Ground Meat

Native-born and immigrant both get bled at Swift's beef plant

Amanda Salcido was standing in line clutching a package of ground beef when she saw the $100 bills. The man in front of her at the United Supermarket opened his wallet to pay for groceries, and she watched over his shoulder as he riffled through the bills, looking for a twenty. He couldn't find one, so he handed the cashier a hundred.

The man was short and dark, with the Mayan features shared by nearly all of the Guatemalan workers at the Panhandle town's largest employer, the Swift & Co. meatpacking plant in nearby Cactus. Salcido guessed that, unlike her, he still worked there and had just gotten paid. That unlike her, he hadn't been fired after getting hurt and being put on doctor-ordered restrictions.

It was at that moment when her composure began to crack. "This S.O.B. has a job that should be mine," she thought. "He's making the money I should be making to feed my family." About all she had in the cupboard was a bottle of mustard.

Illustration by Brian Stauffer
Illustration by Brian Stauffer
A billboard advertises jobs at the plant.
Megan Feldman
A billboard advertises jobs at the plant.

Salcido, now 43, is a full-faced mother of four who worked at the meatpacking plant for 15 years. Her father, a Mexican-born construction worker, and her mother, a house cleaner, taught their kids to work hard, which is exactly what Salcido had done since dropping out of school in the 10th grade. She didn't want anyone's help, least of all the government's. In the months since she'd been sent home from work at the plant, she just kept going as best she knew how—looking for another job, trying to make ends meet by selling plates of food to people she knew. But standing there as the Guatemalan riffled through his hundreds, she was overcome by rage. She thought of how she'd left her kids every day to start work at 6:30 a.m., standing on a floor covered in blood and grease, cutting cow carcasses as they swung by on a chain that always seemed to move too fast. She thought of how, later, after her tendinitis got bad from all the cutting and she slipped in the bloody muck and hurt her back, she cleaned the bathrooms and worked in the employment office. She knew dozens of other injured workers who had also been fired, and most of them were replaced by Guatemalan immigrants as well.

She felt bad for the Guatemalans. She and her co-workers knew that the tiny Central Americans—many of whom came from the same highland area and spoke a Mayan dialect, not English or Spanish—were for the most part undocumented. Since most were in the country illegally and feared being sent home, they worked harder than anyone and never complained. One day a couple of years before, she'd helped out at the employment office when a group of new Guatemalan workers arrived, the first in a Guatemala-to-U.S. flow that began as a trickle around 2000 and soon became a constant stream. When asked their names, many would point to their government-issued IDs or Social Security cards. Some had names like Smith and Johnson. The implications were obvious, but when Salcido mentioned it to a manager, she was ignored. And so that day in the supermarket, looking at the Mayan man, her anger and despair destroyed what was left of her pride, and she gave in to the decision she'd been fighting since the day she was escorted out of the plant: "To hell with them," she thought. "I'll let them work, and I'll go get food stamps."

The next day, she found herself spilling her story to the government worker who signed her up for public assistance. Salcido is a no-nonsense woman, strong and stoic and not prone to emotional outbursts. But as she explained her situation and filled out the paperwork, she wept. Then she went to the supermarket and loaded up a cart. She stocked the kitchen with her kids' favorite foods: pizza, boxed juices, Fruit Roll-Ups. When her teenage daughter got home from school that afternoon, she opened the refrigerator like she always did. But since there had been next to nothing inside for weeks, she immediately closed it. Then she paused. Opened it a second time. "Mom!" she called. "Where did you get all this food?"

"God helped us," her mother replied.

Today Salcido is a plaintiff in two separate class-action lawsuits against Swift. One alleges that the company wrongly terminated dozens of injured workers to save on workers compensation costs, slashing them from $6 million in 2002 to just $600,000 two years later, and another claims the company deliberately and systematically replaced native workers with illegal Guatemalan immigrants in a scheme to depress wages. While Swift acknowledges that it fired employees who'd been on injury-related restrictions for more than six months, it denies any wrongdoing. The company also says it did its best to obey immigration laws during hiring.

After Salcido was fired, she was angry at the Guatemalans who appeared to have replaced her and her co-workers. But she later concluded that they were all victims of the company's operating strategies, of an environment rife with injuries, immigrants too terrified to complain or report getting hurt and sadistic supervisors who intimidated the workers who reported injuries or took their gripes to federal safety inspectors. So she and more than a dozen former employees decided to do something about it. They began talking to lawyers in 2003, and the first case is scheduled for trial in June.

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