If the winds of political change are starting to blow in Nebraska, the center of the storm is a third-floor office on 24th Street in South Omaha. There, huge maps of eight targeted precincts in Ward 4 line the walls of the Heartland Workers Center (HWC), covered in red dots for all the people organizers have spoken with over the past six months. Little stickers highlight the key issues in each neighborhood.
Every afternoon on weekdays, and all day on weekends, a row of reconditioned iPhones sits on a table next to clipboards holding signup lists and Spanish-language voter-education brochures. Rain or shine, young Latino organizers climb the stairs to pick up their packets and then fan out into the streets.
This is not an old-fashioned paper-based effort, though. Derek Ramirez, HWC’s data cruncher, has loaded voter information derived from the Voter Activation Network database onto the iPhones. This allows precinct walkers to know house by house whom they’re talking to, and to immediately input the information they receive—updating the office’s database in real time.
“We do 20 houses a night, and I go to every house,” says Lucero Aguilar, who was born in Campeche, Mexico. She’s been an organizer here for two years. “Sometimes people don’t open the door, but the last house I visit always opens to me. We have a good conversation and I get that person registered to vote. That’s where the magic happens. I know the next day I’m going to try again.”
Another organizer, Stephanie Zambrano, came to Omaha with her parents as a child from Guadalajara. “Community members get happy when they see youth knock on their doors, and want to talk with them,” she says. “They’re surprised we want to ask about housing or voting or issues in our community.”
Zambrano came into the workers center after helping win a battle against Nebraska’s former governor, Dave Heineman. Three years ago, Heineman ordered the state’s Motor Vehicles Department to deny drivers’ licenses to young people who gained temporary legal immigration status under President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Last year, the HWC, Young Nebraskans in Action, and other groups convinced state legislators to enact legislation overruling his order. “We have gained so much momentum,” she enthuses. “It’s getting out there so that we can make a difference.”
As Zambrano senses, Latinos in Nebraska—many of them drawn to the area by the jobs in meatpacking plants—have the potential to shift the balance of political power. That shift is already starting in Omaha, but is also spreading through small towns throughout the state where immigration has changed population demographics.
Isidro Rojas Garcia, an immigrant construction worker from Mexico, registers to vote for the first time after having been a U.S. citizen for 16 years. Helping him is Abby Kretz, an organizaer from the Heartland Workers Center.
Nebraska has three congressional districts, each of which has one electoral vote, given to the candidate winning the district plurality. Two other electoral votes are given to whichever party wins statewide. Obama won Omaha’s Second Congressional District in 2008, and lost it in 2012. South Omaha, where fear of Donald Trump is palpable, may play a big role denying District 2’s vote to Republicans this November. And beyond November, Nebraska’s demographic shifts, combined with grassroots organization, may make longer-term political changes possible elsewhere as well.
Omaha’s immigrants confront rising poverty and a history of exclusion, as well as an entrenched elite that has made the city one of the country’s most corporate-dominated municipalities. Nevertheless, changing demographics are a fact of life here. Change is sweeping not just through Omaha, but also through small rural communities where meatpacking plants process the beef and pork for dinner tables across the country. The Heartland Workers Center’s mission is to organize the potential created by this increasingly diverse population.
IN THE DECADES LEADING up to World War II, railroads and meatpacking plants made Omaha one of the most important industrial centers of the Midwest. Waves of European immigrants got jobs in the factories, and a Democratic political machine rose to power on their votes. In the 1930s, the city’s meatpacking workers joined one of the most radical unions of the decade’s labor upsurge, the United Packinghouse Workers. Black workers moving out of the South broke through color lines, and then used their power at work and in the union to fight discrimination in housing, bars, and employment.
Yet Omaha remains one of the country’s most segregated cities. One census tract has a white concentration of 98.1 percent. In another in North Omaha, the city’s black neighborhood, white residents make up only 5.9 percent. According to the 2010 Census, black residents are 13.7 percent of the population, while the Latino population, mostly in South Omaha, makes up 13.1 percent. “There’s a clear delineation. There’s North and South Omaha, then there’s Omaha,” commented one observer quoted by Patrick McNamara in his study “Collaborative Success and Community Culture.”
At the top of the city’s power structure sit representatives of large corporations. To counter the old Democratic machine, they organized the Knights of Aksarben (Nebraska spelled backwards) as early as 1895. Over the years, another corporate group, Heritage Services, has largely supplanted Aksarben, but the power of the Omaha elite has remained constant.
Omaha’s most famous corporate figure is Warren Buffett, who founded the Berkshire Hathaway investment fund and made millionaires of those Omaha investors who got in early. Other corporate leaders have included Pieter Kiewit, founder of the construction giant that bears his name, and John Gottschalk, publisher of the Omaha World Herald. The inner core of power includes executives from Union Pacific Railroad, Mutual of Omaha, TD Ameritrade, Valmont Industries, Northern Natural Gas, and the America First Companies.
“We are a large small town,” one observer told McNamara. “The power structure here knows each other and basically supports each other. We can call the mayor or governor and we'll actually get a call back.” Said another, “Generally, over the years, the major community decisions have been made by people in the corporate sector, the Captains of Industry. It’s the gang of six or ten or whatever.”
The corporate elite has transformed the downtown, now brimming with office towers, condominiums and a redeveloped Old Market tourist mecca. A suspension bridge for pedestrians spans the Missouri River from a sculpture-studded expanse on one side to a new stadium on the other.
Corporate domination has failed to transform the lives of Omaha’s working-class families for the better, however. Hometown meat conglomerate ConAgra Foods was given acres of prime Missouri riverfront property for its corporate headquarters in the 1980s, along with large tax breaks. In 2015, it abandoned the city for Chicago’s Merchandise Mart, eliminating 1,500 jobs.
Black poverty in Omaha averages 32 percent. Latino poverty isn’t far behind, climbing from 20.4 percent to 27.6 percent in the last decade. Poverty among white families is less—8.6 percent—but even this is 66 percent higher than it was in 2000. Forty-two percent of the city’s residents are renters, 11 percentage points higher than the national average.
BEFORE BEGINNING VOTER mobilization efforts, HWC organizers first assessed the impact of this economic structure in South Omaha neighborhoods. They began by analyzing census data, and then went out into the community to survey residents and look for leaders. They visited 2,306 homes, collected more than 600 surveys, and found almost 250 leaders.
At a community congress last November, they reported their results. Nearly half of the residents they spoke with reported that their households had to sacrifice on essentials, including utilities and food, in order to cover housing costs. A third said that at least one household member who could work was unemployed, and that they had no health insurance. Potholes and crime were concerns as well.
The main source of the poverty was “wages not adequate to cover housing expenses,” the report stated, adding that “unemployment and underemployment likely contribute to this poverty.” Latinos in South Omaha are concentrated in meatpacking, manufacturing, and construction. When the recession began in 2008, all three industries lost jobs. The Nebraska Department of Labor reports that meatpacking wages for those who were still in the plants in 2013 had fallen by 8 percent from wages three years earlier.
Meatpacking has been the magnet drawing Latinos to Omaha, and to Nebraska generally. Beginning in the 1970s, this industry was restructured with the development of boxed beef. Prior to that, animals were slaughtered in urban packinghouses by the then-giants Armour, Swift, Wilson, Cudahy, and others. Quarters of meat were shipped to markets, where skilled butchers cut them into pieces for consumers.
Companies like ConAgra changed that system drastically. After slaughter, animals are now cut apart on fast-moving disassembly lines, where an individual worker might cut out just one bone, hundreds of times a day. Boxes of meat sliced into consumer-sized chunks are then shipped to markets.
Corporations in the restructured industry built new plants in small rural towns, closer to the farms where animals are raised. To keep wages low, they brought in workers. “In the small towns where they located,” says Lourdes Gouveia, retired sociology professor at the University of Nebraska in Omaha, “they created a whole new labor force.” Companies sent recruiting teams to Los Angeles and other established immigrant communities, and even placed advertisements on radio stations along the Mexican border.
South Omaha’s Latino community expanded as a result of this flow of migrant labor into the state. Today, foreign-born Latino immigrants make up a third of the total population of 32,362 in HWC’s eight targeted precincts. About 10,261 people in the precincts are foreign-born Latinos, while more than 15,000 people speak Spanish at home, meaning that many Latino families now include children born here. The voter engagement project has registered about 1,500 people in Ward 4, and voter turnout here increased by 26 percent between 2010 and 2014.
“Twenty or thirty years ago, when people first began arriving, they thought of home as their hometown in Mexico or Central America,” says Sergio Sosa, HWC’s executive director. “As they’ve had children, and as those children have grown, many people now see they’re not going to return. Home for them now is here. That gives them a big motivation to become citizens and participate. Children born here are also getting old enough to vote now, so the voting population is growing.”
SERGIO SOSA’S OBSERVATIONS APPLY to himself as well. Sosa was a church activist in Huehuetenango in Guatemala, a believer in liberation theology, at a time when radical priests organized movements for social change during that country’s counterinsurgency war. He fell in love with a woman from Nebraska who worked in church programs in Guatemala, and together they eventually decided to come to the United States.
In South Omaha, Sosa was hired as an organizer for Omaha Together One Community by Father Damian Zuerlein, a priest at Guadalupe Church, just a stone’s throw from the HWC office today. Together the pair spent a decade organizing the neighborhood’s Mexican and Central American immigrants, and worked with the United Food and Commercial Workers to form unions in the city’s meatpacking plants. In 2006, Sosa helped organize perhaps the largest march in Omaha’s history, when more than 20,000 Latinos filled the streets to protest immigration raids and call for pro-immigrant reform.
Sergio Sosa, the executive director of the Heartland Workers Center, and Lucia Pedroza, HWC's senior organizer
“After the march, the leaders I’d been working with asked me to help them become a more permanent organization,” he remembers. “They promised they’d raise the money to pay my salary, and together we set up the Heartland Workers Center.” The center today has a health and safety training institute, educates workers about their labor rights, and advocates for better labor and immigration laws.
When Sosa and senior organizer Abbie Kretz began developing a strategy for turning demographic change into political power, the center’s funders were skeptical. The duo went to the organization’s leadership base. Workers committed themselves to raising the first $3,000 to develop a civic engagement program based in the immigrant community of South Omaha.
Over time, they’ve convinced funders and local political leaders that greater political power for Latinos will have an impact. “The population of eligible Latino voters is growing year by year,” says Heath Mello, senator for South Omaha in Nebraska’s unicameral legislature and now candidate for mayor in 2017. “In the last election cycle we really saw that they’re engaging people using the model, ‘I vote for my family.’”
That influence has been growing for several years. “Nebraska is the only red state that stopped a voter-ID bill twice, in the post-Arizona, show-your-papers period,” Mello says. “Once we defeated the dog-whistle politics, we set the stage for the DACA drivers’ license bill.” In Nebraska’s Republican-majority legislature, “we have people who want a more welcoming state, who believe in social justice. But this changing dynamic creates a political force so strong that other officeholders have to engage as well.”
The Sherwood Foundation, headed by Warren Buffett’s daughter Susan Buffett, has funded the Heartland Workers Center for seven years. “We’ve seen what happened when they came together on the DACA bill,” says Kristin Williams, the foundation’s director for community initiatives. “We didn’t have to take the baby steps—the young people were a force to be reckoned with. If this continues, Latinos will have a place at the table.”
Sherwood also funds the Office of Latino and Latin American Studies (OLLAS) at the Omaha campus of the University of Nebraska, founded by Gouveia. Today, its director is Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado, son of California farm workers. Under Benjamin-Alvarado’s leadership, OLLAS has become a primary source of the young Latino organizers who walk the South Omaha precincts, as well as a think tank for the research base of HWC’s strategy. “The two [HWC and OLLAS] together are a powerhouse,” Williams asserts.
FOUR YEARS AGO, HWC ORGANIZER Abbie Kretz went back to her hometown, Schuyler, a small meatpacking town an hour west of Omaha. There, she and Sosa began pulling together Latino community activists. From their meetings emerged the Comite Latino.
When the Cargill beef plant opened in Schuyler several decades ago, it processed fewer than 2,500 animals per day. Over the years, production has more than doubled to 5,500, and the town’s population has increased accordingly. Today, 70 percent of Schuyler’s roughly 7,000 residents are Latino. The same demographic change has transformed rural meatpacking towns throughout Nebraska—Lexington, Grand Island, Madison, and many others. The Comite Latino and the changes it has brought to Schuyler, therefore, portend transformations far beyond Schuyler’s borders.
The town’s changes began long before Kretz’s return home. Twenty-one years ago, Victor Lopez came from Mexico and got a job in the local plant. In 2006, he helped organize one of the immigrant marches that swept across the country. In Schuyler, it drew 3,000 people—a remarkable turnout for so small a town. Today, Lopez heads the Comite Latino, and owns a small auto repair shop.
“People here aren’t really immigrants anymore,” he says, “and their children certainly aren’t. Our purpose, therefore, is to try to open their eyes about their rights, and urge them to look out for their own needs. If you think you’re going back home, you have no interest in the things that affect you here. But we’re in Schuyler now, and not going back. So what we’re looking for is equality, to integrate our people into the community, and make people respect us. We want to feel like we belong.”
Part of that equation is voting. When the Comite began in 2013, the town had 900 Latinos eligible to vote, but only 14 actually voted. Within one election cycle, they got the number up to 136. Now, there are two Latino candidates running this November, one for city council and one, Mynor Hernandez, for the Colfax County School Board.
Hernandez came to Schuyler to go to high school in 1996, and now is the Comite’s fulltime staff. One of the group’s first efforts was to convince the school district to set up a dual-language program. “Kids that go to it are better off in the long term and more of them go to college,” he asserts. “In our country as a whole, if you speak two languages, you open a lot of doors.”
In the coming election, the Comite is also informing Latino voters about the local state Senate race. The incumbent, a Republican, nevertheless voted for the DACA drivers’ license bill. A more conservative Tea Party Republican opposes him (the Nebraska legislature is formally nonpartisan, which creates many Republican-versus-Republican contests), with the support of Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts, former chief operating officer of TD Ameritrade. Ricketts vetoed the DACA bill, intended to overturn previous Govenor Heineman’s ban on drivers’ licenses for young immigrants. The legislature then voted to override Ricketts’s veto. The Comite collected petition signatures to support drivers’ licenses for DACA recipients. “It’s important for our people to know who’s running and what they stand for,” Hernandez says.
Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy has scared Schuyler’s (and Nebraska’s) Latinos, particularly because of his threat to deport all undocumented immigrants. Many meatpacking workers still have no legal immigration status. Although the undocumented population fell nationally in the aftermath of the 2008 recession, in Nebraska it increased. Hernandez tells the story of his son’s white friend: “He went home and told his mom, ‘Don’t vote for Trump—he wants to deport all my friends!’”
“But people are still afraid here,” Lopez cautions. “They feel uncertain about what will happen to them. They don’t buy a house or a car, and sometimes don’t even go to school, because they have to give information and feel vulnerable. They drive because they have to get to work, but can’t get a license and are terrified they’ll be stopped. Our plan is to try to help get people legal status where we can, and support reform legislation.”
Kretz is now starting a new effort, this time in Nebraska City, another meatpacking town near Omaha. On one recent night, she helped a local resident register to vote. Sixteen years after becoming a citizen, he registered just to be able to vote against Trump.
Kretz and HWC organizers are careful not to campaign for or against candidates, which would jeopardize the organization’s tax status. But when people register and get involved, their motivation is often fear of the political climate in the current campaign. “Many young people, and even whole families, register because of the hate they’ve seen,” Sosa says. “People fear they’ll wake up the day after the election and their families will be separated by mass deportations.”
Nebraska City’s nascent committee is mostly Guatemalan, so convincing people to get active faces another barrier as well. “In Guatemala, the war is supposedly over, but there’s still a lot of violence,” one committee member says. “There are often threats by people involved in politics, that something bad will happen to you if you don’t vote the right way. Here, there is fear, too, although not at the same level. There’s a lot of disinformation. People don’t understand the process or even know they have to register in order to be able to vote.”
Carolina Padilla, executive director of Omaha’s Intercultural Senior Center, is another Guatemalan immigrant who finds the same reaction. “We come from countries where political participation doesn’t exist because of the corruption, so people wonder what the point of participation is here as well,” she explains. “The person with the money will always win. It’s hard for the older generation to change, but now we have a new generation. They’re saying, we want to participate and our vote counts.”
LUCIA PEDROZA, HWC’S other senior organizer, belongs to this new generation. She was born in Guatemala, and remembers when her mother, who’d gone to work in the United States, was deported back home. Later, her mother returned to the United States and sent for Lucia and her sister Gaby, who were then 12 and 10 years old. Her story of crossing the border as a child recalls those of the unaccompanied Central American children who’ve made headlines arriving in the United States in the last three years.
Pedroza’s uncle took her through Mexico and sent her off with a group crossing the border at Nuevo Laredo. “I had my Bible with me, and I thought, I have faith,” she remembers. “They took us to a part of the desert, and at night we all began to walk. I thought it would only be a couple of hours, but we walked all night. We were going to see my mom, so we packed our favorite clothes. You’re supposed to have dark clothes that aren’t visible, but Gaby wore her best bright white pants in the middle of the desert. The group had to huddle around to hide her, but there was a sense of unity, that they had to protect the kids. After walking, we had to cross the river, and took off our clothes to wade through the water. One of my shoes was swept away, and a lady gave me hers. Then we had to run, and at the end her feet were all cut up. But we were so glad we made it!”
Pedroza went on to high school and college, and during one summer her father got her a job in a meatpacking plant. “I’d never worked in a job like that, but I learned,” she laughs. “I worked on the kill side, packing intestines, starting at six in the morning and working till six at night.” Later she worked for two years in another plant. “I was pregnant and it was hard, but I had to keep on working. I had to make a living. It was a union plant, though, so we were treated a little better. After that I worked in other plants too.”
When Pedroza looks at the young organizers coming into the HWC office from university campuses, she knows that almost all of their families share the same work and migration experience. “It’s important for them to understand it and know what people are going through,” she says, “even if they haven’t lived it themselves.”
It took Pedroza some time before she was able to get her legal residence status, and now she plans to become a citizen. “But whether we’re undocumented, resident, or citizen, the main thing is that we’re all human. We all have the power to do something great if we stick together and work collectively.”
Since becoming a fulltime organizer two years ago, “our work has changed our whole state,” she declares. “Our purpose is to build a community that works for all, even though now it only works for some. In five years we could have better schools, better homes, better jobs, and better streets. It depends on who we elect, and on people staying engaged beyond election time. We don’t really understand how the system functions yet, how money is distributed. We have to have a better education on how things work. But we cannot disconnect ourselves. Everything is related, and we’re all affected by everything we do.”