Rick Galeener's Chicken

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Today on NOVA, I heard the usual outrage. Asked if an American would work a 12-hour day in a [dangerous, highly exploitative , blood-slick, bone-chilling, puke-inducing] meat packing plant for $6.25 an hour, the caller yelled, irate: “No! Americans won’t work for that! ‘Illegals’ are holding down the wages at these places!”

Whoever he is, he doesn’t know whether to wind his watch or run.

He could be any Anglo camped outside the Macehualli Worker’s Center in North Phoenix. We may even have seen him pounding his flagpole, screaming curses through his bullhorn at the (obviously legal) immigrants waiting inside the chain link fence for somebody like us to give them a day job. He might even have been Rick Galeener himself, that sun-addled, publicly urinating , dried up, racist old rattlesnake who, probably, was the guy videotaping my license plate and my face as I got out to make arrangements with Sal Reza , the tough and beloved de facto leader of pro-migrant Phoenicians.

I wanted to say to him, “So Ricky baby. You’re saying you “Christian patriots” do want to pay $15 a pound for raw, uncut chicken, right?” Guys like Galeener can’t have it both ways. No undocumented, exploited immigrants, no $1.99/lb roasters. No $4.95 Church’s fried, either, with or without jalapenos on the side.

This is the bottom line that American racist-nativists happy to have cheap chicken as long as they don’t have to see who provides it aren’t willing to talk about. They don't realize it yet, but the self-limited choice, the sublimely short-sighted and settle-for-nothing choice they offer is this: Grow your own or tolerate “illegals.” Which will it be?

Those of us with considerably higher self esteem and a much more wholesome vision for tomorrow see a way better way. For starters, we don’t advocate exploiting anybody. Read on.

Americans haven’t really thought through what it means to us to kick out undocumented workers, although here in Phoenix, watching the tax base erode and the For Sale signs sprout like stink weeds, we’re beginning to get a glimmer. We’re gradually catching on that no real “Christian" "patriot” capitalist worth his or her salt would run large numbers of good, hard-working consumers out of town just pretty much for the hell of it.

I’m saying that nativist America needs to rub one of its two brain cells against the other in hopes of igniting a spark of comprehension: Immigrant workers sustain this country’s economy. Its lowest-wage earners, they are the floor on which the rest of us stand. If they aren’t able to report for work, either we must or the businesses and the economy that depends on them will fail--or move south of the border.

Alternatively, there is this happy fact: If the floor rises, so will everybody on it. That’s what Roosevelt understood, and so must we. Fast.

This is a window on the life of one meat packer in Sholom Rubashkin’s Agriprocessors, Inc., the meat processing plant in Postville, IA much in the news now. Nothing happened to Rubashkin, of course, but ICE stormed his shop and herded hundreds of Guatemalans like cattle into holding pens for deportation. Their crime? Simply following the age-old path trod by Lithuanians, Poles, Bosnians, Vietnamese, and Mexicans before them: Starting a new life in America on its lowest, most revolting, and most dangerous rung.

This story is about a 21-year-old Guatemalan woman named Emilsa Monzon Gutierrez, why she came here, how she got here, and what she does at Agriprocessors, Inc. It is provided by Tony Leys at the Des Moines Register:

Guatemala is still recovering from a 36-year civil war that ended in 1996. Average income there is only 12 percent of income in the United States, and 43 percent of the average income in neighboring Mexico. Income inequality is starker in Guatemala, with the richest 10 percent of people controlling 43 percent of the wealth, compared with 37 percent in Mexico and 30 percent in the United States.

That is why so many poor Guatemalans risk robbery, arrest and heat exhaustion to make the trek to the United States.

Emilsa Monzon Gutierrez, a Guatemalan immigrant who worked at the Postville plant, made the journey last winter.

Monzon is the daughter of a farmhand in rural Guatemala. She is a soft-spoken woman who wears braces and looks younger than her 21 years. She sat at a picnic table outside the Postville church on Friday and described her homeland and her life.

She said her hometown is a place of tiny wooden houses with metal roofs and dirt floors. Food costs are rising, she said, and jobs are scarce.

Violence, which is tied to the drug trade, keeps getting worse.

Monzon's family borrowed money so she could try to make it to the United States. She took a bus for nearly a thousand miles from her hometown in southern Guatemala to the U.S. border. Most of the trip was through Mexico, where she saw people with nicer clothes and better houses than most Guatemalans she knew. The roads were in much better condition, she said, and more people had cars.

Despite being better off than Guatemala, Mexico is a poor place with few opportunities. So after reaching northern Mexico, Monzon walked across a desert border area with four other people and made it into the United States. Then she took buses for more than 1,300 miles to Postville, where she joined her brother. The total journey took 27 days.

12-hour shift, 30-minute break

Monzon said she had no trouble landing a job at Agriprocessors, where she worked from 5 p.m. to 5 a.m., with a half hour break for lunch. She spent her nights in a cold, refrigerated room, always rushing to cut feathers off chickens and slap labels on them. She said the work was more grueling than she expected, but it was the only job available.

Yo, that fried chicken. Want some fries with that?

According to Leys, Agriprocessor workers like Monzon make $6.25 to $7.75 an hour at jobs many of them borrowed thousands of dollars just to reach. When they are deported, they will lose their homes and farms in Guatemala that served as collateral, and the money they sent back home to stave off starvation for their families will be no more. What then?

Leys says workers there told him that any notion that these same people now being deported will just turn around come back to Agriprocessors is nonsense. They can’t afford to in any sense, and as word spreads across Central America about our terrorizing chicken-shit raids on the least of the least, nobody else will come, either. It may be desperate at home, but at least it’s not desperate and terrifying.

is forced to hire the locals, the price of chicken will hit the stars.

What Tancredo, Dobbs, Galeener and the rest don’t want to get into is that this and every other capitalist country has made a devil’s bargain to exploit anybody who’s vulnerable and has no leverage, in exchange for a decent, affordable standard of living for everyone else. Slaves, immigrants, refugees, poor people, women (what is it now? $.79 on the $1.00?) and old people, but especially desperate immigrants. It’s a deal bred in the bone of capitalism itself, because capitalism is about profits, not about people.

So long as the people and the profits can peacefully co-exist-—as they did during the country’s New Deal glory days—-guys like Galeener can pretend that they're on the winning end. But when, as now, profit lust has slimed the country, gas is $4 a gallon and food prices are getting scary high, they can either question their priorities or blame the “illegals.”

Their choice is foolish. It’s like voting for a Republican if you're not Dick. It’s circling the wagons and firing on the inside.

No, Virginia. It’s not the “illegals” who are holding meat-processing and construction workers' wages down. It’s Ronald Reagan and the rest of the GOP, then and since, who collaborate both to block sane immigration policies and to impose “free trade” and globalization on the rest of us. With the help of the Clintons and a whole bunch of craven, complicit, sell-out congressional Democrats, I might add.

Here's a clue. “Free trade” and NAFTA and its spawn amount to a wholesale declaration of war on American labor, domestic and imported. It started when the Idol of the Right broke the Air Traffic Controllers strike in 1980 and shot labor unions in the chest.

That wound has festered and grown these 28 years. Now the economy created by Roosevelt’s high-wage/pro-union policies —you know, the ones that gave your parents cheap university degrees, two cars, fine houses for 5% fixed 30-year mortgages, and employer-paid health insurance and pensions, weekends, and time-and-a-half overtime pay—has gone, gone away.

Because tell me: What, if not unions and government enforced workplace regulation, stands between exploitative bosses like heavy GOP contributor Sholom Rubashkin, and Monzon and, well, Linda Smith, Bobby Ray Lee, and Tyrone Washington? It sure isn’t corporate ethics or GOP "free trade."

Galeener either doesn’t know this or he doesn’t see what it has to do with him. He also doesn’t know that “free trade” means no unions, no workers’ comp or minimum wage enforcement, and no benefits, and all the investment safeguards enjoyed by Enron's employees, just as it means no regulation of predatory mortgage and credit lenders and a flood of people like Monzon across our borders, fleeing from the wreckage wrought in their homelands by cannibalistic multinationals and Milton Friedman's predatory economic policies.

He doesn’t even get that the same low-wage/no regulation conditions that drove Monzon to the United States are in fact being replicated here by George Bush’s low-wage, anti-union, pro-corporate, anti-middle-class, tax-only-the-working people policies.

But he’s about to get a clue.

So, either he can recognize that his half of the boat rises with Monzon’s and stand with her for higher wages, good benefits, a path to citizenship, and decent working conditions, or he and she and all the rest of us can fall together. That’s the deal, locally and globally.

The choice is not between continuing to exploit immigrants and other vulnerable people or being wrung out and hung out. It’s not between an unacceptable status quo + a revived braceros (exploitative) "guest worker" program.

It’s between either global workplace fairness and decency, and profits redirected into research, innovation, clean production, and real value, or global destruction for 99% of us and immeasurably obscene profits for the remaining 1% .

Yes, proper regard for Monzon will mean higher food prices for you and me, but with a global New Deal and economic priorities centered on people and on the planet that sustains us, we can afford it. If you don’t believe me, quit drinking the Kool Aid.

It’s just a question of will.


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This page contains a single entry by Pico published on May 19, 2008 2:08 PM.

The Children of Postville, Iowa was the previous entry in this blog.

Action: Help for Postville, Iowa is the next entry in this blog.

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