Essential—and Expendable—Mexican Labor (Part 2)

On both sides of the border, Mexican workers are now essential—to U.S. corporations.
By Mateo Crossa and James M. Cypher (guest post)

This article is in the July/August issue of Dollars & Sense.

Drafted to Serve: Mexican Workers under the Defense Production Act

In March, the nationwide cries for more medical equipment evoked calls from Washington, D.C. to essentially conscript medical supply firms under the Defense Production Act. This Act was implemented in 1950 to force and enable the private sector to prioritize production and delivery of strategic supplies in a time of national emergency. The president then demurred, while stating that such a policy would amount to “nationalizing our businesses,” then suggested that applying the act would be similar to steps taken in Venezuela under President Hugo Chávez (1999–2013).

According to President Trump, running out of crucial medical supplies during an unprecedented pandemic was not a sufficient reason to invoke the production authority of the state—failing market forces all along the medical supply chain could not be tampered with lest the United States slip into Venezuelan-style economic paralysis.

On the other hand, as the pandemic predictably arrived at the nation’s cramped and fetid slaughterhouses, discomforting the Big Four meatpackers (JBS with $39 billion in sales in 2017; Tyson, with $38 billion in sales; Cargill, the largest privately-owned firm in the United States, with $20 billion in sales; and Smithfield, with $15 billion in sales) and disrupting shoppers, these meatpacking behemoths did nothing. At their plants, the meatpackers could not be bothered to protect workers; and the spike of Covid-19 cases among meatpacking employees led to a slow-down in the slaughtering of animals, which led to shortages of meat. The president quickly swung 180° to apply the Act in late April. This mobilized a “critical infrastructure,” especially the Big Four’s infrastructure that very comfortably controls approximately 80% of the beef industry. (The top four in pork slaughterers controlled 64% of the market in 2011, while the top four in poultry producers controlled 56% of the market in 2019). Unlike meeting the demand for medical supplies during a pandemic, slaughtering animals was, apparently, too “critical” to be left to the “free” market.

In 2017 the United States exported 13% of the cattle slaughtered, along with 27% of pigs, and 17% of chickens to other countries. While the Defense Production Act’s powers could control foreign markets (exports and/or imports), U.S. slaughterhouses were left free to sell to the highest bidder.
In effect, U.S. slaughterhouse workers and all others involved in the meatpacking supply chain had been drafted to ensure that the flow of profits for the Big Four continued. Implementing the Act meant that workers could no longer receive unemployment benefits. They were now “free to choose” between zero income and near zero job prospects outside the meatpacking plants or work in one of the three most impacted job sectors (the other two being nursing homes, which mass deaths from Covid-19 have turned into veritable death camps, and prisons and jails, where infections have run rampant).


There’s No Business Like Agribusiness

Right behind the arms-contracting corporations and aerospace firms that swarm the Pentagon stands the mollycoddled U.S. agribusiness interests. Just as the Pentagon was long ago “captured” by the arms contractors who weave in and out of top positions in the Department of Defense in order to return to the contracting firms through Washington’s “revolving door,” so, too, do the corporate chieftains of agribusiness rotate through the Department of Agriculture and the many other federal and state agencies that work hard to ensure that profits stay high in the agricultural sector.

In this sector government assistance at the local, state, and federal level, has long been readily forthcoming to control the labor force and manage the surges in demand for seasonal tasks. Meatpacking, of course, can be undertaken without too much regard to the seasons. It is therefore rightly considered a manufacturing process that long ago adopted “continuous” production processes—often on a 24-hour basis. Like the seasonal-crop farm labor force, slaughterhouses long ago found that the best labor force is an immigrant labor force, documented or not. And, predictably enough, nearly 50% of this labor force consists of “Hispanics.” Since nearly two-thirds of all Hispanics (according to the U.S. Census) are Mexican-born, we find that the use of the Defense Production Act to keep the slaughterhouses open is part of the larger process now taking place in both Mexico and the United States to force poor Mexicans to risk pandemic death, or long-term decrepitude, in order to make vehicles and auto parts for the U.S. populace and to ensure that its meat-centric diet is maintained. Embodied Mexican labor—workers who were expelled from Mexico during the long night of neoliberalism (1986–2018)—is the key component of the meatpacking supply chain in the United States. Disembodied Mexican labor is the key labor-intensive input of the U.S. auto/auto parts supply chain, as we have explained above.


Werner Sombart’s “Free Lunch”

Famously, in Why Is There No Socialism in the United States?, Werner Sombart claimed (in 1906) that U.S. workers, unlike their counterparts in Europe, were loyal to “the promised land of capitalism” because it provided them with “reefs of roast beef.” Indeed, before Prohibition (1920–1933) a typical saloon in the United States provided an overflowing sideboard “free lunch” for the “thirsty” patrons—roast beef being a mainstay. Sated, workers could then proceed to “bring home the bacon.”

So, what would happen if “reefs” of roast beef disappeared from the food system, along with that defining metric, bacon? We have seen that exhausted health care workers have been made to wait for protective equipment until the “free market” got good and ready to sell them such equipment at whatever prices the market will bear. But could the general populace be made to wait for meat at prohibitive prices? Oh, no.

In a society where well-being has largely been defined by the ability to consume, it has long been taken as a given that meat, or any other food item, would be immediately available in any quantity desired, provided that the buyer had sufficient funds. When that turned out to not be the case, the Defense Production Act was immediately deployed to force an overwhelmingly immigrant labor force to make an ugly decision—go to the front and hope to dodge the pandemic’s bullets or face deportation, hunger, or both. Suddenly, from the long valleys of California to the largely Midwest slaughterhouses, Mexican workers who had risked arrest and deportation to get to the United States were carrying letters or cards showing that they were “essential.” The farmworkers were, as usual, forced to face a daily diet of poisonous pesticides and the risk of infection from the deadly pandemic. But slaughterhouse workers must spend their work shift in tight quarters, in a closed structure among hundreds of workers, usually with circulating air that will bring all possible viral pathogens right to them.


The Pandemic Behind the Pandemic: Neoliberalism

Behind the pandemic of 2020, which has left Latinos with nearly a six times higher infection rate than the average Iowan, lies a deeper pandemic which has spread despair across the United States for four decades. This pandemic—known well outside the United States as neoliberalism—transformed the once heavily unionized labor force in the meatpacking industry into low-wage, disposable drudges. Wages that were 15% above the national manufacturing average in the 1970s had, by the 1990s, fallen 20% below the median. Once subject to industry-wide bargaining agreements, plant unions now bargain weakly: in 2019 only 19% of the 292,000 meat processing workers were union members. In the 1980s and 1990s slaughterhouses were mostly shifted to “right-to-work” rural states to break the legacy of the large-city unions. These states allow workers a “free-ride”—they can have the benefits of a union contract without paying dues—and this feature makes it almost impossible to maintain a union shop. Doubling up, employers began recruiting immigrants, particularly from Mexico. Today, the labor force has a turnover rate ranging from 60–100%, and the meatpackers union has been largely silent as the pandemic has spread.

Just prior to the decision to impose a military-style command system in the slaughterhouses, the Big Four dominating the supply chain (and the many small operations), facing massive pandemic outbreaks, demanded that the federal government impose labor rules that would exempt them from any workplace liability for death or illness arising from the pandemic. Corporations are maneuvering to use the Defense Production Act as a “liability shield” in order to stave off an expected wave of lawsuits alleging workplace negligence—such a wave would raise their liability insurance rates. Under the new arrangement, proven “negligence” may not trigger a court award—workers would have to prove “gross negligence, recklessness, or willful misconduct.” Operating under the Defense Production Act, the meatpacking plants have become the spearhead of big U.S. capital—if they can weaken workers’ rights to a demand a safe workplace, such new legal arrangements will be used by all sectors to weaken labor safety standards and drive down their operating costs.

Meanwhile, across the Midwest, the South, and the Rockies, where most plants are located, right-wing governors are working hand-in-glove with the meat barons, county health departments, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to hide any and all information with regard to infection rates and deaths from the pandemic. Only days after Trump invoked the Defense Production Act, data releases on the pandemic’s spread at the slaughterhouses all but ceased. Still, county-wide data showed that in Finney County, Kansas, home to a Tyson slaughterhouse, the infection rate on May 25, 2020 was one in every 26 people. This is nearly eight times the very high national average. The same results, as recorded by the New York Times map “Coronavirus in the United States,” could be found over and over again: Cargill’s plant in Ford County, Kansas produced an infection rate of one in every 21 people and Tyson’s giant plant in Dakota City—operating with 4,300 workers—left nearby Woodbury County, Iowa with an infection rate of one in 39.
In Mexico and the United States, millions of “essential” Mexican workers—essential to the profits of U.S. super-corporations—are pressed to toil on: they must ensure that the U.S. populace face an even larger oversupply of motor vehicles and whatever “reefs of roast beef” remain after the lucrative export market has been supplied.

In Mexico and the United States, millions of “essential” Mexican workers—essential to the profits of U.S. super-corporations—are pressed to toil on: they must ensure that the U.S. populace face an even larger oversupply of motor vehicles and whatever “reefs of roast beef” remain after the lucrative export market has been supplied.

 is a researcher based in Mexico City. He received a Ph.D. from the  doctoral program in Development Studies, Universidad Autónoma de Zacatecas, Mexico.

 is an emeritus professor of economics in the doctoral program in Development Studies, Universidad Autónoma de Zacatecas, Mexico.

Sources:  Shawn Fremstad, Hye Jin Rho and Hayley Brown, “Meatpacking Workers are a Diverse Group,” Center for Economic Policy Research, April 29, 2020 (; Roger Horowitz, “The decline of unionism in America’s meatpacking industry,” Social Policy (32: 3, 2002); Union Stats, 2019 “Union Membership by Occupation: Standard Occupational Classification 7810–Butchers and Meat Processors,” 2019 (; Michael Corkery, David Yaffe-Bellany and Drek Kravitz, “Meat Workers Left in the Dark Under Pressure” New York Times, May 25, 2020 (; “Coronavirus Map: Tracking the Global Outbreak” New York Times, May 25, 2020 (

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One Response to “Essential—and Expendable—Mexican Labor (Part 2)”

  1. Thanks for your work. It is very interesting to read the opinion and analysis of the professionals in business research.