Who actually cares about our workforce?

EDITOR'S NOTEBOOK

BY ART CULLEN

It’s time for major employers to stand up for their workers. In our editorial today we lament the tragic story of the mayor of Alta trying to use the threat of eviction to convince an absentee landlord to clean up a dilapidated trailer court. Again, immigrant residents live in fear of losing their home and having no place to go. Many of them work at Tyson in Storm Lake, pork and turkey.

Last week Tyson representatives, including the senior director for corporate responsibility, interviewed several local people trying to learn how they can do better as a company. They have a chaplain program, a financial literacy program, and they donate a lot of food to charitable causes. They have lifted starting wages to over $15 per hour — although decades-long veterans retire at $16 per hour. I was grateful for the first time in my career to be asked what we think of Tyson and its community presence.

I told them that they need to stick up for their workers and keep improving pay.

It was clear that they will not get involved fighting the immigrant bashing or the terror heaped on them in Alta. That is not their business. I can understand why business stays out of politics. But the brown and black people enduring the epithets are the children of Tyson workers. Steve King slanders the meatpackers’ “team members.” Yet Tyson remains silent.

So does Rembrandt Foods, the huge egg processor. Its owner, Glen Taylor, in December gave $2,700 to King’s congressional campaign. King is working directly against Taylor’s workers. He maligns them, he wants to deport them, he wants the Dreamers back in Honduras or wherever they strayed from.

Yet the employees of these businesses live in quarters that Glen Taylor might say is not fit for one of his thousands of hogs in Buena Vista County.

Taylor won’t be at the next Alta City Council meeting. Neither will anybody from Tyson, I was told.

Jesse Case might come. He leads most of the Iowa Teamsters. He founded TeamCan, which is the community organizing arm of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. They are organizing in Iowa City, Cedar Rapids and Des Moines. Their next target is Storm Lake, Jesse’s hometown. They do not organize plants, they organize people to demand better lives. Jesse does not like what has become of the old neighborhood: trailers with exposed water mains, paint peeling on houses along Hudson, Superior and Russell with holes in the roof. Alta and Storm Lake have become towns of working poor, as Spencer and Royal become home to the resentful whites sensing declining prospects.

We hope somebody comes to help us and stick up for us. We’re taking a beating statewide. The Democratic Party doesn’t care so much about us, although it darn well expects minority support. No other labor organization does — certainly not the United Food and Commercial Workers. Where is the Bishop of Sioux City as our congressman attacks our brown brothers and sisters in Christ, and as the vultures prepare to pick their homes away from them?

Well, they should pay their rent and fix things up, you say. They would if they got paid enough to afford a hammer and nail or to hire it done. Obviously, there is not enough income in Storm Lake and Alta to support much more than a half dozen new homes going up in a boom year. The only way a developer can make it cash flow is with low-income housing tax credits, which we can’t get in Storm Lake because there is no local cash laid down against the project. That is, there is no local housing trust fund.

Major employers probably think that is the city’s job. Or the Northwest Area Foundation or somebody else. Tyson had a $1.77 billion net profit last year. The CEO, Tom Hayes, is paid $1.3 million in salary, with about $2 million in bonus and another $5 million in stock options per year. Good old John Tyson, who started the Tyson chaplain program and urges the Christian point of view, gets paid $1,050,000 for chairing the board meetings and growing a kindly nice white beard like David Letterman and Santa. If he gets fired, he gets to keep his health insurance. For all that money, neither of them could be asked to come to Storm Lake and give us the old cheer. Something like: “Hey, you jerks, get off our backs. We are trying to lift wages beyond what IBP paid. We are trying to keep our employees whole. So here is $500,000 for a housing trust fund that will help these poor folks from Alta find a decent home.”

We can dream, anyhow.

Or, we can at least hope that Jesse Case or someone can shake things up enough to get people to pay attention to the Gospel they love to read on Sunday.

Food pantries go empty regularly. The Alta School District sends home food in student backpacks to get them through the weekend. Here, in the heart of food production country — eggs, turkey, pork and profit up past our ears — and yet not enough to eat. How can that be? How can we stand on the sidelines and say that this is normal?

How long can we stand our neighbors screaming racism at our children? How long will we put up with that, made permissible by our elected officials?

How long does each of us just sit on the sidelines and say that this is the American order of things — to ship people in to skin our hogs, and treat them like dogs. We asked them to come in, then we throw them into the lake to see if they can swim after having lived in the desert of Africa. They come to us from a thatched hut in a Thai refugee camp and we tell them to negotiate a better deal from the Canadian huckster who owns the mobile home slum. We stand on the sidelines and cluck our tongues when they drown or get sucked in by the circus barkers. We make all this possible with our compliance. And that is the real sin of it all.