Posts Tagged ‘Upton Sinclair’

Like nursing homes, the U.S. meatpacking industry has become one of the hotspots of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

By 5 May, over 10,000 meatpacking plant workers in 29 states and working at 170 plants had tested positive for the coronavirus. At least 45 of those meat industry workers had died. The outbreaks have prompted at least 40 meat slaughtering and processing plant closures—lasting anywhere from one day to several weeks—since the start of the pandemic.

They should have been closed down and stayed closed, to protect the health and safety of meatpacking workers. But then Donald Trump, on 28 April (the day after John Tyson, the chair of the board of Tyson Foods, published a full-page ad in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette), invoked the 1950 Defense Production Act and designated the meatpacking plants as part of critical infrastructure in the United States. He thus ordered meat processing plants to stay open to protect the nation’s food supply amid the coronavirus pandemic. On top of the fact that production lines necessitate that workers stand very close together, most are low-income, hourly workers, many of them immigrants.

More than a century later, the U.S. meatpacking industry is back to The Jungle.

Upton Sinclair’s famous novel brought the difficult working and living conditions of meatpackers to light. I taught it on a regular basis in my Commodities: The Making of Market Society course, in the section on labor as a commodity. I discovered that Sinclair’s exposĂ©, which was serialized in the socialist magazine Appeal to Reason before it was published as a single volume, had disappeared from high-school reading lists. But when students read it, it opened their eyes to the exploitation of labor in the meatpacking industry, especially when they read passages like these:

It was all robbery, for a poor man. The rich people not only had all the money, they had all the chance to get more; they had all the know-ledge and the power, and so the poor man was down, and he had to stay down . . .

All day long this man would toil thus, his whole being centered upon the purpose of making twenty-three instead of twenty-two and a half cents an hour; and then his product would be reckoned up by the census taker, and jubilant captains of industry would boast of it in their banquet halls, telling how our workers are nearly twice as efficient as those of any other country. If we are the greatest nation the sun ever shone upon, it would seem to be mainly because we have been able to goad our wage-earners to this pitch of frenzy.

Unfortunately, the reception of Sinclair’s graphic descriptions of the meatpacking industry in Chicago focused more on the quality of the food than on the working conditions, causing him later to lament that “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”

Fortunately, conditions in the meatpacking industry did improve over time, especially when the openly left-wing United Packinghouse Workers of America engaged in a militant battle to organize workers across racial and ethnic lines and to bargain over pay and working conditions with employers. As Meagan Day explains,

For a few decades, thanks to this high degree of worker organization, meatpacking was not one of the most dangerous, difficult, and undercompensated jobs in the United States.

But then the industry itself changed, with the growth of a few very large meat-processing corporations, which in turn decided to move plants to more rural areas, where it was much harder to organize workers.*

Exactly one century after the first installment of Sinclair’s novel appeared, conditions had deteriorated so badly that Human Rights Watch, for the first time in its history, singled out a particular U.S. industry for violating basic human and worker rights. According to its report, “Blood, Sweat, and Fear: Workers’ Rights in U.S. Meat and Poultry Plants,”

Meat and poultry industry companies do not promise rose-garden workplaces, nor should it be expected of them. Turning an eight hundred pound animal or even a five pound chicken into tenders for the supermarket checkout or fast food restaurant counter is by its nature demanding physical labor in bloody, greasy surroundings. But workers in this industry face more than hard work in tough settings. They contend with conditions, vulnerabilities, and abuses which violate human rights.

Employers put workers at predictable risk of serious physical injury even though the means to avoid such injury are known and feasible. They frustrate workers’ efforts to obtain compensation for workplace injuries when they occur. They crush workers’ self-organizing efforts and rights of association. They exploit the perceived vulnerability of a predominantly immigrant labor force in many of their work sites. These are not occasional lapses by employers paying insufficient attention to modern human resources management policies. These are systematic human rights violations embedded in meat and poultry industry employment.


Today, seven companies dominate the industry (according to data from the National Provisioner)—the same companies that have been featured in recent news reports about the growing number of virus infections and temporary plant closures in rural America: Tyson, JBS, Smithfield, and so on.

These corporations and others in the contemporary meatpacking jungle only pay their workers, on average $14.05 an hour or $29,230 a year (median pay for slaughterers and meat packers in May 2019). That’s less than three-quarters (73.4 percent) of the median pay for all occupations in the United States ($19.14 an hour)—and much less even than many other groups of “essential” workers, including bus drivers ($20.69), licensed nurses ($22.83), postal service workers ($25.03), and tractor-trailer drivers ($21.76).

The fact is, even before the pandemic, giant meatpacking companies were more determined than ever to keep labor costs as low as possible and production as high as possible. This meant hiring cheap labor, maintaining intolerably high line speeds, and demanding cuts in wages and benefits from unionized facilities.

And then, once the pandemic was underway and spreading across the country, the meat-processing industry’s failure to protect its workers from the coronavirus triggered the most serious threat to U.S. meat supplies since World War II.

Now as in 1906, safe working conditions are the priority for workers on the meat-processing assembly-lines. The Trump administration has clearly sided with the corporations. The question for the rest of Americans is, are they going to respond to the crisis in the meatpacking industry with their hearts or their stomachs?


*According to union researcher Daniel Calamuci, writing in 2008, the United Packinghouse Workers of America eventually merged with the Amalgamated Meat Cutters in 1968 and, in 1979, they became part of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. The new union adopted a much less militant stance. For example, when one of its union locals at a Hormel plant in Minnesota went on strike in 1985 to preserve its workers’ high wages, the national organization declined to support it.



Food production has been a problem throughout the history of American capitalism.

Back in 1906, Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle to portray the harsh working conditions and exploited lives of immigrants in the United States in Chicago and similar industrializing cities.* However, it seems, many readers were more concerned with his exposure of health violations and unsanitary practices in the American meatpacking industry during the early-twentieth century. Thus, Sinclair quipped: “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”

A century later, Richard Linklater directed the film Fast Food Nation, which was loosely based on Eric Schlosser’s bestselling 2001 non-fiction book of the same name. Like Sinclair, Linklater focused on the working conditions in the slaughterhouses, to which he added fast-food restaurants—and, like Sinclair, he exposed the role exploited immigrants played in lowering costs and increasing profits in the American food industry.

The farm-to-table movement was supposed to change all that—with happy animals, humane working conditions, and foods sourced from local farmers. However, as Andrea Reusing [ht: db] explains, the authenticity attributed to the preparation and serving of good that is local, organic, and sustainable has increasingly “slipped further away from the food movement and into the realms of foodie-ism and corporate marketing.” Thus

it is increasingly unhitched from the issues it is so often assumed to address.

Farm-to-table’s sincere glow distracts from how the production and processing of even the most pristine ingredients — from field or dock or slaughterhouse to restaurant or school cafeteria — is nearly always configured to rely on cheap labor. Work very often performed by people who are themselves poor and hungry.

fredgraph (1)

There are, in fact, over 7.5 million food-preparation workers in the United States, who earn less than $10.50 an hour—which comes to less than $21,000 a year. Many of those workers are immigrants, both documented and undocumented.**

Over the course of the past century, we’ve moved from the meatpacking industry to the food-service sector. But the problems identified by Sinclair and Linklater remain: exploited workers and immigrants that are subjected to inhumane treatment during the process of immigration and on the job.

As a chef herself, Reusing follows the lead of Sinclair and Linklater in suggesting that

As chefs, we need to talk more about the economic realities of our kitchens and dining rooms and allow eaters to begin to experience them as we do: imperfect places where abundance and hope exist beside scarcity and compromise. Places that are weakened by the same structural inequality that afflicts every aspect of American life.


*Sinclair’s novel was first published in serial form in 1905 in the Socialist newspaper Appeal to Reason and published the next year as a book by Doubleday.

**Overall, according to a report by the Food Chain Workers Alliance and Solidarity Research Cooperative (pdf), the American food system employs over 21.5 million workers, making it the largest source of employment in the United States. Eleven million workers are in the food service sector, comprising more than half of the food chain.


The neighborhood you grow up in matters. A great deal. Especially in a highly unequal society like the United States.

Just consider the chart above [ht: ja]. It shows that poor kids (at or below the 25th percentile) who grow up in Baltimore City county—where Freddie Gray was killed—will make, on average, nearly $3,500 less than the national average.

Cook-25 Cook-99

The same is true across the country, including Cook County, Illinois. There (as shown in the chart on the left), a child in a poor family would make $3480—or 13 percent—less at age 26 compared to poor families nationwide (and they’d be much better off if they were raised in DuPage county). By the same token (according to the chart on the right), if a child in the top 1 percent were to grow up in that same county, they would make $1290 more at age 26 compared with children in families in the top 1 percent elsewhere in the country (but they’d do even better in Kankakee county).

That’s what we’ve learned from the new study by Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren. Neighborhood matters. A great deal. Especially in a highly unequal society like the United States.



But, in all honesty, we’ve known that neighborhood matters for a long time. Since at least 1901-02, when Charles J. Bushnell published his pioneering study of the Stock Yards neighborhood in the American Journal of Sociology (as if to confirm Justin Wolfers’s observation that “sociologists have typically been quicker than economists to embrace the idea that neighborhoods are important”). Which, remember, was the same neighborhood (referred to as Back of the Yards) Upton Sinclair wrote about in The Jungle.

Bushnell’s analysis was particularly compelling because he compared two neighborhoods that butted up against one another on the south side of Chicago: Back of the Yards and Hyde Park (where the University of Chicago is located). What he showed, for example, is that in 1897, 70 per cent of the families in economic distress were found in 27 per cent of the territory, while in 1900 92.5 per cent of the distress was found in 27 per cent of the territory—and that the territory referred to was located wholly within the Stock Yard district. The difference between the two neighborhoods could not have been more stark.

But, Bushnell also observed,

it is significant to note the fact, indicative of the vaguely apprehended and poorly organized conditions of life in our large cities, that the very community which is thus helping to support the agency which is trying to rescue the people of the Stock Yard district from the effects of their bad sanitary and economic conditions, is at the same time, perhaps without recognizing the fault, sending its garbage over into the Stock Yard district to make its sanitary and economic conditions worse.

It is not just that conditions and outcomes were different in the two neighborhoods; the poor conditions in the Stock Yard district were caused, at least in part, by the fact that the residents of Hyde Park were using the Stock Yard district as their dumping ground.

And that’s the lesson we learned then but seem to have forgotten now: not only that neighborhood matters, but also that—”perhaps without recognizing the fault”—we continue to create and treat our poorest neighborhoods as both a source of enormous wealth and a dumping ground for the detritus of the tiny minority who manage to live elsewhere.

In other words, the solution to the slim prospects of children in poor neighborhoods is not to somehow encourage their families to move into better neighborhoods. What we have to do, as a society, is eliminate the very fact that neighborhood matters—in Baltimore, Chicago, and elsewhere—by transforming the economy that creates such unequal neighborhoods in the first place.

Map of the day

Posted: 9 April 2014 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , , ,


In Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (which I’m teaching this week in the labor section of the course on Commodities: The Making of Market Society), Jurgis manages to land a job at the South Works steel mill, after Juozapas, Teta Elzbieta’s crippled child, while looking for food in the local dump meets a woman whose fiancĂ© happens to be a superintendent in the mill.

It was quite a story. Little Juozapas, who was near crazy with hunger these days, had gone out on the street to beg for himself. Juozapas had only one leg, having been run over by a wagon when a little child, but he had got himself a broomstick, which he put under his arm for a crutch. He had fallen in with some other children and found the way to Mike Scully’s dump, which lay three or four blocks away. To this place there came every day many hundreds of wagonloads of garbage and trash from the lake front, where the rich people lived; and in the heaps the children raked for food—there were hunks of bread and potato peelings and apple cores and meat bones, all of it half frozen and quite unspoiled. Little Juozapas gorged himself, and came home with a newspaper full, which he was feeding to Antanas when his mother came in. Elzbieta was horrified, for she did not believe that the food out of the dumps was fit to eat. The next day, however, when no harm came of it and Juozapas began to cry with hunger, she gave in and said that he might go again. And that afternoon he came home with a story of how while he had been digging away with a stick, a lady upon the street had called him. A real fine lady, the little boy explained, a beautiful lady; and she wanted to know all about him, and whether he got the garbage for chickens, and why he walked with a broomstick, and why Ona had died, and how Jurgis had come to go to jail, and what was the matter with Marija, and everything. In the end she had asked where he lived, and said that she was coming to see him, and bring him a new crutch to walk with. She had on a hat with a bird upon it, Juozapas added, and a long fur snake around her neck.



The problem is, the mill is too far for Jurgis to return to the boardinghouse in Back of the Yards during the week, so he travels home only on the weekends. 

The steel-works were fifteen miles away, and as usual it was so contrived that one had to pay two fares to get there. Far and wide the sky was flaring with the red glare that leaped from rows of towering chimneys—for it was pitch dark when Jurgis arrived. The vast works, a city in themselves, were surrounded by a stockade; and already a full hundred men were waiting at the gate where new hands were taken on. Soon after daybreak whistles began to blow, and then suddenly thousands of men appeared, streaming from saloons and boardinghouses across the way, leaping from trolley cars that passed—it seemed as if they rose out of the ground, in the dim gray light. A river of them poured in through the gate—and then gradually ebbed away again, until there were only a few late ones running, and the watchman pacing up and down, and the hungry strangers stamping and shivering.