Fox News seems to think it’s all white people getting laid off in Perry plant closure

Images: Fox News screenshot. Perry Tyson plant, photo by Pat Rynard/Starting Line

By Ty Rushing

March 21, 2024

Fox News Host Jesse Watters was irate when he found out about Tyson Foods closing its pork plant in Perry. Not because 1,276 people were losing their jobs, but because he seemed to think that white people were losing their jobs to be replaced by undocumented migrants.

In a recent segment on his show, Watters described Perry as “one of the great American suburbs” and then proceeded to show a video of the Dallas County community—which is not considered a suburb of the Des Moines metro—from 1978 when Perry’s population was nearly all white. The videos seemed aimed at convincing viewers that Perry’s current demographics were the same.

“They’re firing Americans and offering perks to illegals,” Watters then claimed of the Perry layoffs. “This was the Democratic plot all along.”

Watters looked to tie the layoffs at the plant, whose workforce is actually largely Latino, to a story about Tyson looking to hire asylum-seeking immigrants (seeking asylum in the US is, in fact, a legal manner in which people may remain in the country).

“But Perry, Iowa’s about to change. Drastically. And not for the better,” Watters warned. “So as Perry struggles to cope with mass layoffs, Tyson Foods has its eyes on a different class of workers. The company is now offering new jobs to asylum-seekers, in other states like New York.”

Watters’ piece caused certain right-wing segments of the internet to enter into an uproar. 

Angry people started threatening to boycott Tyson and started touting talking points of the “Great Replacement Theory,” a far-right conspiracy theory that is being mainstreamed that asserts that white people are systematically being replaced by racial minorities.

The reason Watters and Fox News went so far back to find that footage is because the version of Perry he painted for an audience of millions is not what the Perry of 2024 looks like.

The latest census data shows that 31% of Perry residents identify as Hispanic or Latino, nearly 4% are Black, and 62% are reported as white alone without any Hispanic or Latino ties. There have also been notable increases in other racial demographics.

And those numbers are the broad strokes. If you look at the Perry School District itself, it has a minority-majority student population, and the district puts out communications in English, Spanish, Karen, and Tigrinya.

The reason Perry and its school system have become so diverse is because of Tyson.  

Watters’ guest, Ohio Sen. J.D. Vance, whose rise to fame was based on his supposed understanding of rural America, doubled down on the claims.

“We don’t know the details of this, all we know, Jesse, is that they’re firing American workers and hiring illegal aliens to replace them,” Vance claimed.

Iowa has a lot of meatpacking plants and those facilities rely heavily on an immigrant and refugee workforce. For Tyson alone, 60% of its national frontline workforce is made up of immigrants or refugees representing 60 counties.

Workers outside of the Tyson Foods plant in Waterloo, Iowa. Photo by Pat Rynard/Starting Line

Most of Tyson’s workforce is already made up of immigrants and refugees and this includes the Perry workforce. Additionally, Watters’ claim was based on a Bloomberg article that he and others took out of context.

In that article, it was announced that Tyson had joined Tent Partnership for Refugees, which aims to help the 181,400 migrants who entered New York City’s intake system find jobs. Tyson is one of 400 members of this organization, all of which are multinational companies.

While it wasn’t mentioned in the Bloomberg piece, another fact-check pointed out that Tyson joined that partnership in 2022 and in doing so it committed to hiring 2,500 refugees over three years. 

The Bloomberg article also mentions that Tyson already employs 42,000 immigrants among its 120,000 US workers. Garrett Dolan, a Tyson executive, then said, “We would like to employ another 42,000 if we could find them,” referring to immigrant workers.

Dolan also told Bloomberg that 40% of the 100,000 people who work in the factories washing meat, placing cuts into trays, and doing a final inspection for bones will leave the roles because it’s not an easy job and not a lot of people want to do it.

“We’re recognizing there’s not a lot of people that are going to be working labor-manufacturing jobs that are American,” Dolan said. A large portion of new hires “are going to come from refugees and immigrants, so we’re now in the business of strategically thinking that through.”

In response to Watters’ segment and the backlash it generated, Tyson issued a statement refuting the host’s claims.

 “Any insinuation that we would cut American jobs to hire immigrant workers is completely false,” the statement reads.

“Tyson Foods is strongly opposed to illegal immigration, and we led the way in participating in the two major government programs to help employers combat unlawful employment, E-Verify and the Mutual Agreement between Government and Employers (IMAGE) program.”

The statement went on to say that of its 120,000 employees, a majority of them are American citizens and all of them are legally authorized to work here.

Also, to be clear, Tyson has never really given a declarative reason for why it is closing the Perry plant.

Besides the vague “business reasons” that Tyson has used in response to questions about why it’s closing the Perry plant, it should be noted that the pork industry is in a historic downward slope.  

The Perry plant is also one of two Tyson plants in Iowa that was unionized. According to Roger Kail, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 1155, Perry and Waterloo are the only unionized Tyson plants in Iowa.

Tyson also closed two poultry plants about a year ago, one of which was unionized.

“Surprisingly,” neither Watters nor Vance mentioned unions or the pork industry’s struggles in the Fox News segment.

Story updated: To provide additional clarity on US Census data.

  • Ty Rushing

    Ty Rushing is the Chief Political Correspondent for Iowa Starting Line. He is a trail-blazing veteran Iowa journalist, an Emmy-nominated filmmaker, and co-founder and president of the Iowa Association of Black Journalists. Send tips or story ideas to [email protected] and find him on social media @Rushthewriter.

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