Immigration Raids, Burger Wars And Other Business Stories You May Have Missed In 2019

Dec 31, 2019
Originally published on January 6, 2020 10:38 am

Before we close the books on 2019, we want to look back at some of the business stories that made headlines this year. While some were in the news for weeks — like the trade war or the strike at General Motors, which idled tens of thousands of workers — other stories came and went quickly, but not before leaving a mark on the nation's economy.

Mississippi immigration raids

On a hot day last August, immigration officials raided more than half a dozen chicken processing plants in Mississippi, in what was billed as "the largest single-state worksite enforcement action" in U.S. history. Approximately 680 people were arrested on suspicion of working in the country illegally.

"While we are a nation of immigrants, more than that, we are first and foremost a nation of laws," U.S. Attorney Mike Hurst declared.

The raids are emblematic of the Trump administration's get-tough policy toward illegal immigration. In addition to the crackdown along the U.S. border with Mexico, there has also been a significant increase since 2017 in worksite investigations.

As disruptive as the raids were for Mississippi's immigrant community, however, they had little impact on the targeted processing plants. They quickly re-opened, and the state hosted a job fair for replacement workers who could provide two forms of identification.

The rise of meat alternatives

Plant-based foods that mimic beef were everywhere in 2019, including your local fast food chain. Companies like Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat have been making a big splash with consumers who like the taste of meat but worry about the environmental costs or animal welfare. Food giant Kellogg late this year introduced a plant-based burger named "Incogmeato" sold in refrigerated grocery store meat cases.

So far, the companies have taken only a small bite of the $1.4 trillion global meat market. But investors have taken notice. And so has the traditional beef industry, which is pushing back hard against what it calls "fake meat."

WeWork's aborted IPO

Adam Neumann generated a lot of buzz and money for himself with his charismatic vision of shared office space that doubles as a shared community. What he didn't generate was any profit. And once investors got a closer look at the company's books this year, they got cold feet.

"It took a leap of faith greater than the Grand Canyon to see how that business could be profitable any time soon," said Lise Buyer of the advisory firm Class V Group.

Neumann was ousted as CEO and the stock sale was shelved. Even at a time of Wall Street exuberance, rational investors figured out that WeWork was an office space company that only thought it should be priced like a tech firm.

Big tech's big target

Actual tech companies had their own headaches this year. State Attorneys General are investigating Facebook and Google for possible anti-trust violations. Apple and Amazon are under scrutiny as well.

Republicans have complained for years about what they call left-leaning bias in Silicon Valley. Now Democrats are also taking aim at tech giants.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., challenged Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in October over his company's policy on political ads.

"Do you see a potential problem here with a complete lack of fact-checking?" Ocasio-Cortez asked.

"Well, congresswoman, I think lying is bad," Zuckerberg answered. But he insists it's not Facebook's job to police that.

As Americans have become more reliant on tech giants, they've also become more concerned about the companies' impact on competition, privacy, and the information we all get on our phones. Look for that scrutiny to intensify as we head into 2020, an election year.

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NOEL KING, HOST:

Two stories from 2019 that were illustrative about the United States economy - a trade war with China and a strike at General Motors where tens of thousands of workers walked a picket line. Other business stories came and went quickly, but some of them are worth remembering. NPR's chief economics correspondent Scott Horsley rounded a few up. Hey, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: So where do we start here?

HORSLEY: We start on a hot summer day in Mississippi. That's where immigration officials raided more than half a dozen chicken processing plants last summer in what was described as one of the nation's largest worksite enforcement actions. Almost 700 people who were employed by companies there were arrested on suspicion of working in the country illegally. Mike Hurst is the local U.S. attorney.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIKE HURST: While we are a nation of immigrants, more than that, we are, first and foremost, a nation of laws.

HORSLEY: And, Noel, those raids are emblematic of the Trump administration's get-tough policy towards illegal immigration. We've talked a lot about stepped-up enforcement along the border with Mexico, but since 2017, there's also been a significant increase in worksite investigations. And the Mississippi raids are one high-profile example.

KING: There was also a big business story this year, Scott, that involved beef or at least a substitute beef. Tell us about that.

HORSLEY: Yeah, beef substitutes were another big story. Plant-based foods that mimic beef were everywhere in 2019, including your local fast-food joint.

(SOUNDBITE OF BURGER KING AD)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: One hundred percent Whopper and 0% beef. We know; it's impossible to believe - the Impossible Whopper.

HORSLEY: Companies like Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat have been making a big splash with consumers who like the taste of meat but worry about the environmental costs or animal welfare. Beyond Meat had a sizzling debut in the stock market, although its shares have since fallen back to earth. Big players like Kellogg's introduced their own product. Kellogg's is called Incogmeato.

KING: (Laughter).

HORSLEY: And the traditional beef industry is taking this threat very seriously. They're pushing back hard against what they call fake meat.

KING: Sizzling debut - I like that. Let me ask you about another stock sale. It made news because it didn't actually happen. This is the coworking company WeWork.

HORSLEY: That's right. WeWork's charismatic founder, Adam Neumann, spun the story of shared office space as more than just office, but shared community. He generated a lot of buzz, made a lot of money for himself. What he didn't generate was profits. Lise Buyer of the advisory firm Class V Group says when investors took a closer look at Neumann's company this fall, they got cold feet.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

LISE BUYER: It took magic. It took a leap of faith greater than the Grand Canyon to see how that business could be profitable anytime soon.

HORSLEY: Neumann was ousted as CEO. The stock sale was canceled. And even in this time of stock market exuberance, Noel, rational investors figured out WeWork was basically an office company that only thought it should be priced like a tech company.

KING: Tech companies, though, also had their own problems this year, right?

HORSLEY: Oh, they did. Silicon Valley has a big target on its back, and it's taking arrows from all sides. You know, Republicans have complained for years about left-leaning bias in the tech sector. Now you have Democrats, like Congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, grilling Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg over his company's policy on political ads.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: Do you see a potential problem here with a complete lack of fact-checking on political advertisements?

MARK ZUCKERBERG: Well, Congresswoman, I think lying is bad. And I think if you were to run an ad that had a lie, that would be bad.

HORSLEY: But Zuckerberg insists it's not his company's job to police that. You've also got state attorneys general investigating both Facebook and Google for possible antitrust violations. Apple and Amazon are under scrutiny, as well. You know, there's just growing concern over how these big tech companies are affecting competition, privacy, the information we all get on our phones. And look for that scrutiny to continue as we move into an election year in 2020.

KING: Next - 2020, tomorrow.

HORSLEY: (Laughter).

KING: NPR's Scott Horsley, thanks so much.

HORSLEY: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.