Cutting into the Meatpacking Line: Workers and Change in the Rural Midwest

Cutting into the Meatpacking Line: Workers and Change in the Rural Midwest

Cutting into the Meatpacking Line: Workers and Change in the Rural Midwest

Cutting into the Meatpacking Line: Workers and Change in the Rural Midwest


The nostalgic vision of a rural Midwest populated by independent family farmers hides the reality that rural wage labor has been integral to the region's development, says Deborah Fink. Focusing on the porkpacking industry in Iowa, Fink investigates the experience of the rural working class and highlights its significance in shaping the state's economic, political, and social contours.

Fink draws both on interviews and on her own firsthand experience working on the production floor of a pork-processing plant. She weaves a fascinating account of the meatpacking industry's history in Iowa a history, she notes, that has been experienced differently by male and female, immigrant and native-born, white and black workers. Indeed, argues Fink, these differences are a key factor in the ongoing creation of the rural working class.

Other writers have denounced the new meatpacking companies for their ruthless destruction of both workers and communities. Fink sustains this criticism, which she augments with a discussion of union action, but also goes beyond it. She looks within rural midwestern culture itself to examine the class, gender, and ethnic contradictions that allowed indeed welcomed the meatpacking industry's development.


This book is an anthropological and historical study of the working class in rural Iowa, using the porkpacking industry as a point of focus. It is a departure from the line of rural midwestern studies about family farms or about the middle class of small towns. Nearly all of these studies pick up the Jeffersonian thread of the rural virtues of independence through self-employment as epitomized in the family farm. Yet even the earliest Iowa farms had hired workers, and wage laborers built and maintained the infrastructure that undergirded Iowa's farm and small-town society. Wage labor was a central, if frequently overlooked, constituent of rural midwestern economic growth. Meatpacking, which was based on wage labor, and farming, which was based on self-employment, supported each other. Historically, meatpacking was Iowa's largest manufacturing industry, and pork was its major product.

Heartbreaking social and economic changes occurred in Iowa in the 1980s. The sudden tightening of the U.S. economy struck farms hard, forcing many farmers off the land. At the same time the restructuring of U.S. manufacturing closed down many urban factories. Corporations scattered across the globe in search of cheap labor, as communications technology surmounted barriers that had localized manufacturing in population centers. Some manufacturing functions shifted to Latin America or the Pacific rim; rural midwestern relocation was another piece of this outward movement. Like many other manufacturers, meatpackers boarded up their urban plants. By the end of the1980s the center of gravity of the industry had shifted into the rural areas of prairie and plains states. Meatpacking workers, who had emerged as rural labor elite in the post-World War II years, saw their wages and . . .

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