How a Lexington meatpacking plant changed Nebraska

Historians will mark the opening of the Lexington IBP plant on November 8, 1990, as a major event in Nebraska history.

Photo: Downtown Lexington, Nebraska, 2004, by Matthew Trump, via Wikipedia.

 

By David L. Bristow, Editor

January 20, 2022

 

The year 1990 may not seem all that long ago, but here’s a prediction: future historians will mark the opening of the Lexington IBP plant on November 8 of that year as a major event in Nebraska history. It was the first of a series of large new meatpacking plants located in small Nebraska cities and employing mostly immigrant workers. It led to rapid growth of Nebraska’s Latino population. More than 10 percent of Nebraskans identify as Latino as of the 2020 census.

Since the mid-1880s, meatpacking has arguably done more to shape Nebraska’s ethnicity than any other single industry. When South Omaha was founded in 1884 as a meatpacking center, it quickly became home to a largely immigrant population. Over the years the plants drew waves of Poles, Czechs, Greeks, and other immigrant groups, as well as being a major employer of African Americans. Then as now, the work was hard and dangerous, and the pay was too low to attract workers who had other opportunities.

Starting in the 1960s the industry became increasingly mechanized, deskilled, and decentralized. Several of the Omaha packing plants closed and the famous stockyards withered. New plants appeared in small cities near cattle feeding areas.

By the 1970s the remaining meatpacking jobs were largely unionized and relatively well-paid. By the 1980s, however, packers were speeding up production lines and cutting wages. In 1986-87 a labor dispute at the IPB plant in Dakota City, Nebraska, led to a prolonged lockout followed by a strike. A Congressional report concluded that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) was not doing enough to protect the safety of meatpacking workers. The report cited the Dakota City plant as a prime example of “the most dangerous job in America.” IBP disputed the report as “an extravagant waste of taxpayers’ money,” according the Omaha World-Herald (March 31, 1988); OSHA fined IPB $3.1 million for repetitive motion injuries at the Dakota City plant.

On March 4, 1990, the World-Herald reported that IPB was recruiting Latino workers from Texas for the Dakota City plant, mostly non-English speakers. Most of the new workers had “little if any money when they arrive” to work the $6-per-hour jobs. Within two years the Latino population in the Sioux City area had tripled to between 5,000 and 6,000.

By then the Lexington IBP plant was under construction.

Lexington had suffered in recent years. In 1985, at the height of the Farm Crisis, Sperry-New Holland announced it was closing its combine plant, eliminating 940 jobs and a payroll of more than $16 million. In a three-year span, Lexington also lost a cultivation equipment maker that employed 120, and a hardware store that was the city’s biggest downtown retailer. City Manager Bill Podraza said that at one point, twenty-six buildings stood vacant in the commercial part of town.

In 1988, IPB announced it was buying the old Sperry plant and would convert it into a meatpacking facility that would employ 1,200 to 1,300 workers and have an annual payroll of $24 million.

State leaders and the World-Herald editorial board praised the plan. In November, Gov. Kay Orr stood with IBP Chairman Robert Peterson under a “Celebrate Nebraska” banner at a ceremony at the old Sperry plant.

“We were little by little dying, by inches,” Orr said, praising IBP’s decision as a benefit of the tax incentives of Nebraska’s 1987 economic development plan. There was talk of IPB’s potential to become Nebraska’s largest private employer.

In 1989 IBP acknowledged that it would need to import workers to fill its jobs, but did not say where these workers would come from. By early 1990 local leaders were fretting about “predicted shortages of houses, apartments and classrooms and increases in crime,” according to a January 7 World-Herald report. The nature of the work led people to predict high turnover and that a “number of workers are expected to come to town with little or no money”—and many of workers would be of “different races and cultures.”

Local unease was growing. In October 1989, Lexington voters rejected a $7.9 million bond issue to build a new high school and expand existing buildings. In January 1990 more than 900 citizens signed a petition to block the sale of city land to a developer who wanted to build an apartment complex near the plant. In May, IBP bought a local motel to house construction workers, who were commuting from as far away as Kearney and North Platte.

In the end, after suffering a 6.2 percent population decline in the 1980s, Lexington grew by almost 52 percent in the 1990s, exceeding 10,000 residents for the first time in its history. The IBP plant brought more than 2,500 jobs and, as the Lincoln Journal Star reported in October 1999, “over the years, waves of mostly young, mostly Latino workers willing to endure tough conditions for $9-$10 an hour in mostly unskilled positions.” That month the Journal Star partnered with Nebraska Public Media on a series of town hall meetings to discuss the changes in Lexington.

One of the topics was crime. Some local residents complained of drive-by shootings and gang fights. Police Chief Charlie Clark acknowledged that local crime had increased at first, before going back down to previous levels. He reminded those in attendance that Lexington had seen a similar spike after the Sperry-New Holland plant opened in the mid-1970s with a primarily white workforce. It was about youth, not ethnicity, Clark said, “young, fast-driving, hard-drinking, bulletproof types of people.”

Even so, many of the white people present spoke of their Latino neighbors as “them” or “they.” Latino speakers spoke with pride about parents who “came here to make a better life,” and a local physician criticized IBP after seeing “an endless stream of hand and arm injuries caused by overwork.” Local officials spoke of the booming economy and the new businesses founded by local Latino entrepreneurs. People spoke about children, schools, language, and culture, hitting on themes that by then were being discussed in a growing number of Nebraska communities.

Today about 60 percent of Lexington residents identify as Latino or Hispanic. Meat processing facilities now exist in Crete, Dakota City, Gibbon, Grand Island, Hastings, Madison, Omaha, and Schuyler. Many of the workers are Latino, though the plants also employ significant numbers of workers from other immigrant groups. While the meat industry is not the only driver of immigration to Nebraska, and while many immigrants work in other industries, we can say with the hindsight of three decades that the Lexington plant opened a new chapter in Nebraska history.

 

 


Sources:

Nicole Simmons, “Is OSHA Doing Enough? House Committee, IBP Argue on Safety Report,” Omaha World-Herald (hereafter, OWH), March 31, 1988.

Robert Dorr, “Some IBP Workers to Receive Benefits for Work Stoppage,” OWH, May 13, 1988.

James Allen Flanery, “Meatpackers Say Delay IBP Fine for Injury Study,” OWH, May 13, 1988.

Steve Jordon, “Plant Expected to Employ 1,200 to 1,300, IBP’s Lexington Plan Praised,” OWH, Nov. 30, 1988.

Steve Jordon, “IBP Operation Has Potential to be State’s Top Employer,” OWH, Nov. 30, 1988.

John Taylor, “Lexington ‘Will Have to Import People’, State Seeks Workers to Handle Growth,” OWH, Nov. 19, 1989.

James Allen Flanery, “Lexington Getting IBP Workers, But Petition Fights Housing Plan,” OWH, Jan. 4, 1990.

James Allen Flanery, “1,400 Jobs Mean Mega-Change for Town, Lexington Braces for Giant Beef Plant,” OWH, Jan. 7, 1990.

Joe Brennan, “Hispanics, IBP Work to Coexist – Plant Near Sioux City Draws Newcomers,” OWH, March 4, 1990.

James Allen Flanery, “IBP Buys 18-Unit Lexington Motel to House Workers,” OWH, May 22, 1990.

Jim Rasmussen, “IBP Presence Begins to Win Over Lexington as Economy Recovers,” OWH, Nov. 11, 1990.

“New Faces, New Problems, New Solutions,” Lincoln Journal Star, Oct. 24, 1999.

 

See also:

Joseph C. Farnsworth, “White Flight in Rural America: The Case Study of Lexington, Nebraska” (Ed.D. dissertation, Arizona State University, 2011), https://repository.asu.edu/attachments/56566/content/Farnsworth_asu_0010E_10319.pdf

Dustin Kipp, “Meatpacking and Immigration: Industrial Innovation and Community Change in Dakota County, Nebraska, 1960-2000” (2011). Dissertations, Theses, & Student Research, Department of History. 41. http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/historydiss/41

 

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