Workers trim beef at the Tyson Fresh Meats plant in Dakota City, Nebraska, 2012 (Keith Myers/Kansas City Star/TNS/Alamy Live News).

Jurgis Rudkus, the protagonist of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, attends church, but not often or enthusiastically. Christianity does not move him, and he worries that the stink and vermin that cling to his clothes after the days he spends toiling in a Chicago meatpacking factory will offend the sensibilities of his fellow congregants. The saloons and the gambling halls seem to offer a more welcoming atmosphere for a working man, but only the union inspires faith, a “new religion—one that did touch him, that took hold of every fiber of him.”

Yet many of Chicago’s real turn-of-the-century meatpacking workers—Lithuanians like Rudkus, as well as Italians, Poles, Jews, and Black Americans—may have felt differently. Churches and synagogues were the centers of communal life in the city’s “packingtowns,” the immigrant neighborhoods surrounding the Union Stockyards. Before the industrial labor movement and New Deal legislation secured the high wages and job security characteristic of the midcentury meatpacking industry, religious organizations were often workers’ primary source of financial and other support.

If the union was Rudkus’s church, then churches were the closest thing that many other workers had to a functioning union. As Kristy Nabhan-Warren shows in her fascinating new book, Meatpacking America: How Migration, Work, and Faith Unite and Divide the Heartland, churches are once again the institutions on which many of the industry’s workers most rely.

Beginning in the 1980s, meatpacking companies fled big cities for small towns in rural states such as Iowa, where right-to-work laws impede the growth of unions. Since then, real wages have plummeted. Long hours and mandatory overtime have become more common, and injuries more frequent. A new immigrant workforce has replaced the old, and its undocumented members lack access to federal benefits and are vulnerable to deportation.

Against this background, Nabhan-Warren argues that faith enables Midwestern meatpacking workers of diverse backgrounds to survive the day-to-day horrors of their jobs and seek better lives for their children. She describes how church leaders provide crucial material and spiritual aid for their congregations, and how they try to unite religious communities divided by race, immigration status, and language.

Whether churches can serve the functions unions once did—whether they can foster solidarity as well as tolerance, and empower workers as well as aid them—remains to be seen. Regardless, in a region and industry defined by faith, they will continue to play a key role in workers’ lives.


Today’s meatpacking workers enter an industry whose power dynamics employers have already established in religious terms. Companies such as Tyson Foods have embraced a corporate faith movement that aims to turn Christian values to the ends of profit and worker control.

For most of the twentieth century, the Midwestern meatpacking industry was dominated by “the Big Four”: Armour, Cudahy, Swift, and Wilson. Together, these companies modernized and mechanized meat-production methods, and employed hundreds of thousands of migrants from Europe and the American South to slaughter animals at previously unimaginable speeds. Workers experienced injury, disease, and death at appalling rates.

Workers, isolated from the communities that had traditionally supported unions and lacking many of the federal and state protections they once enjoyed, lost power.

But after the National Labor Relations Act guaranteed industrial workers collective bargaining rights in 1935, the meatpacking employers faced a formidable enemy in the form of the United Packinghouse Workers of America (UPWA). As the historian Roger Horowitz has shown, the CIO-affiliate was extraordinarily successful in securing higher pay and improved benefits for its members: in the 1960s, meatpacking workers’ wages exceeded those of other manufacturing workers by about 15 percent. It also fought against racial and sexual workplace discrimination, a rarity at a time when many CIO unions were exclusively white and male.

But not long after the UPWA reached its zenith, the meatpacking industry began to change form as new firms challenged the Big Four’s dominance. These upstarts embraced a new business model: they automated more of their production processes, relocated to rural areas, and fiercely fought unions. Workers, isolated from the communities that had traditionally supported unions and lacking many of the federal and state protections they once enjoyed, lost power.

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Today the Midwestern meatpacking industry is dominated by yet another set of firms: among them Tyson, Smithfield, and JBS USA. As Nabhan-Warren shows, the contemporary industry is defined as much by oligopolistic market control and anti-union advocacy as by its public embrace of religious values. Current Tyson chairman John H. Tyson took over in 1998 after his father pled guilty on behalf of the company to providing former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy with $12,000 in illegal gratuities. A devout Evangelical, John H. Tyson sought to clean up the company’s image by branding it as “faith-friendly.” 

The company famously employs 115 chaplains. These corporate chaplains occupy a role that straddles the boundary between pastor and foreman, offering practical and spiritual counsel to workers but also urging them to treat their tasks in the plant as religious duties. Nabhan-Warren interviews a Tyson chaplain named Joe Blay. Born in Ghana and ordained by the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, Blay previously served as an army chaplain. He explains that he joined the plant because it reminded him of the military, with its “focus on order and discipline.” He clearly cares for Tyson’s workers, and in addition to praying with and for them helps them obtain their driver’s licenses, file their taxes, and make doctors’ appointments. But the main purpose of his role for the company is clear. In emails that quote scripture, he reminds workers not to be “lazy” and to meet daily and weekly production goals.

According to Nabhan-Warren, many Tyson employees appreciate corporate faith rhetoric that affirms their own values. They take pride in work that requires skill and fortitude, and in the ability it gives them to support their families. They are drawn to the company because of its wages and benefits, which, while still inferior to those of the industry’s unionized era, compare favorably to those of other employers in the region. But despite the best efforts of their employers, they do not experience their work itself as sacred. Meatpacking workers at Tyson and elsewhere show Nabhan-Warren their aching backs, stiff necks, and swollen hands. Many tell her that they work on the assembly line so that their children will not have to.

Faith is a resource that workers draw on to survive long and difficult days of labor. At IPB Beef, Nabhan-Warren witnesses two Somali Muslim women unfold prayer rugs in a corner of the women’s locker room and wash the grease from their hands and arms before they pray. Shielded by dark blue drapes, the makeshift prayer room at IPB is a small and carefully preserved space of sanctity within a workplace defined by death and danger.


Nabhan-Warren initially focused her research on white and Latino Catholics, groups that are both well-represented in the Corn Belt region and the meatpacking industry. But she soon began to expand her research, interviewing the many workers who hail from Central and Southern Africa, Southeast Asia, and Central America, and who identify as Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Buddhists, and adherents of indigenous religions.

The meatpacking industry began employing this new immigrant workforce in the 1980s, when a farm and debt crisis began to deplete the white population of the rural Midwest. Meatpacking companies recruited Mexican immigrants, documented and undocumented, as a bulwark against the resulting labor shortage and unionization efforts among native white and Black workers. More recently, the industry has sought out refugees fleeing violence and economic deprivation from all over the world. U.S. immigration agents have periodically raided meatpacking plants over the past thirty years, but those raids have devastated immigrant communities without hindering companies’ ability to find a new supply of vulnerable workers.

In Sinclair’s day, prejudice in its various forms often inhibited the development of solidarity among an equally diverse immigrant workforce. As the historian Lizabeth Cohen has shown, employers successfully pitted workers of different backgrounds against one another in order to defeat the massive strike wave of 1919. Immigrant communities and their places of worship were often ethnically homogenous, and Catholic immigrants remained stubbornly resistant to the Archdiocese of Chicago’s efforts to centralize and Americanize the city’s churches. In Cohen’s account, only secular institutions—the CIO and the Democratic Party—were able to bridge identitarian divides among the city’s immigrant workforce.

Racial dynamics often—though not always—map onto class dynamics.

Nabhan-Warren wonders whether racism and xenophobia create similarly impenetrable walls among meatpacking workers today. But her research suggests that the Catholic Church may play a different role in the early twenty-first century than it did in the early twentieth. As the farm crisis created a labor shortage, it also created a worshipper shortage, and parishes in shrinking towns were forced to close or consolidate. So local priests, too, have sought out immigrants, and many have done so with the awareness that “Americanization” efforts won’t suffice. Fr. Joseph Sia, himself a Filipino immigrant, is one of several local priests who offers both Spanish and English Masses. After U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raided a nearby meatpacking plant, deporting four hundred workers, Sia worked with Baptist, Methodist, Pentecostal, and Lutheran church leaders to distribute aid to the workers and families who remained.

Yet Fr. Sia describes his parish as “shared,” not “integrated”: white, Latino, and Burmese parishioners seem to tolerate one another, but they do not really mix. Many of Nabhan-Warren’s non-white interviewees describe being harassed and insulted by white Iowans. Racial dynamics often—though not always—map onto class dynamics: many of the white locals prosperous enough to remain in Iowa after the farm crisis either repurposed their farms as commodity suppliers for agribusiness companies or joined the ranks of middle management at those companies. So, the white parishioners that Latinos encounter in bilingual churches are often their employers, not their fellow workers. Nabhan-Warren devotes less attention to relationships among Brown and Black coreligionists of different nationalities, which may now be even more important for the formation of workers’ solidarity than the relationships between whites and non-whites.

What workers of various races and nationalities do share, according to Nabhan-Warren, is a common language that affirms the importance of work and faith in their lives. By introducing religious expressions into the workplace, employers may have inadvertently helped workers of diverse backgrounds identify the values they share not with their companies, but with one another.


As of September 2, over 59,000 meatpacking workers have contracted COVID-19, and 298 have died. A single Tyson plant in Waterloo, Iowa, has accounted for 1,500 of those infections. The company claims that it implemented safety measures after the first outbreaks in March 2020. But workers continue to work shoulder to shoulder on the processing line, and many continue to do so while ill because they lack paid sick leave. One lawsuit filed by a deceased worker’s family alleges that the Waterloo plant’s managers placed bets on how many workers would contract the virus.

Faith, personal and communal, undoubtedly remains crucial for the meatpacking workers whose jobs have become more dangerous than ever. If religion enables meatpacking workers to survive the horrifying conditions of their employment, can it also help them change those conditions? Nabhan-Warren does not devote much attention to workers’ informal or organized resistance, perhaps in part because interviewees were reluctant to criticize their employers during her heavily supervised trips to meatpacking plants.

Yet her research contains hints that faith may become a crucial resource for a revitalized labor movement in the meatpacking industry. Tyson deploys religious language with the aim of disciplining its workers by equating what it considers poor job performance with spiritual and moral failing. Yet for workers who share Tyson’s stated values but see meatpacking work as merely necessary rather than sacred, that same language may offer a way to contest the company’s actions on its own terms. Workers, divided by race, ethnicity, nationality, and language, may join together under the banner of their shared commitment to faith and demand more from an industry that claims to share that commitment.

Recent events suggest what such activism might look like. Nabhan-Warren reports in her epilogue that two-thirds of Tyson’s Columbus Junction workers refused to come into work last spring for fear of COVID-19 exposure, forcing the plant to shut down for two weeks. Then, this past summer, faith groups, workers, immigration advocates, and other community organizers formed the Iowa Council for Worker Safety to protest Tyson’s failure to provide its workers with adequate protection from the virus. The group launched a petition demanding that the company provide paid leave to workers infected with, or exposed to, COVID-19. On September 3, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), the largest union representing today’s meatpacking workers, announced that it reached an agreement with Tyson to provide workers with up to twenty hours of paid sick leave as part of the company’s vaccine-mandate policy. This was the first nationwide agreement to provide paid sick leave to meatpacking workers.

A union is not a church, and a church is not a union. But in a region and industry defined by faith, these institutions might join together to hold companies accountable to the values they profess to hold.

Meatpacking America
How Migration, Work, and Faith Unite and Divide the Heartland

Kristy Nabhan-Warren
University of North Carolina Press
$19.95 | 280 pp.

Maia Silber is a PhD candidate in American history at Princeton University.

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Published in the December 2021 issue: View Contents
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