How Bernie’s Iowa Campaign Organized Immigrant Workers at the Factory Gates

The first caucus-goers in Iowa yesterday were immigrant workers at a meat processing plant — and they all voted for Bernie Sanders. Here’s how they were organized, and why it shows once again that Bernie’s campaign is like nothing we’ve seen before.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders makes it to the stage to address supporters with his wife Jane Sanders during his caucus night watch party on February 3, 2020 in Des Moines, Iowa. Alex Wong / Getty

At the time of this writing, we are still awaiting results — and a lot of answers — from the shambolic Iowa caucus. But two things we already know: Bernie Sanders appears to have come out on top, and we’ve never seen a presidential campaign like his before in American politics.

On Monday at noon, Iowa’s first caucus-goers filtered into a union hall in Ottumwa. Fourteen of them were there to caucus for Bernie Sanders, almost all immigrants, primarily from Ethiopia but also from Honduras and Macedonia. They were workers at JBS Pork, the largest employer in Wapello County.

Two-and-a-half thousand workers are employed at Ottumwa’s JBS plant. They come from nearly fifty countries. Their job is hard and can be dangerous. At a separate JBS facility in Kentucky, an ammonia leak sent fifty-one workers to the hospital. When hog waste from a JBS plant in Illinois spilled into a nearby waterway, it killed sixty-five thousand fish. In Ottumwa, JBS has been fined for not letting workers use the bathroom when they need to. Court documents from a little over a year ago say it was common knowledge that “If you say you are hurt and need to see an outside doctor, they will just fire you.”

Bernie Sanders’s platform has a lot to offer workers like those at JBS. It calls for stronger unions, higher wages, better benefits, and an end to at-will employment, for starters. Labor scholar Barry Eidlin called Sanders’s Workplace Democracy Plan the “most serious, comprehensive, and equitable plan for promoting workers’ rights ever proposed by a major US presidential candidate.”

But given how many working-class people are alienated from politics, it’s not as easy as “Build it and they will come.” Getting buy-in from people who feel generally disempowered requires hard work. In keeping with this fact, the show of support for Bernie Sanders from JBS workers wasn’t spontaneous: it was organized. And the story of how it happened demonstrates what’s unique about the Sanders campaign, particularly the value it places on bringing working-class people into the political process and the lengths it will go to organize them.

In a strategy more reminiscent of labor organizing than anything typically seen in presidential politics, the Sanders campaign assigned several people — including field organizers Tristan Bock Hughes, Charisa Wotherspoon, Devon Severson, and the campaign’s National Labor Organizer Jonah Furman — to post up at the gates of the JBS meat processing plant. For several nights, they canvassed outside the factory from 10 PM to 3 AM, engaging workers in conversation as their shifts ended. The campaign organizers spoke to workers in multiple languages about their lives, their work, and Sanders’s platform and campaign.

The campaign’s strategy was to find people enthusiastic about Sanders and convince them to not only caucus for him, but to get their coworkers to caucus for him as well. An example of one such person was Wendwosen Biftu, an Ethiopian worker who was excited about Sanders from the beginning. After being canvassed outside the plant, Biftu came to the field office with his ten-year-old daughter, who helped translate for him, and expressed an interest in organizing others to caucus for Sanders.

The Sanders campaign then looped in Adom Getachew, a Sanders supporter and organizer who lives in Chicago, to speak to Biftu on the phone in Amharic. Getachew says that they spoke about the isolation of being an Ethiopian immigrant in a place with few other Ethiopians, and then talked “about getting other workers on his shift to commit to caucusing for Bernie. He got six commitments in just two days from fellow Ethiopian workers. We won because Wendwosen didn’t just turn out. He brought people with him.”

Jacobin attempted to reach Biftu on Monday evening as the Iowa caucuses were getting underway, but he was at work, along with the rest of his coworkers. The United Food and Commercial Workers, the union representing workers at JBS, had arranged a separate caucus known as a “satellite caucus” so that the workers could participate in the political process even though their work shifts take place during normal evening caucus times.

The Sanders campaign understood that the concept of a separate satellite caucus, introduced just this year, might be confusing. So to make sure that the workers they’d identified actually made it to the caucus on Monday before their shift began, the campaign engaged in a second round of organizing. They brought in volunteers Abby Agriesti and JP Kaderbek, union members and labor activists from Chicago, to knock doors and get people to commit to showing up.

Agriesti says that they wouldn’t have been able to secure those commitments without the initiative of workers themselves. On one occasion, she says, “We went into an apartment complex where several of the Ethiopian workers lived. We came upon some women cooking together in the basement. One of them walked me into her apartment and woke her husband up. Her husband, Mebrahtom Geberetatios, got dressed and took me around to introduce me to everybody else. Then he asked to see my list so he could follow up with everybody.”

The fruits of the campaign’s efforts were visible on Monday, when Sanders won the first caucus in Iowa by a fourteen to one vote — the fifteenth caucus-goer being an Elizabeth Warren field organizer. As the procession got underway one of the Sanders field organizers, Charisa Wotherspoon, was spotted translating instructions into Spanish for Honduran JBS workers who’d turned up to caucus for Sanders.

Sanders has portrayed his campaign as a vehicle for a mass movement of working-class people, united across lines of cultural, racial, and national difference. He has said that if elected president he will act as Organizer-In-Chief, helping facilitate a “political revolution” spearheaded by ordinary people themselves. His most ardent supporters believe strongly in this vision, but his critics have downplayed both the diversity of his support base and the unique political orientation of his campaign. They’ve also gone on the attack: in Iowa, Sanders has faced an onslaught of negative ads from both Democrats and Republicans, unrivaled by the rest of his competitors.

If Sanders is able to overcome the bipartisan hostility to win Iowa, win the nomination, and win the presidency, it will be because he was successful in reaching people who don’t typically see their hardships and aspirations reflected in presidential campaigns. It will be because his campaign didn’t just claim to represent the overlooked segments of society, but actually got its hands dirty organizing working-class people, and impressing upon them that the future is theirs for the taking.

On Monday evening, Sanders campaign press secretary Briahna Joy Gray confirmed on CBS that this was indeed the official strategy. “A group that normally isn’t reached out to, pork packers, predominately Ethiopian immigrants, caucused and voted overwhelmingly for Bernie Sanders,” Gray said of the Ottumwa workers, adding that she believes the Sanders campaign is “most able to build the kind of grassroots, broad-based, working-class support that’s required to defeat Donald Trump in a general election.”

Sanders himself struck a similar note in Iowa on Monday, saying, “I think we need a campaign that can reach out to working people, many of whom have become disillusioned with the political establishment and have given up on voting. I think we can bring many of them back into the process.”

In Ottumwa, the Sanders campaign put these values into motion and went directly to workers themselves. Immigrants with language barriers who work night shifts are not high-priority canvass targets for typical political campaigns, but the Sanders campaign met them at the factory gates and in their homes, talked to them about their struggles, and converted them into primary voters.

That approach sets the Sanders campaign apart not just from his competitors, but from every presidential candidate in modern American history. And it can put him and his “political revolution” on a path to victory.