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This essay first appeared in the Mississippi Chicken DVD insert. Reprinted with permission of the author and filmmaker.
By Steve Striffler, Professor of Anthropology and Geography, University of New Orleans
Mississippi Chicken is a true gem. By letting us into the lives of immigrant poultry workers in Mississippi, this documentary captures much of what defines America today. It is at once tragic and beautiful, horrific and magnificent, hopeless and inspirational. The documentary is about chicken – about how the need, search, and inevitable pain of working in a poultry plant shapes all aspects of immigrant life, from the food, shelter, transportation, and education one can afford to the bodily harm and workplace exploitation that one experiences. At the same time, life is so much more than work – a fact that Mississippi Chicken makes painfully and joyfully clear. Even as they are abused by employers, terrorized by police, and exploited by landlords, the immigrants of Mississippi insist upon their humanity – by having fiestas and holding religious ceremonies, by taking pride in their work, and, above all, by demanding justice under the most difficult of conditions.
Mississippi Chicken revolves around the two key issues that define the immigration question today. The first centers on the conditions of immigrants at work and in the places where they settle. How are immigrants surviving and how are "we" treating them? Their journey is not easy, and one of the great virtues of the documentary is that it exposes life in all its contradictions. Mississippi Chicken is filled with characters, but none of them are caricatures. Immigrants are wonderful, generous, hard-working, and hopeful; but they also (at times and under less than ideal circumstances) exploit each other and make disastrous mistakes.
Likewise, "Americans" come in all shapes and sizes. Some police officers rob and arbitrarily beat immigrants; others work to defend the rights of all immigrants, regardless of legal status. Landlords rent dilapidated housing for outrageous sums while other Mississippians bring immigrants the materials they need to improve their homes. Some employers refuse to pay immigrants for their hard work while others treat them with the respect they deserve.
The second issue, one that is for all of us, simply asks: What is to be done? To its credit, Mississippi Chicken offers no easy solutions, but it points us in interesting directions as it charts an attempt by progressive activists to form a Worker Center. Working to organize, educate, and defend poultry workers, the activists quickly learn that their task is an overwhelming one in large part because the problems immigrants face do not begin and end at the poultry plant. Work with immigrant poultry workers leads activists down a variety of unforeseeable paths. They find themselves running stings against rogue police officers who abuse immigrants while tracking down contractors who fail to pay their construction workers. Here, too, the picture is a complex one as activists realize that the problems are far greater than the resources available. One thing is clear, however, both immigrants and their advocates continue to struggle, inspire, and, most importantly, organize.
In this respect, Mississippi Chicken is not just about immigrants, or even Mississippi. It's about all of us who benefit from the cheap labor of others, whether through the food we eat, the houses we live in, or even the crap we buy at Wal-Mart. The poultry industry in particular has long disappointed workers (while delivering "cheap" chicken to consumers). Immigrants from Latin America are the most recent casualty of a labor force once dominated by poor southern whites and blacks. Jobs in processing plants have always been among the lowest paid, least pleasant, and most dangerous in America. Even as industry profits between 1980 and 2000 more than tripled, the real wages of approximately 250,000 poultry workers remained largely stagnant. And the work in the factories has become more intense, tedious, and repetitive as the years have passed. To fill these undesirable jobs, the poultry industry has sought a vulnerable labor force that works more for less and that is hampered in its efforts to unionize.
Worse yet, as Mississippi Chicken makes poignantly clear, "we" – consumers, teachers, police officers, politicians, etc. — frequently fail to treat the people who produce our food and build our houses with basic decency, let alone the respect and dignity they deserve. Surely, we can all agree on one thing: After working in a poultry plant, or on a construction site, immigrants should be able to return to a decent, affordable home with the knowledge that police will not arbitrarily abuse them; that they will get paid a decent wage; that they will have access to health care; and that their children will be able to afford an education.
Mississippi Chicken is a testament to our imperfect struggle to provide these basic rights to the most marginal among us. As such, it should be watched, studied, discussed, and debated. More importantly, its central lesson should be embraced: we are not doing enough; even in the United States and Europe basic human rights cannot be assured without organization. Social justice does not just happen, but is struggled for by immigrants and their allies through organizations such as Worker Centers.
Fortunately, Mississippi is not alone. During the past 15-20 years, over 150 Worker Centers have emerged across the United States. They come in all shapes and sizes, and have become fundamental to immigrant life as important sources of information and training about basic rights associated with work, housing, and the legal system. Worker Centers help immigrants navigate American workplaces and communities, but they also provide low-wage workers a forum for organizing, for finding their collective voice and taking collective action. (See Janice Fine's wonderful book: Worker Centers: Organizing Communities at the Edge of the Dream, ILR Press, 2006).
As Mississippi Chicken makes clear, Worker Centers do not simply happen. They are built from the ground up, through the experiences of immigrants and the interaction between activists and low-wage workers. As such, they not only need dedicated individuals who are willing to go door-to-door to learn about people's daily struggles, but they require resources in order to provide services (including legal aid, translation, information, etc.), advocacy (such as collecting back pay from an employer or calling for policy change), and organizing (around a particular company or issue).
In watching the documentary, one is simultaneously astonished at how the Worker Center is able to accomplish so much with so little while at the same time being amazed at how great the needs are. At times, the activists are overwhelmed. How does a small organization with limited resources extend basic services to individual immigrants while at the same time trying to provide a broader framework for organizing? Put another way, how do Worker Centers transform the provision of services to individuals into the creation of a collective voice? How does a personal crisis lead to social change?
There is no easy formula, in large part because there are no short cuts when it comes to organizing. Mississippi Chicken is educational, but it is also inspirational. It challenges us to get involved either by participating in the organizing effort itself or by contributing financially. It's hard to think of a better way to invest in our future. Contact your local Worker Center now! (See Interfaith Worker Justice for a partial list of Worker Centers around the country).
Finally, the playing field must be leveled if Worker Centers, immigrants, and working people in general are to have a chance. The unspoken lesson of Mississippi Chicken is that the battle for human and labor rights in the United States and Europe is not going to be a fair one, let alone one that can be won, unless there is some form of comprehensive immigration and labor reform.
What this reform should look like is beyond the scope of this commentary, but it must allow for the much freer movement of people across borders (as well as amnesty for those who have already done so) while at the same time improving economic conditions and labor rights in both sending and receiving countries. The large-scale migration of people from Latin America, Asia, and Africa is a product of global inequalities that make life in those places impossible while simultaneously insuring the steady flow of cheap goods (from Asia, Latin America, etc.) and cheap people to those of us who live comfortably in the West. The system is unsustainable. Changing it will be a long fight. The question, as the old saying goes, is: Which side are you on?
Steve Striffler is the Doris Zemurray Stone Chair in Latin American Studies and Professor of Anthropology and Geography at the University of New Orleans. He is the author of Chicken: The Dangerous Transformation of America's Favorite Meat (Yale University Press 2005), and former Director and Board President of the Northwest Arkansas Workers' Justice Center.