The Jungle by Upton Sinclair (1878-1968) is a standard on high school summer reading lists; that is, for those high schools that still expect education to occur beyond the classroom. It was first published in serial form in 1905 for a Kansas City weekly newspaper, Appeal To Reason. The author’s intention was to highlight the exploitation of immigrant workers in Chicago’s stockyards. The book’s positive outcome, however, was directed elsewhere. As Sinclair put it: “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.” To the public The Jungle was an alarm about food safety, not so much about the safety of workers. Thus soon after publication, President Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) advocated for and Congress passed two major food policies and established a department which is now called Food and Drug Administration. So what happened to the workers?
Chicago’s Union Stockyards closed in 1971 (though two small slaughtering houses still operate in that neighborhood). In our country slaughtering and meat packing now takes place in the South. Chicken and other poultry, for example, is processed in Arkansas and North Carolina. Beef and pork are still packaged in the Midwest, but now in smaller plants in remote towns.
Ted Genoways in The Chain: Farm Factory and the Fate of Our Food (Harper Collins, 2014) takes us to the Hormel Meat factory in Austin, Minnesota. The entire food industry—from planting corn or raising a calf to lunch at a restaurant or dinner in the kitchen—is remote to us. Austin is tucked away on IS 90, west of Rochester and about a dozen miles north of Iowa. Hormel’s infrastructure is also deliberately remote. The chief executive has a Texas address but, as Genoways discovers, there is no such place. Some of the workers likewise, though for a different reason, have phony IDs. Since the Great Depression the Austin plant has specialized in Spam—the kind that comes in a can. The current recession has put Spam production into overdrive.
The pace of work is what Genoways means by The Chain. In a so-called pilot project the government now allows some automated plants to run the production line as fast as possible. “Upping the speed of slaughter…set off a wide-ranging and sometimes disastrous series of events,” Genoways says. A dirty and perhaps infected carcass more likely makes its way down the line. Workers suffer more injuries, including a nerve-damaging infection that is only detected later. Our relatively inexpensive meat “comes at a high cost to its workers,” Genoways concludes.
What can be done? The workers in Austin and in other nearby plants are nobly represented by United Food and Commercial Workers. In 1985 they staged perhaps the “most notorious and rancorous” job action in our country’s history. That story plus and an insider’s account of meat inspection as well as more from Genoways and other journalists and, late this year, a return visit to Chicago’s stockyards… all of that will appear in a subsequent Working Catholic columns.
Droel edits INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629), a printed newsletter about faith and work.