The roots of the heavily Latino workforces in Southern poultry plants lie in the growing American appetite for chicken during the 1990s, and the stirrings of a labor movement by African American plant workers. As poultry production expanded, workers’ pay and opportunities remained stagnant. As a result, labor organizing among the plants’ predominantly African American workforce began to gain traction.
Facing the prospect of its first union contract negotiations and in search of more “flexible” (read: exploitable and expendable) workers, in 1994 a chicken plant in Morton, Miss., headed to Miami in search of immigrant labor.
Advertising in Cuban stores and local papers, it took the poultry processor just one week to fill a Greyhound bus of immigrants eager for work. This experiment marked the beginning of the plant’s formal Hispanic Project, which included not just recruitment and transportation from Florida but also the provision of housing — mostly in dilapidated and overcrowded trailers — as well as local transportation and leisure activities, all for fees deducted from workers’ paychecks that often reduced their meager earnings to below minimum wage.
In its roughly four years of operation, the Hispanic Project recruited nearly 5,000 workers to two Mississippi towns with a combined population of less than 10,000. Not everyone stayed, but this scheme caught on, and other plants began recruiting Latinx immigrant workers from Florida, Texas and even farther afield.
Getting creative, one poultry processor offered its workers $600 for each new employee they recruited who stayed at least three months. Entrepreneurial individuals took full advantage of this incentive to recruit family, friends and others in their social networks in the United States and in their home countries. Once these connections were made, the plants no longer had to leave the state to recruit foreign workers. In the words of the architect of the Hispanic Project, “They were right here.”
By the time I arrived to work in Mississippi’s poultry communities alongside the Mississippi Poultry Workers’ Center in 2002, over half of the country’s quarter-million poultry workers were immigrants, most of them in the South. A mapping of poultry production and Latino population growth shows that poultry has been a major driving force of a demographic transformation in the region. In Mississippi, it was the driving force, increasing the Latino population in some poultry towns by over 1000 percent in the 1990s.