This essay is part of the forum on Social Reproduction

Recent feminist scholarship aims to understand the relationship between paid and unpaid work through the lens of social reproduction, that is, “the work required to maintain people as social, emotional, and intellectual beings on a daily and intergenerational basis” (Glenn, 2002, 2010). For Marxist feminists, the dialectical relationship of social reproduction to production creates an important analytic for understanding those practices of “life’s work” that exist beyond waged, material production for capital, while maintaining a critique of those relations. This theorization emerges in the context of an increasing precariousness of work and life amidst global neoliberal economic restructuring and a “retreat” of the welfare state (Fraser, 2016; Mitchell, Marston, Katz, 2004; Strauss and Meehan, 2015; Weeks and Curcio, 2015,). Yet viewed through the framework of racial capitalism this process is not new.

US institutions of slavery, Jim Crow, and the criminal justice system, integral to capital accumulation, have always worked to discipline low-wage, racialized, labor at the level of life’s work (Hill Collins, 1991). Today, anti-Black criminalization and anti-immigrant deportations are mobilized alongside workfare policies to contain or dispose of working-poor surplus populations, those who are no longer useful for capital (Gilmore, 2007: 28; Pimpare, 2007). In the context of the poultry industry, ICE raids and deportations force the largest poultry companies to return to a majority Black women workforce. While these women experience the physical and mental pain of extremely low-wage, racialized and gendered workdays, they must also confront a retreat or outright denial of state support. Through an examination of poultry processing work in the US South, I argue that struggles over social reproduction reveal the underlying workings of racial capitalism. I adopt Jan Breman’s (1994) notion of “wage hunter and gatherers” to designate the state of precarious work and life for working-class Black women who are once again being recruited to the poultry.

I trace workers’ experiences of crisis and contestation both within the poultry plant and in their everyday lives through a brief historical analysis of the industry from the standpoint of labor up to the contemporary moment. This research is based on primary and secondary historical material alongside 20 months of ethnographic research with Black and Latina women poultry workers and two grassroots social justice organizations both inside and outside one of northeast Georgia’s largest poultry processing plants.

The Welfare State and Labor Discipline

Poultry production, up until the 1940s, remained small scale and was commonly considered “women’s work” (Gray, 2014). Women raised birds in their yards for household consumption and a meager income. Yet, soon after the Great Depression, white landowning farmers and merchants in Northeast Georgia took over the industry and its profits. According to historian Monica R. Gisolfi (2017), this takeover was structured along the pre-existing crop lien system used in the overproduction of cotton that previously dominated the region. Racially discriminatory state interventions under the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) worked together with this agricultural credit system, creating structural barriers to commercial poultry production for Black and poor white sharecroppers and tenant farmers. AAA programs subsidized cotton farmers to idle land and quite literally displace farm labor (Raper, 1936). Between 1935 and 1940, the number of tenant farmers in the region dropped by almost 25 percent as landowners destroyed cotton crops in exchange for AAA allotment checks (Gisolfi, 2017: 13). This newly “freed” population was disciplined to become wage labor for the South’s agrarian economy or for the industrial cities of the North.

When the first processing plant opened in Gainesville, Georgia, in 1941, it recruited workers among a rural population of mostly white women and a small number of Black women (around 10 percent) (Horowitz and Miller, 1999). Initially, Black women were used as a hiring last resort and were placed in “black jobs” in the live hang and draw-hand departments, the worst and dirtiest jobs in the plant (Gray, 2014). These women came from places “out in the country” of the surrounding counties, considered “uneducated,” “unskilled,” and desperate for work (Cobb, 1993). Black women began working in the plants at higher rates in the latter part WWII as white women left for better paying jobs in wartime production. Working in the poultry also meant that Black women could participate in social insurance programs of which they were denied as agricultural and domestic workers (Stuesse and Helton, 2014; Gray, 2014; Winders, 2009). By the late 1960s, plants had been fully integrated, with Black women making up the majority. The rise of the poultry industry was built on the backs, arms, and hands of Black women in the South.

Martin, Jesse, & Me!

Beginning in the late 1970s, national unions focused their attention on states in the right-to-work South. Poultry plants were central to these campaigns. The first large scale poultry strike occurred in February 1979 and lasted until December 1980 at Sanderson Farms in Laurel, Mississippi (Schwartmann, 2013). The strike focused not on wages or overtime but on the pace of work, rules that limited workers to three bathroom breaks per week, and charges of sexual harassment against male foremen. Workers were “tired of being treated like dogs!” (Brown, 1979). This two-year strike was the start of several union organizing efforts centering local, Black leadership and Civil Rights (Fantasia and Voss, 2004; Schwartzman, 2013; Halpern and Horowitz, 1996). Photos from the 1989 RWDSU drive at Cagle Inc. in Georgia center a group of Black women wearing shirts that say, “Martin, Jesse, and Me!” calling on the legacy of these leaders while also placing rank-and-file women within the lineage of the movement (Cromer, 1990).

Yet, as growing numbers of Southern Black women began organizing, both the US social contract of the post-war period as well as the poultry industry were being restructured. Welfare reform and the introduction of TANF coincided with Clinton-led neoliberalization, most notably NAFTA, to reshape both labor and the poultry industry in the US South. Tyson, the industry’s leader in production, expanded at a rapid pace, increasing production at home for both domestic and overseas markets. The opening of global export markets coincided with the rise of processed chicken. By 2000, 90 percent of chicken was sold in pieces. This meant greater profits, but also an increase in labor demands. Line speeds increased from 35 birds per minute (bpm) in 1970 to 91 bpm in 1990. Black workers protested these changes through union organizing documented above as well as absenteeism and attrition (Griffith, 1993; Schwartzman, 2013; Gray, 2014). Rather than respond to workers’ needs, companies mobilized a labor shortage argument alongside overused pejoratives of Black workers and a lack of “work ethic.” This barrage against Black workers did not stop at the workplace but conveniently bolstered attacks against Black women’s use of social service programs (“welfare queen”) targeting and criminalizing Black motherhood (NYT in Weinberg, 2003; Kohler-Haussman, 2017). These associations have been used against Black women for centuries (Hunter, 1997; Hill Collins, 2005; Davis, 1981; Roberts, 1999), simultaneously justifying the “crisis of the poultry industry” and the need for immigrant workers, represented as a hard-working group against a racialized group’s laziness and lack of “work ethic.” The mobilization of welfare reform alongside heightened anti-Black criminalization and incarceration was successful in disorganizing the insurgent Southern Black working-class, to which women poultry plant workers were central (Kohler-Hausmann, 2017; Haney, 2010; McCorkel, 2013). This moment encapsulates what Schwartzman (2013) refers to as the “American Dilemma” as the US became a nation of jobs that 1) “nobody wants” 2) are shipped overseas and 3) and for which people are not qualified.

The Hispanic Project

Latinas/os were a small part of the poultry industry workforce until the late 1980s. By 1993, these workers were a quarter of the workforce (Griffith, 1995) and by 2005, they made up 75 percent (Striffler, 2005). The two largest poultry producers in the US, Tyson and Pilgrim’s, led the way in recruitment efforts and were charged with conspiracy to smuggle undocumented workers into the US and knowingly employing them illegally. The recruitment and exploitation of a largely undocumented workforce successfully displaced Black workers in the meat and poultry industries across the US South. This “docile” and cheapened workforce initially served the poultry industry well. In my field site, union membership in the plants dropped from 80 percent to 40 percent (Aued, 2007). Unions were forced to organize across racial, linguistic, and citizen-status differences, or continue losing strength. Thus, in 2007, large unions like AFL-CIO, SEIU, and United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) released public statements in support of comprehensive immigration reform. While these statements reflected unity, locals across the rural South had a difficult time carrying out this work for lack of resources and bilingual language skills among organizers and stewards.

As early as 2006, the UFCW in Northeast Georgia collaborated with a local group, the Economic Justice Coalition (EJC) for the plant’s unionization drive. “The idea was to have a big cookout in both the communities, the Black community over at Riverbank off West Main and the Hispanic community out in Evergreen,” Mrs. Linda Lloyd, director of the EJC, recalled as I sat with her in her cramped office only a few blocks from Riverbank. UFCW also hired bilingual organizers, like Nick Stanley, who I spoke with last fall. He recounted the campaign over the phone: “It was carried by a few leaders in the plant, men in mechanics and women in debone.” This collaboration paid off as UFCW Local 1996 won the election in September 2006. These groups teamed up again a year later in the months leading up to contract negotiations for the EJC’s annual Labor Day march. This march was followed by lunch and a town hall meeting on poultry workers’ needs involving the NAACP, faith-based leaders, union representatives, and immigrant rights organizers. Across the South, coalitions among Black and Latina/o workers were gaining strength (Bacon, 2012; Steusse, 2015). Undocumented Latina/o immigrants began making demands for union recognition and labor rights but also for immigration reform, DACA and DAPA, the right to drive, fair housing, healthcare, and transportation. They began to make demands for their social reproduction.

The largest mass mobilization of undocumented immigrants occurred on May 1, 2006 when hundreds of thousands of immigrants committed to a general strike. This strike hit the poultry industry especially hard. Tyson, Perdue, and Gold Kist were forced to close 22 plants across the South. Four months later, ICE conducted several workplace raids across the country. These raids, along with the indictments that followed, in some ways disciplined large and small poultry companies from knowingly hiring undocumented immigrants. But these raids also work as a “gendered, racial removal program” (Golash-Boza and Hondagneu-Sotel, 2013) often with lasting effects on detainees’ mixed-status families and broader communities remain living and working in the US. Through the framework of racial capitalism, deportations work in relationship to the active criminalization of the Black working-poor. Both limit available strategies for social reproduction by pushing each population into a state of precarity in both life and work, simultaneously disciplining and cheapening their labor.

“Ain’t No Job for a Mother!”

Counter to popular rhetoric, for many of the most disenfranchised populations across the American South “the poultry” provides a reliable and desirable form of “high” low-wage employment. As outlined above, working-class Black women have held a long-standing relationship with the poultry. Once, absenteeism and high turnover rates could be used by workers to gain some autonomy by moving in and out of a variety of low-wage jobs and piecemeal social services, from the poultry, to Wal-Mart, temporary disability, home health care, Burger King, and back again. Poultry plant workers with little control over the labor process would strategically take temporary pay cuts to provide brief reprieve for their bodies and momentary dignity for their souls (Griffith, 1993). Yet, today, with disappearing social support and increased policing and criminalization for a population with a historically tenuous relationship with the so-called welfare state, there is less dignity or choice involved in Black women’s decision making to move in and out of this work. Workers thus become, what Jan Breman (1994) terms, “wage hunter and gatherers” piecing together life’s work to strategically, and often ingeniously survive and sometimes thrive. Still, as one interviewee, a 32-year-old Black mother of 5 noted, the poultry “ain’t no job for a mother.”

During worker interviews, I asked several questions addressing the unpaid labor that feminist scholars call “social reproduction.” These concern cooking, cleaning, managing households, and care work of children, spouses and the other family members. When asked, “what do you do when you get home from work?” women responded in a variety of ways, but all interviewees talked about cooking for their family in between rest and reprieve. Even a woman who claimed to “not have time to cook,” went on to say, “well, not unless it’s for my kids. I cook for my kids.” As inside the plant, outside during worker interviews, food provided a lively topic of discussion. Although women workers are not able to cook every day, many develop survival strategies by cooking huge batches on the weekends that they may eat from throughout the week. Many women begin planning meals while at work, on the line, and during breaks, sharing recipes and ideas with each other. Poultry plant workers are unable to access SNAP benefits, “food stamps,” being just over the poverty level, so suggestions on which stores had the best sales each week became extremely valuable. Occasionally, women purchased frozen, partly-processed chicken in bulk from the plant, to stretch their incomes.

Every woman I interviewed has children, and their position as mothers was the greatest impetus for initially finding work at the poultry. Yet, no one could afford to place their children in formal childcare centers or after school programs. The childcare subsidies allocated by federal and state agencies like DFCS meant to aid (citizen-only) working-mothers consistently runs out each year (Project Safe interview, 2015; Johnson, 2015). None of the mothers I interviewed had received such subsidies. Instead, they rely on their mothers, sisters, or neighbors to take care of their children, paying an average of $40/week for these services. Interestingly, of the women who had voluntarily quit the poultry (and were not forced because of immigration status), most quit because they were pregnant or had given birth and did not have anyone else to stay home with their babies. Instead they pieced together a small, six-week maternity leave with other, more flexible forms of low-wage work. They often expressed concern and personal guilt about childcare and their inability to help their children with homework or attend events at school. There is never enough time.

Work at the poultry is physically exhausting. This leaves workers with little energy to do much else, even if they have the money. In numerous interviews, when I asked women the simple question of, “what do you do for fun?” many looked confused or took a while to answer, some joking they didn’t have time for fun, or they were too tired to even catch up on their shows. Jordan, a 23-year-old Black mother of two responded, exacerbated by the question, “what do you think Carrie? I have a 1-year-old and a 3-year-old. I work all the time. I barely have enough time to go to the store.” Through observations of the working-day as well as in-depth interviews with workers in their homes, it becomes clear that the labor process within the plant not only structures women’s working day, but also shapes their time and energy outside of work. Women’s access to the social service programs meant to ease this workload and financial stress are structurally unavailable for undocumented workers and rarely available for the many Black workers who qualify.

Centering these conditions provides a clearer understanding of how the poultry industry not only shapes, but also depends upon a continual crisis of social reproduction for its Black and immigrant Latina workforce. With few alternatives, poultry workers’ daily lives embody this crisis. The dual threats of removal and displacement are so deeply intertwined and represent criminalizing mechanisms of racial capitalism that shape both life and work. These act in tandem with disappearing social services to ensure a permanent, racialized and gendered reserve army of labor, in many ways forced to return again and again to the poultry as wage hunter gatherers. Yet, wagelessness must be understood as normalized for many members of the Black working-class, and is not a “new” condition, but rather a “lifetime condition” (c.f. Arrighi, 1990: 53). In the words of Cedric Robinson (1983), “the organizers of the capitalist world system appropriated Black labor power as constant capital” (443). Racial capitalism continues to rely on such conditions. Therefore, it is imperative for social movement organizing to prioritize this segment of workers’ experience of contemporary capitalism in order to re-envision and transform the institutions that exploitatively shape both work and daily life.



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Carrie Freshour is a PhD candidate in Development Sociology at Cornell. Her current research focuses on the gendered and racialized practices of social reproduction among Black and Latina poultry plant workers. This research reflects her broader interests in the political economy of food work, labor movements, and racialization in the American South.