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Ashlie D. Stevens

The GOP's hypocritical Tyson boycott

When Tyson Foods revealed earlier this month they would be closing one of their plants in Perry, Iowa, which employed over 1,000 people in a town of under 8,000, it was a devastating blow to the community, though one that wasn’t necessarily a surprise. 

Between a wildly difficult 2023 for pork producers, where lower hog prices and higher feed costs led to an average loss of $32 per hog, and previous announcements regarding the closure of other plants in Arkansas, Indiana and Missouri after reported third quarter losses, it seemed like just another casualty of a difficult year. According to local reports, Tyson invited Perry plant employees to apply for other jobs at their remaining plants in Iowa (in Waterloo, Storm Lake and Columbus Junction) and it could have ended at that — until Bloomberg ran a story that same day with the headline “Tyson Is Hiring New York Immigrants for Jobs No One Else Wants.” 

This is when the flames of conservative-driven disinformation were really fanned. When speaking with the publication, the head of Tyson’s social efforts division, Garret Dolan, said the company would “like to employ another 42,000 [immigrants] if we could find them,” referencing how the company already employs about 42,000 immigrants among its 120,000-member workforce.

Quickly, right-leaning talking heads and leaders, including Ohio senator and potential Trump running mate JD Vance, took the news of the Perry plant closure and that select quote from Dolan and spun a different narrative, one in which white Americans are being replaced by undocumented immigrants in the workforce. "All we know is that they are firing American workers and hiring illegal aliens to replace them,” Vance said in an interview on Fox’s “Jesse Watters Primetime.” 

He continued:“This is the entire point of illegal immigration, and Republicans, we've got to hammer this point home."

Tyson Foods quickly responded, telling Salon Food “any insinuation that we would cut American jobs to hire immigrant workers is completely false.” However, that hasn’t stopped Republicans from continuing to call for a boycott of the company — and a conservative investment firm to split from Tyson. In addition to pushing harmful “Great Replacement” rhetoric, albeit with varying levels of subtlety, these arguments willfully disregard a key truth about our country: immigrant workers, both documented and undocumented, are an integral part of our food system. 

According to data from Farmworkers Justice, there are an estimated 2.4 million farm workers employed on American farms and ranches, the large majority of whom are immigrants. Foreign-born workers make up 68% of the workforce (the USDA cites a slightly lower number at an estimated 60%) and approximately 36% lack authorized work status under current U.S. laws. 

“Much of our agricultural system, and frankly, much of our country, has been built by immigrants,” wrote Jessica Kurn for Farm Aid. “But what led us down this specific road? There are many factors; including a program called Bracero, which ramped up the nation’s fruit and vegetable sector to a point that was only sustainable with supplementary labor.” 

The Bracero program was a bilateral agreement between the United States and Mexico, initiated during World War II in 1942 to address labor shortages in American agriculture caused by the war effort. Under the program, millions of Mexican laborers, known as braceros, were recruited to work on temporary contracts in various sectors, primarily agriculture, but also in railroad construction and other industries. According to the Library of Congress, the program was presented as a solution to address both the wartime labor shortage and provide economic opportunities for Mexican workers. However, it soon became mired in controversy due to reports of labor exploitation, poor working conditions and violations of workers' rights. 

Despite these criticisms, the program continued until 1964, shaping the demographics and labor dynamics of both countries and leaving a lasting legacy on the history of immigration and labor relations in North America. ”Ultimately, the program resulted in an influx of undocumented and documented laborers, 22 years of cheap labor from Mexico, and remittances to Mexico by Braceros,” according to the Library of Congress 

Beyond agriculture, immigrant workers play a key role in the entire American food supply chain. Data from the Migrant Policy Institute shows that immigrants are: 25% of workers in food production, 18% of food transportation workers, 22% of grocery and farm wholesalers and 16% of grocery retailers. These roles were highlighted as heroic during the pandemic, largely in part because early COVID-era supply chain disruptions forced Americans to actually consider just how much it actually takes for food to work its way from farm to table.

“Immigrants are deeply involved in this complex journey from seed to plate,” wrote Jessica Kurn for Farm Aid. “They are an essential link in the chain of our food system, and are an indelible part of rural America, contributing to the economic and cultural fabric of these communities. It’s hard to picture our food system without them.”

This is especially true when one considers the kinds of roles immigrant workers tend to fill in the United States. Studies have shown that the vast majority of Americans — regardless of cultural or political background — overwhelmingly agree that immigrant and migrant workers mostly “do not work in jobs that U.S. citizens want,” as Pew Research Center put it. These include jobs like hand-picking produce, canning fish and working the line at a meat-packing plant. 

This also isn’t region-specific; for what it’s worth 65% of California’s agricultural workers are immigrants, as are 69% of Alaska’s seafood processing employees and 64% of Nebraska’s meat processing workers, per the Migrant Policy Institute. These roles are often tough to fill. For instance, even before the pandemic, the meat and dairy industries struggled to hire enough workers, but that has only gotten worse in recent years. 

From 2017 to 2021, the number of unique online job postings for meatpacking workers increased by 86.4%, a number that the American Immigration Institute says points to a significant uptick in need. 

However, instead of facing these realities, it seems Republicans would rather ignore the facts and call for a boycott of Tyson for courting needed immigrant labor — seemingly disregarding the fact that if they were to extend that boycott to every corner of the American food system, they’d be left with very little to eat. 

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