John Colson: Oscar Mayer, globalization, small-town troubles
Hit & Run
Is anybody out there interested in taking a fact-finding job in the sandwich-meats industry?
I ask in order to get a little assistance in learning why a small, Midwestern town is the scene of rising labor-related tensions between white, self-proclaimed “rednecks” and a growing tide of Spanish-speaking immigrants.
Well, I just thought I’d mention it.
I’m hanging out in my boyhood hometown, Madison, Wisconsin, taking a break from the whirlwind of living in central Colorado and visiting friends and what’s left of my family here — meaning my younger brother, Stuart.
Stuart, who has been working as a driver for the Uber and Lyft transportation outfits, had related a story he got from one of his passengers about how the Oscar Mayer meatpacking firm, formerly anchored in Madison, had somehow managed to piss off residents and workers at some far-flung satellite plant. Apparently the firm had begun hiring Hispanic workers at such a rate that it was changing the very makeup of the town in question.
Unfortunately, the passenger did not name the town where the factory supposedly was doing business, and Stuart did not ask for it, which started me down the road of an internet search for the full story.
Oscar Mayer came to Madison in 1919, and employed as many as 4,000 at its peak, but had dropped down to 1,000 when its pending closure was announced in 2015, in a planned move back to its original home, Chicago. Production ceased in 2017, when the last meat products (thin-sliced turkey and ham) rolled off the production line.
At that point the Madison shop was down to some 110 employees, whose jobs ended when the last thin-sliced meat packages dropped off the line.
This was all part of a larger sequence of mergers, a common aspect of globalization, that left Oscar Mayer under the thumb of the corporate-raider conglomerate known as Kraft Foods.
As a consequence, while Oscar Mayer still has a tiny marketing fleet (six, according to the latest counts I could find) of those fabled Wienermobiles running around the country, the company is a shadow of its former self.
Its website still proclaims its commitment to producing hot dogs, sandwich meats and other staples of the American diet, and proudly lays claim to a growing environmental ethic focused on making food that is “green” and free of antibiotics and other adulterants once considered a critical part of making food.
But Oscar Mayers’ famous jingle (“My baloney has a first name, it’s O-S-C-A-R” … and so on) essentially has gone the way of the dodo bird, its iconic ads are hard to find, and in general it is no longer a huge corporate presence in the American commercial psyche.
Why do I care?
Well, that’s a bit harder to parse out. Suffice it to say that I once lived a short distance from Oscar’s original home factory in Madison, close enough that I could smell the odors wafting off its production lines on days when the wind blew strongly and in the right direction.
The presence of the factory (for this and other reasons) was a peripherally important part of my childhood, and when it closed its doors for good in 2017 I felt a sense of loss that contributed to my overall feeling that life was not what it had been in my youth.
So I began looking for evidence of the firm’s aforementioned labor troubles and discovered — very little, beyond a lot of corporate gobbleygook about the company’s history.
I did run across a book titled “Caught In the Middle — America’s Heartland in the Age of Globalism,” that referred to an Oscar Mayer plant in Beardstown, Illinois, that was shut down and then revived by the Cargill Meat Solutions company that apparently still operates there today.
The story is one told in many Midwestern towns — a historic old factory shuts down, the property is bought by a multinational corporation and everything changes as the new owner pinches pennies and slights the local working class.
In Beardstown, Hispanic workers reportedly have largely replaced the whites who once dominated the factory work, Spanish is the language that can most readily be heard in the aisles of the local supermarket, Anglo parents complain about declining educational excellence in the local schools — the list goes on.
And the displaced, mostly white workers? They take the same view as our current president — all social ills can be blamed on immigrants, particularly immigrants from Hispanic countries in Central and South America, and if we can just stem this tide of immigration the U.S. will regain its pre-eminent place in the world’s economy and everything will be just like it once was.
Of course, this view ignores the realities of life in today’s world, where citizens of former economic colonies are demanding their rightful share in the world’s bounty.
It is a plain fact that life in most cases really never amounted to a shining city on a hill except in the mythology of certain white Europeans and Americans. The belief in that myth is the central fantasy feeding right-wing anger around the globe and in Beardstown. It’s just that the lower classes, including people of color, were simply never acknowledged as long as they “kept their place” and did not make noise, and thus were not part of the official “history.”
I still am unsure whether Beardstown is the place Stuart’s passenger was discussing, though it seems to fit the bill.
And as I mentioned at the top, I’d welcome any help in learning more, just to feed my seemingly bottomless need to figure out exactly what the hell is happening to our world.
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