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This story is part of a larger package for The Reader and El Perico’s December issue about the state’s tight labor market.

When Alba Martínez worked at Menards she made a good wage: $17 an hour, nearly twice Nebraska’s minimum. But it still wasn’t enough to support her four children and be able to build a house in her home country of Guatemala. Martínez (whose name has been changed to protect her identity) decided to leave for a job cleaning meatpacking machines for $21 an hour.

But like many workers, Martínez had to make trade-offs. Though she makes more money, her hours are long — after a daily 45-minute commute she works 10 hours through the night from 10 p.m. to 8 a.m. She says she gets hungry around 3 a.m. but is given no time to eat or sit down.

“Sometimes my boss thinks we are machines,” she said.

Martínez is not alone. Arduous workplace conditions for immigrants — who are far easier to intimidate into toeing the company line — are well-documented, and the pandemic shone a harsh light on them. But the tide may be shifting in their favor. Around the country, the labor market is tightening, nowhere more so than Nebraska, which leads the nation in lowest unemployment. In low-wage industries, where immigrants dominate the workforce, labor shortages are forcing employers to the bargaining table, and empowered workers are banding together to demand change. In some cases workers are putting their hopes in unions, which may be strengthening for the first time in decades.

Randy Garza is one of many Omaha workers striking outside the Kellogg’s plant in Omaha. The strike, which began Oct. 5 and is ongoing at the time of this writing, involves about 1,400 workers, including 500 in Omaha, in four states. Garza said he can’t pay his mortgage or utilities as a result of the strike and can barely afford to put gas in his and his fiancée’s cars. But he keeps going, he said, because unity is the only way he and his coworkers will see better pay, better working hours and more time off.

Randy Garza, a Kellogg’s employee in Omaha stands in front of the cereal company’s plant during the sixth week of a strike. Photo taken on Nov. 9, 2021 by Chris Bowling.

“Instead of going to the floor, this concrete right here is my new floor,” Garza said.

The Kellogg strikes are part of a wave that took place across the country in October, in what some call Striketober, with many continuing into November. Much of the discontent stems from the pandemic, where the lack of paid sick leave and other protections was made glaringly urgent. Ground zero was the meatpacking industry, where workers were getting sick and dying from COVID-19 at much higher rates than the rest of the population. A recent Congressional report showed COVID-19 cases and deaths in America’s largest meatpacking plants, many of which have locations in Nebraska, were even higher than previous tallies. Workers began demanding protections, and in May, 2020, dozens walked out of the JBS beef plant in South Omaha.

The trouble spurred legislative responses, but they failed to advance. Two separate attempts in 2020 and 2021 by state Sen. Tony Vargas to ensure workers had adequate safety measures stalled in the Legislature, while data from the Nebraska Department of Labor showed the state had little to no oversight over meatpacking workers’ rights through the brunt of the pandemic. Another state bill that would have provided paid sick leave also failed early in the pandemic.

With legislation stalled and workplace conditions stubbornly stagnant, strikes have continued and advocates have founded protest groups, such as Children of Smithfield, which was started by the children of meatpacking workers in Crete, Nebraska, to speak for their parents who worked during the pandemic.

Unions have also grown in strength. Last year the share of employees in unions trended upward for the first time since at least 1983, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. A September Gallup poll also shows the country’s support of unions is higher than it’s been in half a century, with 68% of Americans approving of them.

However, unions are still a far cry from their former might. The total number of union members have continued a downward trend that began in the mid-19th century. About 9% of Nebraska’s employees are members of a union, slightly less than the national average and down from 23% in 1964, according to National Public Radio.

Whether it’s through unions or the legislature, experts like labor law attorney Micky Devitt said more needs to be done to protect workers, particularly immigrants who are most vulnerable to exploitation.

A sign outside the Kellogg’s plant in Omaha as workers gathered around the picket line. Photo taken on Nov. 9, 2021 by Chris Bowling.

“I have seen different types of discrimination,” she said. “Discrimination by race and gender have been the most common. There is discrimination against immigrants, and that is a big problem.”

When Devitt worked at the Heartland Workers Center last year, she saw immigrant minorities, such as those with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, Temporary Protected Status and refugee status, who did not receive unemployment benefits because the law in Nebraska did not protect them, even though they pay taxes.

She also saw language barriers create problems in the workplace for immigrants during the pandemic.

“This isolates immigrant groups who are not fluent in English,” she said.

As the fight continues, Alba Martínez continues to work the night shift, hoping she doesn’t get sick. Absence due to illness without a medical certification can get her fired, she said. But getting a doctor’s note requires benefits like insurance or paying out of pocket.

“Going to the doctor is expensive,” she said, “not to mention that we must manage when our people get sick.”

contact the writer at news@thereader.com


Subscribe to The Reader Newsletter

Our awesome email newsletter briefing tells you everything you need to know about what’s going on in Omaha. Delivered to your inbox every day at 11:00am.

Become a Supporting Member

Subscribe to thereader.com and become a supporting member to keep locally owned news alive. We need to pay writers, so you can read even more. We won’t waste your time, our news will focus, as it always has, on the stories other media miss and a cultural community — from arts to foods to local independent business — that defines us. Please support your locally-owned news media by becoming a member today.

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