On the Line: Slaughterhouse Lives and the Making of the New South

On the Line: Slaughterhouse Lives and the Making of the New South

by Vanesa Ribas

Hardcover(First Edition)

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“How does one put into words the rage that workers feel when supervisors threaten to replace them with workers who will not go to the bathroom in the course of a fourteen-hour day of hard labor, even if it means wetting themselves on the line?”—From the Preface

In this gutsy, eye-opening examination of the lives of workers in the New South, Vanesa Ribas, working alongside mostly Latino/a and native-born African American laborers for sixteen months, takes us inside the contemporary American slaughterhouse. Ribas, a native Spanish speaker, occupies an insider/outsider status there, enabling her to capture vividly the oppressive exploitation experienced by her fellow workers. She showcases the particular vulnerabilities faced by immigrant workers—a constant looming threat of deportation, reluctance to seek medical attention, and family separation—as she also illuminates how workers find connection and moments of pleasure during their grueling shifts. Bringing to the fore the words, ideas, and struggles of the workers themselves, On The Line underlines how deep racial tensions permeate the factory, as an overwhelmingly minority workforce is subject to white dominance. Compulsively readable, this extraordinary ethnography makes a powerful case for greater labor protection, especially for our nation’s most vulnerable workers.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520282957
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 12/08/2015
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 270
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Vanesa Ribas is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of California, San Diego.

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On the Line

Slaughterhouse Lives and the Making of the New South

By Vanesa Ribas


Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95882-1



Lives on The Line: Carving Out A New South

It is Friday morning and there are seven of us working a rib trimming line: Cristina, Thomas, Rosa, Linda, Vincent, Claudia, and me. These workers — some Latina migrants, others native-born African Americans — would be some of my closest coworkers, my good friends, and my key confidants, and their experiences in the plant and in North Carolina and beyond more generally guide the narratives of this book.

On this particular Friday morning, with knife in hand, Cristina draws the rationale behind her decision to migrate on the table in hog blood. In Honduras, she can hope to make around 700 lempiras per week sewing garments at a maquiladora. As Thomas, Linda, Rosa, and I look on, she scrawls the exchange rate in diluted red numbers: 18 lempiras to 1 dollar. Cristina never imagined she'd end up here in this countryside breaking her back working a knife job. If anything, she tells me with a chuckle, having worked at a Korean-owned garment factory outside San Pedro Sula for seven years from the age of fifteen, she had entertained fantasies of running off to Korea. Her husband, Ernesto, arrived in North Carolina in 1998, right before Hurricane Mitch devastated Honduras, leaving the mines, cattle ranches, and dense forests of Olancho to follow his brothers to work in the pork, turkey, and chicken processing plants, livestock farms, and agricultural fields that dot the landscape and are the backbone of this Southern economy. Cristina joined him seven years later, in 2005.

At thirty-three, she has worked at Swine's deboning small hams and trimming ribs for two years without missing a day of work, and before this she worked on the knife for two years at Fresh Birds, a large poultry processing plant in Linden. She works without authorization, and has borne and shed three identities other than her own while eking out a living in North Carolina. Today, Cristina and Ernesto are part of a large Honduran community that lives in the multicounty catchment area of the plant, proportionally among the greatest in the country. Cristina prides herself on the quality of her work, relishing the praise of Quality Assurance staff and deriding other workers' knife skills — like those of Thomas and Rosa — from sharpening the knife to actually using it. Cristina left behind a four-year-old son and a five-year-old daughter with her in-laws in Olancho, whom she had lived with after Ernesto left, in what she depicts as conditions of servitude. Her daughter made the dangerous journey with another of her husband's brothers several years later, and now, at twelve years old, she says without a hint of irony, but much to her parents' amusement, that she wants to be an FBI agent when she grows up. Cristina's youngest daughter was born in North Carolina, so her children span the spectrum of migration statuses. Outside the plant, she lives in fear of police checkpoints and deportation, which would mean permanent separation from her husband and children, topics we regularly discuss at the table where I bag or box the ribs she trims.

Working alongside Cristina at the ribs station this Friday morning is Thomas, who like many coworkers respects Cristina's knife skills, often depending on her to sharpen his knives. Thomas is a fifty-three-year-old African American man who grew up in a nearby rural North Carolina town. In the 1990s, he worked for Hansen Farms with a night crew loading turkeys from farms across North and South Carolina. At that time, the loading crews were composed mostly of local Black men and the poultry farm labor was heavily Latino/a. The pay was by the load, and Thomas says it averaged out to a good wage. In a very matter-of-fact tone, Thomas attributes shifts in the composition of labor across animal farming and processing industries to increased competition for jobs due to the influx of Hispanics and their growing share of the applicant pool in the context of regular turnover in these jobs, in almost exactly those words. After a brief move to Virginia, where he followed his substance-abusing partner and worked at a large distribution center as a forklift operator, Thomas returned to North Carolina and started to work at Swine's in 2001.

Sometimes Thomas works with the knife, trimming ribs. Other times, he is able to escape knife work and instead bags ribs, which is considered a lighter task. But there are also times when he has to lead in producing huge orders of "curlies" — a rib that is skinned on the backside using a small handheld hook, and that Cristina says is for rich people. The work is grueling, un trabajo perro (dog's work, hard work), as Salvadoran fellow rib trimmer and skinner Hernán calls it, but Thomas is the fastest at this work. His form, efficiency, and speed are impressive to watch, as he skins ribs and fills giant combos at twice the rate of the next-fastest worker. No matter what type of work he is doing — whether trimming, bagging, or skinning — Thomas's laboring has a distinctive rhythm to it, a certain swaying or rocking of his tall, lanky body to the cacophonous melody of machinery. On lunch break, he hurries out to the parking lot across from the factory, immersing himself in the quiet solitude of his pickup truck. Aisha, a young Black packing worker, insists she has smelled liquor on his breath, but it never does waft my way. On short breaks, Thomas leans into the chain-link fence outside the factory while smoking his cigarette, staring through the links at the outside world, rebuilding his momentum, lost in thought, forlorn.

Just as she is this Friday morning, Rosa usually works alongside Cristina either at the ribs station or on the ham-end boning line. Rail-thin and slightly hunchbacked, Rosa has receding gums that give her mouth a concave appearance, like she is missing all her teeth, not just the bottom set. She is a forty-five-year-old Salvadoran who migrated first to Los Angeles from Santa Ana, living there for ten years before returning to El Salvador in order to regularize her status through her then-husband. She returned in 2006, later bringing her three American-born but Salvadoran-raised daughters to live in North Carolina, and they remind Rosa how much they resent her for having left them in El Salvador every chance they get. Despite her efforts to steer them toward righteousness through her Evangelical church, each of her daughters compounds her troubled life, one with a violent and substance-abusing spouse, another with marital dissolutions and consecutive childbearing, and the youngest with school desertion, drug arrests, and general teenage defiance. Rosa also has a three-year-old son with her most recent husband, a twenty-five-year-old Honduran man who works on the boning line and who abandoned her for another woman, though she still meets him clandestinely against her better judgment and maintains a bitter feud with his new vieja. She is a rebellious yet individualistic worker, unexpectedly hilarious and foulmouthed, though she is quick to clarify that her ex-husband never knew her that way. Calling people cara de cuca (pussyface) is a habit of hers, one that Latina coworkers have picked up as an aff ectionate nickname (now it's my nickname), and it's a Spanish phrase that, like chaca chaca (slang for "sex," like "hanky panky"), African American coworkers have become acquainted with. A reporter of all Swine-related gossip and news, Rosa's loose lips are immortalized in her nickname, Radio Bemba. She has been working at Swine's since 2006, deboning small hams and trimming ribs, or bagging ribs when she can avoid knife work, which she frequently attempts to do, leading to confrontations with supervisors. Rosa is a coffee fiend, and on the unsanctioned and ever-contentious midmorning bathroom break she will take her contraband thermos out of her locker and into a stall, where I imagine her sitting on the toilet seat, sipping subversively.

Linda, an African American woman born in North Carolina but raised in New Jersey, often pairs with Cristina or Thomas at the ribs station, as she does on this Friday morning. Linda recently turned sixty but seems to be going on thirty. She is such a motivated worker that not only is she exempted by Latinas/os in their usually-critical characterizations of African Americans' work performance, but some even resent her for being such a cagapalo (stick shitter), making sure every last bit of meat gets processed, and concerning herself more than others with product specifications and quality. Despite getting annoyed with her for this, some Latina coworkers, especially Rosa, tell her in choppy English and crude sign language about the troubles they are having with their kids or husbands. Linda is a proud worker, and her high self-regard is evident when she describes Cristina and Rosa as "the women who cut meat for me" instead of herself as packing meat for them. Although she has roots in rural North Carolina, Linda spent much of her adult life in New Jersey, which is reflected in her accent, made even more distinctive by her deep, raspy smoker's voice and gravelly laugh. These days she makes it up to Atlantic City from time to time to hit the casinos with her sister, riding one of those chartered tour buses all the way up north for a quick weekend getaway, and she is a regular at the slot machines at the local no-name "Internet Sweepstakes" joint. Her lips shimmer with a berry-infused gloss, the smell of which can become dizzying after hours of direct inhalation while paired with her to bag ribs or loins. Before starting at Swine's in 2008, she managed a liquor store in Parsons but lost that job, I am told, after she punched out a rude customer. She is a chatty worker unless she is in a bad mood, and her tendency to want to coordinate and lightly control the work process ("Come on, baby! What's wrong?") has earned her the uncomplimentary nickname "Grandma" from some of the younger Black workers.

Vincent is a twenty-nine-year-old African American from Wadeville, North Carolina, who trims ribs at a table near Cristina and Linda. I am sometimes paired to work with him, but he is paired with someone else on this Friday morning. He has a thick country accent and a peculiar laugh as though his jaw was wired shut. His mouth barely opens to let out his characteristic cackle, which turns out is because of oral surgery he had a few years back. He once did a two-year stretch in jail on a drug charge and has worked at Swine's since 2009. Although Vincent normally works on the knife, trimming ribs, he is called on to cover for others from time to time as a pallet jack driver or as a trimmer on the loin boning line, jobs he previously held. His cousin Kim worked with me in the Marination Department before my transfer to Loin Boning, and he is shocked that she lasted as long as she did because, in his words, she can't keep a job. Another of his cousins, a lesbian nicknamed Little G, who he and others think is "lazy as hell," is a packer in Loin Boning as well.

Vincent seems self-conscious about the fact that he has four kids with four different women, but is also proud to be a responsible provider for his girls (and the young boy he recently found out about). He is a very funny guy, and part of his routine is an incessant sexual bravado and banter that is more comical than threatening, but sometimes irritating and tiresome ("Oh, come on. You trying to tell me you never sucked dick?"). Vincent is a lay social scientist, constantly raising social and political topics of conversation, drawing on his perceptive observations. His conversational, jokester personality makes it so he is not taken so seriously by coworkers. Vincent, some Latina coworkers have remarked more approvingly than not, gets the work out even though he doesn't pay attention to the quality; still, others call him a pendejo huevón (lazy ass). In the summer of 2011, Vincent lost his home to the devastating tornadoes that swept through North Carolina, days after calling to tell me he won the job bid for a coveted position as a mechanic in the Maintenance Department.

Claudia is at the end of the line this Friday morning, as always, operating the tortuga (literally "turtle"), the machine that seals the bags containing ribs and other meat products before these go into boxes for shipping. She has worked at Swine's for nine years, and started out bagging loins on the line. Previously she worked at an appliance factory in Roseville, though she is always quick to remind me that she had been a secretary, along with her mother, in the town hall in Aguilares, El Salvador. She made the arduous journey to North Carolina in 1999 from her small town near San Salvador to reunite with her then-husband, Marcos, a man who has mostly dedicated himself to activities in the underground economy of migration, spent time in a U.S. prison, and was once deported. She finally left him because he was cheating on her. Four years after her arrival, Marcos's sister brought the couple's six-year-old son along with her on an undocumented journey to the United States.

After an earthquake struck El Salvador in 2001, Claudia and her son received Temporary Protected Status, which they must renew every eighteen months at a cost of around $900. She and her husband later had a daughter, who at nine years old expresses the multiple and conflicting ideas she learns at home, at school, in the community, and in the media with such direct, deceptively simple questions as, "Hey, Janet [my first name, and the one printed on my hard hat], is racism bad?" Claudia is deeply enamored of all things Mexican, from the music to the men (but not the women, who she jokes all have moustaches they can twirl around their fingers). On the weekends it is typical for her to go to a disco mexicana with friends or a boyfriend and dance to música norteña all night while slinging Modelos. She is an attractive, alluring thirty-six-year-old who prefers to date much younger men, preferably around half her age. Claudia is besieged at her workstation on a daily basis by a stream of admirers, regular workers and supervisors alike, be they Latino, African American, or white, married or not, young and old, who shower her with off erings of chocolate, romantic CD mixes, religious charm bracelets, and pledges of much more.

This is the new Southern working class. Cristina, Thomas, Rosa, Linda, Vincent, and Claudia illustrate the immense diversity of social positions and experiences that exist in this context both across and within racial/ethnic groups. The U.S. South has changed dramatically over the last twenty-five years. The historical racial binary made up of African Americans and whites has given way to a new configuration that now includes Latino/a migrants from Mexico, Central America, and traditional gateway states such as California and Texas. In North Carolina, the Latino/a population grew from 76,726 to 506,206 between 1990 and 2004 (Kasarda and Johnson 2006). By 2010, Latinas/ os made up 8 percent of the state's population, and between 15 and 20 percent of the population in some counties, such as "Clark" County, where I conducted my research (United States Census Bureau 2001). (I will henceforth use this name, and the town name of Perry, to refer to the location of Swine's.)

Impressive as they are, these figures do not adequately convey the fine-grained and multidimensional diversity of this area, which is probably imagined by outsiders to be quite homogenous, dull, and old-fashioned. At Swine's I met people with origins in ten different Latin American countries; multiple generations of international migrants and their descendants (of all varieties of legal status); African Americans who had never left North Carolina, and others who had returned to their Southern roots after living in New York, New Jersey, or Washington, DC; Coharies and other Native Americans; and even, most exotically among the workers, a few whites. Among my fellow workers there were said to be ministers, heathens, mystics, reformed prostitutes, ex-cons, and fugitive gun dealers. Some had been Central American rebel fighters, while others were right-wing sympathizers. And, to my surprise, there were many (mostly African American) gays, lesbians, and bisexuals.

Unlike the majority of studies of new migrant destinations, in which Mexican migrants are the sole group of interest, Hondurans, Salvadorans, and Mexicans are all important for understanding emerging social realities from Knobbs to Knoxville, Boyd to Bennettsburg, Hensley to Kerr Hill, Leesville to Linden, Gardenia to Roberts Grove, Faircloth to Fall River. In fact, the multicounty region in North Carolina that forms a single labor catchment area for the poultry and hog production and processing industries includes communities with some of the country's highest proportions of Central Americans, contributing to the 25 percent of non-Mexican, Puerto Rican, or Cuban-origin Latinas/ os living in the state in 2000 (United States Census Bureau 2001). Some are newcomers; others are long-term settlers, many with growing families, making the South both an area of new and maturing destinations. The African American population in the South is increasingly heterogeneous as well, as Black Americans have been leaving northeastern cities to (re)settle in the South since the latter part of the twentieth century, and at an accelerated pace in the last decade, resulting in the highest percentage of Black Americans residing in the South since 1960. Indeed, for some Black Americans who have moved to cities such as Atlanta and their suburban enclaves in search of better job opportunities, the economic, political, and cultural changes that have transformed this region represent the hopeful promise of a New South (Tavernise and Gebeloff 2011; Hunt, Hunt, and Falk 2008).


Excerpted from On the Line by Vanesa Ribas. Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

1. Introduction - Lives on the Line: Carving Out a New South
2. All Roads Lead From Olancho to Swine’s: The Making of a Latino/A Working Class in the American South
3. The Meanings of Moyo: The Transnational Roots of Shop-Floor Racial Talk
4. “Painted Black”: Oppressive Exploitation and Racialized Resentment
5. The Value of Being Negro, the Cost of Being Hispano: Disposability and the Challenges for Cross-Racial Solidarity in the Workplace
6. Black, White, and Latino/A Bosses: How theComposition of the Authority Structure Mediates Perceptions of Privilege and the Experience of Subordination
7. Exclusion or Ambivalence?: Explaining African Americans’ Boundary-Work
8. Conclusion - Prismatic Engagement: Latino/a and African American Workers’ Encounters in a Southern Meatpacking Plant


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