* MAY 23, 2009
By MIRIAM JORDAN
SHELBYVILLE, Tenn. -- Hard times recently drew scores of locals and immigrants to a cold sidewalk in this town, where they spent an anxious night waiting to compete for jobs in a slaughterhouse.
Burmese refugee Cho Aye traveled 60 miles from Nashville on a Thursday morning in late March to take a place at the head of the line outside Shelbyville's state employment office. The next day, the office was to take applications for $9.35-an-hour jobs processing chicken at the local Tyson Foods plant. Directly behind Ms. Aye, sitting on blankets atop the concrete, were 16 more Burmese refugees who had come from as far away as Idaho and Florida.
"I don't mind doing any kind of work," Ms. Aye, a petite 22-year-old, said that evening as she settled into a reclining beach chair she bought at Goodwill.
Farther back in the line, marked by orange tape and monitored by police, locals like David Curtis seethed. "This is the worst job I have ever applied for," said the 31-year-old welder, who had already failed to find work at a convenience store, a pen factory and a Pizza Hut. Eyeing those ahead of him, he added: "I'm very annoyed foreigners are taking jobs that Americans need."
Slaughterhouse jobs can be difficult and dangerous. Now, with U.S. unemployment at a 25-year high, they are also fiercely coveted. American workers -- who for years have largely avoided fruit-picking, office-cleaning and meat-processing shifts -- are increasingly vying for these jobs with immigrants, creating flashpoints in places like Shelbyville.
Shoving and Cursing
The rising friction has been on display at the employment center here. When Tyson put out an earlier call for applications, in February, shoving and cursing broke out between locals and immigrants jockeying for position at the head of the line. With too few jobs to go around, outraged locals demanded that the work go to residents, not immigrant workers from outside Shelbyville.
"The despair is new," says employment-center worker James Cupp. "People need jobs."
Meat-processing work tends to pay more than fast-food or retail jobs, and the jobs on offer in Shelbyville come with benefits. But such work is strenuous. In modern-day poultry plants, hundreds of workers stand elbow-to-elbow at conveyor belts, donning earplugs and wielding knives or scissors to debone, slice and snip raw chickens. The tasks, often done at a frenetic pace, can strain wrists, arms and backs.
With annual turnover running as high as 100%, slaughterhouses have long had more openings than they could fill locally. While the industry doesn't track workers by their place of birth, the number of immigrant workers appeared to rise in the recent boom years. As a spate of federal raids earlier this decade underscored, many plants had hired, sometimes unknowingly, illegal immigrants en masse.
Now such plants are reporting a surge in applications from U.S.-born workers, says the American Meat Institute, which represents beef, pork, veal, lamb and turkey processors across the U.S. Outside Phoenix, a metropolis that helped define the recent building boom, college-educated Americans are applying for jobs at the JBS SA beef-processing plant, says human resources vice president Bob Daubenspeck.
Tyson, too, reports that it is getting more applications from local residents at its facilities across the U.S. At its Shelbyville plant, human resources vice president Ken Kimbro says job inquiries are flooding in from locals -- "people who traditionally didn't seek us out."
Tyson says its working areas are clean and brightly lit, and much of the cutting and wrapping is done by machine. A company spokesman says hourly pay ranges from about $9.00 to $12.50, with medical, retirement and insurance benefits kicking in after three months of service.
The battle in Shelbyville reflects not only American workers' reversing fortunes, but also the shrinking opportunities for many immigrants. President Barack Obama and leaders in both parties have said they hope to vote on comprehensive immigration reform. Lawmakers who take a strict line on illegal immigration, such as Texas Rep. Lamar Smith and Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, both Republicans, have said legalizing undocumented workers would hurt American workers during an economic downturn.
Cuts in 'Sharpieville'
A town of 18,000 in Tennessee horse country, Shelbyville is home to pencil producers, graduation-announcement manufacturer Jostens Inc., and a factory that makes Sharpie markers -- for which the town was once dubbed "Sharpieville."
Musgrave Pencil Co. and other pencil-makers have recently pared jobs. Auto-parts supplier Summit Polymers mothballed its plant here late last year, leaving 260 people jobless. And Sanford Corp., a unit of Newell Rubbermaid Inc., will shut down its Sharpie production here later this year, resulting in a net loss of about 175 manufacturing jobs. More than one in 10 people in the county are now out of work, double the level from a year ago.
One of the few places still hiring is Shelbyville's largest employer -- the sprawling Tyson factory between West Jackson and Pencil streets, which employs 1,400 people and processes 1.3 million chickens a week.
Tyson has long had near-constant openings here, with many jobs going to immigrants. While the company doesn't track the proportion of its labor force that is foreign, a spokesman says the Shelbyville plant employs people from the Middle East, Asia and Africa, including about 200 from Somalia.
At the start of a shift on a recent afternoon, African women wearing purple, red and brown hijabs, Muslim headscarves, emerged from cars in front of the plant. African immigrant men, as well as Asians and Latin Americans, streamed through the gate carrying their belongings in transparent shoulder bags.
As recession crimps worker mobility, new jobs here have become scarce, fueling the shoving match at Shelbyville's employment center on Feb. 9.
Well before the state-run agency opened that morning, officials from churches and refugee resettlement agencies had transported several vanloads of Asian and African applicants from Nashville. An Egyptian minister ferried a group of congregants from a Coptic Christian church. More than 200 people converged outside the office overnight.
Tyson had asked the agency to take 100 applications, state officials say. When the doors opened, job seekers jostled to get inside. Resettlement agency officials say disgruntled Americans tried to cut in front of the foreigners. Locals blame the foreigners for starting to shove. Police were called to restore order. No one was arrested.
Fingerpointing began. Some locals blamed Tyson, commenting on the Web site of the Shelbyville Times-Gazette that the company receives a subsidy for hiring foreign workers. (The company says this isn't true.) The Times-Gazette itself faulted Washington. In an editorial, the paper argued that the government gives foreign-born applicants an unfair edge because it gives taxpayer dollars to nonprofit organizations that help settle refugees -- including groups that bused refugees to town to apply for jobs.
Local politicians joined the fray. "I don't mean to be discriminating [against] black, white, Hispanic," says Eugene Ray, the mayor of Bedford County, which includes Shelbyville. "I want the local people to have the opportunity first."
The county mayor called a meeting with Tyson management at his office. All six city council members visited the plant to voice their displeasure.
Tyson countered that hiring Shelbyville residents first "would be discriminatory and in violation of equal employment law," according to a letter to the Times-Gazette by Tyson complex manager Wally Taylor. "About half the people we have hired over the past six months applied as a resident of Bedford County," Mr. Taylor added.
Living With In-Laws
The employment office was charged with taking more applications for Tyson on Friday, March 27. Groups of immigrants began arriving in vans as early as 8 a.m. the day before -- first Ms. Aye and the 16 other Burmese, followed by Egyptians and Africans.
Driving by in his pickup on Thursday afternoon, Brian South was surprised to see a line already forming. The unemployed Tennessean, who had planned to head to the employment center at 5 a.m. the next morning, drove home and packed up some ribs his wife had cooked. At 6:15 p.m., he took position No. 31 behind the "Line Forms Here" sign.
Mr. South made $26 an hour as a bricklayer before losing his job in October, he said. Because he was self-employed, he couldn't collect unemployment insurance and soon lost his home. Now living with his inlaws, Mr. South has been visiting the employment center often.
"There's nothing -- nothing at all," Mr. South said. "For me to apply for a job like this is killing my pride."
Police officers checked in seven times over the course of the night, according to department records. The mood was civil.
"Do y'all like country music?" an American in an orange baseball cap asked the huddled Burmese, who chuckled. Another offered the immigrants beef jerky snacks, which several Burmese accepted.
"They've been doing jobs we wouldn't do," Scott Hunter said, surveying the immigrants in the line. "Now the economy is so bad, we're all willing to do them."
As midnight approached, Ronald Eady squirmed in a folding chair. "Man, I'm staying in line all night for this job," said Mr. Eady, 45, an out-of-work trucker who said he's been checking almost daily with the employment office about the next Tyson call. "I gotta eat, and I got a three-year-old son."
Shortly before 8 a.m., the line snaked around the side of the employment-center building and into the parking lot. About half of the hopefuls were Americans, mostly from the area. Four policemen stood guard over the single-file line. It started to rain.
Mr. Cupp, the employment official, stepped outside and told military veterans to enter first. One man stepped forward. Applicants entered in groups of 10, until about 100 shuffled through the center.
Around a table in a conference room, Ms. Aye filled out her application and helped several other Burmese with theirs. Ler Gaw Shee, 36, who had come from Boise, Idaho, meticulously penned his brief U.S. employment history: a janitor at a home for the elderly.
In a separate room, Mr. South, the bricklayer, and Mr. Eady, the truck driver, completed their forms. Nearby were eight Egyptians who had recently moved to the Nashville area after winning a congressionally mandated lottery that awards resident visas to citizens of countries with low rates of immigration to the U.S.
One of the Egyptians, Shereen Bakhit, said he was back after applying for a Tyson job in February. Trained as an accountant, Mr. Bakhit said he was going on six months without work.
"I thought I would find good everything" in the U.S., said the 38-year-old father of two. "Not anything good: No money. No job."
By 9:30 a.m., a police officer informed the 60 people waiting in the driving rain that applications were no longer being accepted.
"I was born and raised in Shelbyville," said one of them, Derrick Jones, a 36-year-old father of four who says he lost his job stocking vending machines last year. "I should be at the head of the line."
Evening on 'Wing Line'
Over the next month, calls to applicants trickled in from Tyson. The employment center says 51 of the applicants it referred were hired.
Those included all but three of the 17 Burmese applicants at the front of line. Ms. Aye said she was working the second shift -- roughly 4 p.m. to midnight -- on the "wing line." She examines machine-cut wings as they pass by, she explains, snipping some to shape and removing pieces that aren't cut right.
Fellow Burmese Mr. Shee, the former janitor whose family still lives in Boise, was giddy. "I go to work every day. I am very happy," he said. "My wife and kids [are] coming in June."
The Tennesseans toward the front of the line landed jobs, too. Mr. South, the former bricklayer, initially described his new job as "a blessing." But a few days later, he said, he flunked a Tyson drug test. He blamed medication he takes after three shoulder surgeries. He's doing odd jobs now, building brick steps and pressure-washing houses.
Mr. Bakhit, the Egyptian accountant who tried twice for a Tyson job, wasn't hired. On a recent day his wife, Erien Fanous, answered the phone, her hopes deflated after she realized the call wasn't from Tyson. "Seven months he no working," she said. "It's very difficult."
Write to Miriam Jordan at [email protected]