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Meatpacking plant in Nebraska
Politics and Economy:
Transcript: Heartland Justice
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Milo Mumgaard Transcript

KEITH BROWN: America's heartland — it's been a destination for generations of Eastern European and Scandinavian immigrants in search of opportunity. Nowadays there's a new wave — tens of thousands of immigrants from Mexico and Central America bypassing Texas, Arizona and California, to make the wide-open spaces of the midwest their new home.

In Nebraska, they've found an advocate in Milo Mumgaard. He's a native Nebraskan, a devoted family man, and a New York University trained attorney with a passion for justice.

MILO MUMGAARD: Our system of government and law and justice have generally not been fair in so many critical ways to working people — to minorities — to those who do not have the means or the skills to really use the system.

KEITH BROWN: Mumgaard is the founder and director of Nebraska Appleseed, a non profit law center committed to defending the rights of Nebraska's poor. Lately, his work has been focused on the state's newcomers, those whose dreams have been met with unforeseen hardship.

MILO MUMGAARD: We are in a position where they are contributing to our community and our society but have to live in the shadows because of their undocumented status.

KEITH BROWN: Are they are burden on the system though?

MILO MUMGAARD: The reality is that undocumented workers are not a burden on the system. This is a population that works, that contributes to the overall economic vitality of, of the area and so on.

KEITH BROWN: Over the last 10 years, the Latino population in Nebraska has exploded to nearly one hundred thousand. Rural towns and small cities, once all white, are now thirty, forty and in some cases more than fifty percent latino. Schuyler, for example was only 4 percent latino in 1990. Now it's up to 45 percent. And that does not include undocumented residents.

One of the lures for them is Nebraska's huge meatpacking industry.

MILO MUMGAARD: It's vital to the economy of my home state to have a health industry. Nebraska is the number one beef packing state in the country. If you're eating a steak in New York, chances are it came from here.

KEITH BROWN: And chances are it passed through the hands of an immigrant from Mexico or Central America. Latinos make up 70 to 80 percent of the workers in Nebraska meatpacking. The work is dirty and hard. And, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, it's the most dangerous occupation in America.

MILO MUMGAARD: It's an incredibly fast work place. And it's all driven by a chain line that the steers killed on one end and it's boxed up at the other end. People are in a very compact environment. They have lots of knives, and just imagine the blood and the guts and the slippery nature of everything. You add all that together and you've got a lot of injuries.

KEITH BROWN: For every 100 workers there are 25 reported job related injuries and illnesses, many of which leave workers permanently disabled. Mumgaard calls them the walking wounded. And says even those who escape injury have a hard time getting by.

MILO MUMGAARD: We've been criticized, actually, Appleseed, for referring to meatpacking jobs as sub-poverty wages. And the reason we refer to it that way is-it is certainly not a wage that could support your family.

KEITH BROWN: In fact, meatpacking is one of the lowest paid industrial jobs in America. But at seven to nine dollars an hour, the wages are certainly attractive to Latino immigrants — who often earned 7 to 9 dollars a day in their native countries. Yet no matter the wages, the harsh conditions inside the slaughterhouses make the job short-lived for many. And the injured are often left out on their own.

KEITH BROWN: Nebraska Appleseed joined forces with other organizations and rallied the support of lawmakers to address the needs of these workers. It resulted in a workers bill of rights that established minimum workplace guidelines that include: the right for workers to organize, to a have a safe workplace and to be able to seek state help.

MILO MUMGAARD: We are not asking for revolutionary change here. All we're asking for is decency and fairness and humane treatment of workers.

If we can do things that actually show that things can happen - then they can have over time the effect of mobilizing, engaging, inspiring more and more people to get engaged and more and more will happen.

KEITH BROWN: Mumgaard formed Nebraska Appleseed six years ago in his basement with help from the Washington D.C.-based National Appleseed Foundation. The organization is now supported by local and national foundations, and has a staff of 14 lawyers, associates and volunteers to help carry out its mission.

These days that involves heading off new strains brought on by the state's changing demographics. Some longtime Nebraskans question if their new neighbors are only here to feed off the land, with no interest in assimilating.

MILO MUMGAARD: There is undertow of, are people really wanting to be here? Are they really just here working taking advantage of the good life but not willing or interested in being a permanent part of Nebraska.

KEITH BROWN: Is that true? Is it warranted?

MILO MUMGAARD: And the answer to that is - and that's not true. It's probably a reflection of latent biases and discriminatory attitudes, sort of couched in terms of well - you know Mexicans don't really want to be here! And that's just not the reality.

KEITH BROWN: The reality is: new immigrants have revitalized some of Nebraska's once dying towns and cities. Single men who first came to Nebraska are now bringing their families. They are buying homes and starting small businesses — all indicators, Mumgaard says, that they are here to stay.

MILO MUMGAARD: People want an integrated Nebraska. Everybody wants that.

KEITH BROWN: Now a significant portion of Mumgaard's time is taken up not just with changing laws, but with changing minds. This Sunday, a talk at the First Lutheran Church in Lincoln veered to issues of integration.

MAN: You know when our forefathers came here from Scandinavia or Germany or whatever, when they came here, yeah, they formed their little communities but they were always taught in English. Everything was in English then. And they didn't object saying well we want our stuff in Swedish.

PAUL: That isn't really true. The - even the church that I went to was - they were preaching in Swedish in the church. There were after school Swedish things.

NEW MAN: I know that in my folks' community, they spoke Swedish all the way up through school and they spoke Swedish. But yet when they went to school, they had to learn things in English.

KEITH BROWN: In America's changing heartland, where Swedish has given way to Spanish, Mumgaard has become a consistent voice for Nebraska's poor and disenfranchised.

MILO MUMGAARD: I'm not a working poor person; I'm not a new immigrant; I'm not a welfare recipient; and I'm not and won't ever be in their shoes, but I care! This is a function of who I am. I don't have any psychoanalytic insight into why I give a damn as much as I do, but rather I have this conscious recognition that I give a damn!

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