the Oscar Mayer workforce refused to accept the substantial cut in hourly wages, from roughly $11-13 per hour to $7. She added that local whites would not work the high hazard job for such low wages. She said the Cargill workforce, according to 2005 statistics, is primarily composed of 42 percent Hispanics, 32 percent whites and 20 percent black, mostly recruited from the African nation of Togo. They were willing to risk injuries in order to better their lives. Indeed, as Richard C. Longworth pointed out in his 2008 book, “Caught in the Middle: America’s Heartland in the Age of Globalism,” that “work in meatpacking plants may be the most dehumanizing job in the country…. By all accounts, the injury rate is appalling: after commercial fishing, meatpacking is reckoned America’s most dangerous job.”
Longworth added: “But no statistics exist because the workers, being undocumented and fearing not only unemployment but deportation if they file reports or complaints, keep quiet. Indeed, this is why Cargill and the other companies employ them: not only are they willing to work cheap, they are the most docile workforce imaginable. This is exploitation squared and cubed.
But Americans aghast that anyone should have to suffer such conditions must take a deep breath and think again. The Mexicans and other workers come to Cargill and the other plants for the same reason that the Lithuanians and Poles came to the legendary and equally appalling stockyards of nineteenth-century Chicago: they dream of a better life and are willing to do anything to get it.”
During the question and answer segment after the lecture, a young professional from Togo, a former French colony, who began in management at Cargill but now works elsewhere, confirmed Miraftab and Longworth’s assessment. He said Togo’s unsettled political environment and government policy made it difficult to enjoy the fruits of one’s labor. Constant strife made in unsafe for his family to live there, and politics determined upward social mobility. Therefore, he joined the approximately 700 Togo immigrants in their quest to find a better life in America. He resides in Rushville, which has a substantial community of Togoians, where he is happy, feels safe as never before, enjoys the local community spirit and is thankful for the opportunity.
Dr. Miraftab concluded that problems between native and immigrant communities exist, but Beardstown having one school serves as a major factor in the assimilation process and the possibility of mutual understanding. More important, “Beardstown has a vibrant economy due to the immigrant labor force.”
Longworth noted that Beardstown citizens should be aware and thankful for Cargill and the immigrants. “Everywhere in the Midwest, small, old blue-collar towns, isolated and out-of-date, left behind by globalization, are simply withering away. And everywhere in the Midwest, exceptions exist. Most of them are meatpacking towns that have drawn thousands of Mexican workers. These towns are growing, even thriving.
Hispanic enrollment in local schools is surging, bringing with it new problems ranging from bilingual education to the tracking of students whose parents move every year. But it also brings huge increases in state aid and, often, brand-new schools in a region where most towns struggle just to keep schools open. If these towns have a future – indeed, if the Midwest has a future – it depends on immigrants. Towns with immigrants are growing. Towns without immigrants are shrinking. It’s as simple as that.”