Eastern Iowa Meatpacking Plant Workers Are Organizing And Winning

Ninoska Campos, a founder of Escucha Mi Voz

Ninoska Campos is a force to be reckoned with.

She speaks little English, but is a native Spanish speaker—a language spoken by many immigrant meatpacking and farm workers in many southeastern Iowa manufacturing towns.

Over the past year and a half, she has rallied those workers, bringing them to local meetings and encouraging them to speak up about the plight they collectively face. They’re asking their city and county leaders to allocate some federal relief money from the American Rescue Plan—money localities had broad discretion over how to us—to those who didn’t get relief checks.

Campos leads the way. She’s the first to come to the podium, speaking directly to elected officials. And she doesn’t mince words.

“We continue coming to your meetings because we want you to hear our voices,” she told Johnson County Board of Supervisors last January, through a translator. “You need to know that we Latinos are the ones sustaining this community.

“I want you to take us into account with dignity,” she added.

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It’s a risk for many to speak out: They may be undocumented, or have tenuous legal status, and could be deported on a whim, despite filling many important jobs (and paying taxes) in farm and meatpacking work that others won’t take. Law enforcement usually accompanies a crowd to such a meeting, upping the anxiety.

But emboldened by their leader, others begin telling their own stories—how they worked nonstop during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic as “essential workers,” yet now struggle to pay their rent, put food on the table or buy medicine amid skyrocketing prices.

And when they have spoken out collectively, in some cases, they have won, Campos proudly tells Starting Line.

“We got $2.2 million from (Johnson) County and $1.5 million from (Iowa) City,” she said through a translator. “That was one of the first fights that we had that we were able to achieve.”

Founding a movement

Campos’ story, as well as the stories of other excluded workers, are featured on the award-winning Univision documentary film, “Rising Up in the Heartland” (or its Spanish counterpart, “Unidos en Iowa”), which came out in June.

It tells the story of the group Campos helped start, Escucha Mi Voz—literally, Hear My Voice—to put undocumented workers’ struggle front and center, bringing them out of the shadows and getting them money they desperately need.

Campos, along with Emily Sinnwell and David Goodner, both community organizers affiliated with Iowa City Catholic Workers, began the group in 2021. Emboldened by their first wins in Iowa City, they’ve now moved to organizing workers in other majority meatpacking towns in southeast Iowa, like Columbus Junction, Washington and West Liberty.

Workers are asking for the same direct cash relief other documented workers received earlier in the pandemic: $1,400, out of money municipalities have already been allocated from the federal government for pandemic relief.

It doesn’t always work—Columbus Junction’s council decided against giving any relief, with Mayor T. Mark Huston quoted in the documentary as saying even if the federal government asked the city to give relief money specifically to undocumented workers, “we would probably send the check back.”

Sometimes, however, there’s a compromise. While the city of West Liberty was reluctant to issue direct checks, workers have succeeded in getting more limited forms of assistance, such as help with utility bills.

“The immigrant workers themselves … went to city council meetings and pounded the pavement for a year to win that $150,000” in utility relief in West Liberty, Goodner said. “So it’s a pretty cool victory story, even if it’s not exactly what they wanted at the beginning.”

Help in uncertain times

With inflation and rising prices everywhere, workers speaking English, French, Swahili and English were a steady stream coming into the Catholic Worker House in Iowa City, even on a recent bone-chilling Wednesday.

Campos works the front desk, making sure applicants have identification and a recent pay stub or W-2 form, the documents they need to apply for the money Iowa City and Johnson County have allocated to them. Then, she moves them to a waiting room and assigns them to one of a few translators that can help them through the application process.

Clinton Dimambu speaks French, a big help with the Tyson Foods and West Liberty Foods workers who immigrated from French-speaking central African countries like Togo, Benin and the Democratic Republic of Congo. He said he volunteered to help translate because he knows workers especially have it tough right now.

“It’s something very important, you know, to help them,” Dimambu said in between clients. “If they are qualified, they will get this money. It’s the people’s money.”

Clinton Dimambu, center, a French translator and Escucha Mi Voz volunteer, helps meatpacking and farm workers fill out applications for relief money on Dec. 21, 2022, inside the Iowa City Catholic Worker House.

Word spreads fast. One woman, who didn’t want to give her name for fear she would be outed at work as a troublemaker, said she heard about Escucha Mi Voz and started volunteering and coming to meetings.

A meatpacking worker herself, she applied for relief a few days ago. Wednesday, she brought a coworker, and planned to bring her own parents, both of whom work in meatpacking, the following weekend.

“I know the struggle here in Iowa,” she said. “I let people know. I spread the word.”

Multiple forms of relief

It’s not just the $1,400 checks in Johnson County or the utility help in West Liberty.

Catholic Charities received $9 million in federal relief for “essential workers” in October from the US Department of Agriculture, of which $1.3 million will find its way to Escucha Mi Voz for workers in Iowa.

Escucha Mi Voz plans to convert that relief into $600 checks for 1,800 excluded workers in southeast Iowa. After Iowa City, they’ll set up shop for people to come apply in Columbus Junction, West Liberty and Washington through the end of January.

Workers just need identification and a pay stub or W-2 that shows they worked at a meatpacking plant, a farm or a supermarket sometime after January 2020 to qualify, even if they no longer work there now.

“We know that inflation is up to 15%, and that’s a lot for people,” Campos said. “It’s very possible that this check isn’t going to solve all the economic problems that someone has, but we do know that $600 will help each family to get ahead.”

“We’re going to distribute almost a million and a half dollars, in just a few weeks, to the people who need it the most,” Goodner said.

Organizers say it’s only the beginning. As they collect applications for relief, they’re also bringing people out of the shadows, forming relationships, showing them the power of collective worker action.

“I’ve seen how much the Latino community and the African, the Congolese community, has needed this relief,” Campos said. “We’re continuing to be a strong organization for the people.”

 

by Amie Rivers
12/29/22

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3 Comments on "Eastern Iowa Meatpacking Plant Workers Are Organizing And Winning"

  • Illegal aliens should not be receiving checks. And employers who hire these illegals should be punished to the fullest extent of the law.

  • No human being is illegal. Documented & Undocumented immigrants alike make up many of the essential workers that do the tough work in our packing plants, dairies, factory farms, and many other vital jobs across multiple industries throughout our state.

    They pay taxes regardless of their immigration status, they shop/stimulate our small rural towns, including starting small businesses that have helped to keep many small town main-streets alive here in IA. 90% of new residents over the past 20 years in Sioux County have been Hispanic Immigrants, I’m sure it’s similar in many ag-heavy counties throughout the state.

    Immigrants struggled through the pandemic just as much as every American citizen did, as much as every Iowan did – if not more so due to the laws forcing packing plants to remain open in order to reduce/avoid food shortages and meat processing delays that threatened to financially destroy the farmers with hogs & cattle to feed.

    They absolutely deserve and should receive the same assistance everyone else received.

  • When I first read the headline, I happily assumed it meant that the packing plant workers were “organizing and winning” in regard to their employers, and were getting better pay, conditions, and benefits as a result. I’m sorry to learn that’s not what it meant.

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