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For Determined Factory Hands, Hope Quickly Fades

Labor: Many workers find rigors of poultry industry unbearable. Annual turnover at plant tops 100%.


NOEL, Mo. — We awoke ready to work.

As grueling as our trip had been, and as gruesome as our lodging turned out to be, we were all anxious to make the most of our time at Hudson Foods, the giant chicken processor that had brought us from the Mexican border to the foothills of this Ozark town.

We'd been told to meet at 8 a.m. in front of the Ginger Blue, a decrepit resort that was doubling as a migrant camp. But when my seven traveling companions and I showed up, the lobby was deserted. The front office was locked. We had no idea where or when or how we were supposed to start our new jobs.

So we waited. We made instant coffee on a hot plate. We swatted flies in front of the lodge. We looked for traffic on the single road that cuts through the dense countryside. Trucks loaded with young chickens whizzed by on Highway 59. Trucks emblazoned with Hudson's logo--"Helping Feed America"--roared back the other way.

Hour after hour passed. A church group delivered grocery bags of tortillas, beans, hot dogs and mayonnaise. It began to dawn on us that, three days into our journey, we still hadn't met anyone from Hudson. We'd been put on a bus by Bo Chapman, the labor recruiter in South Texas who earned $175 a head. We'd been picked up in Missouri by someone from the Ginger Blue, which would be getting $45 a week from our paychecks. But so far, not a word from the company that had actually hired us--at $6.70 an hour.

"Do they think we've come for a picnic or something?" said Antonio Mendez Jr., the elder statesman of our crew. He was 50, bullheaded, a chain-smoking retired oil-driller from Mexico. We'd begun calling him El Capitan.

Finally, at 2:30 p.m., we heard the honk of the Ginger Blue's yellow school bus. It was time. The road to the Hudson plant followed the Elk River, twisting past shady campgrounds and rent-a-canoe outlets. Although chicken has long been king here, Noel fancies itself as something of a vacation spot--"one of the Ozark's best-kept secrets," as the Chamber of Commerce puts it.

Three miles later, we pulled up to a concrete fortress, accessible only through the tinted glass that encased the lobby. A slender smokestack rose from a jumble of tubes and tanks behind the building. A chain-link fence, topped with barbed wire, surrounded it all.

The bus was gone almost as soon as we stepped off. We walked to the security booth, but were halted by the guard. Orientation didn't start until 4:30 p.m. He picked up the phone and called into the plant.

"What do you want me to do with these guys?" he asked.


We were told to wait in the company cafeteria, where we spent the next two hours watching weary workers take their breaks. None of them spoke to us as they hunched over steaming plates of Hudson chicken, their lips tensed and jaws clenched, eyes narrow and nostrils flared.

The room appeared evenly divided between whites and Latinos, a striking development for a corner of America long renowned for its countrified ways. In the 1920s, a young Missourian named Paul Henning attended Boy Scout camp in Noel; many years later, he drew upon that experience to create a hit TV series, "The Beverly Hillbillies."

An employee roster on the factory wall showed just how dramatically Noel had changed. Not a single Latino surname was listed among the workers hired between 1959 and 1990. But in 1994, buoyed by the nation's surging appetite for chicken, Hudson expanded. The number of birds processed here jumped from 850,000 to 1.3 million a week. The number of jobs soared from 750 to 1,200--a work force roughly equal to the population of Noel itself.

Since then, virtually every new name on the Hudson roster had belonged to a Latino, now 45% of the plant's work force. Like my companeros, almost all had been recruited from the Rio Grande Valley, where chronic unemployment and a porous border ensured a steady flow of cheap and willing labor. With annual turnover at the facility topping 100%, Hudson sends for another 50 migrants, on average, each month.

Some of the older white workers glared our way, my companions so obviously the latest incarnation of that trend. In the bathroom, we saw walls marked with epithets: "Go back to Mexico," one said.

But I was surprised to find that the animosity was far from universal. Everywhere we looked, cross-cultural romance appeared to be in blossom, especially between the white women of Noel and the Latino men of South Texas. The last manager of the Ginger Blue, in fact, had run off with a Tejano, leaving her husband to operate the hotel by himself. Within the Hudson plant, a parade of purple hickeys underscored the connection.

"Looks like the chupacabras is running loose up here," leaving its mark on the workers, said Saturnino Orives. He was referring to the mythical "goatsucker," which has been blamed for a rash of unexplained attacks on Latin American livestock.

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