Conditions in US Meatpacking Plants Today Aren’t Much Better Than They Were in The Jungle

Decades after Upton Sinclair exposed the horrors of meatpacking, radical labor organizing transformed the industry into a bastion of worker power. Now, a century later, after decades of union-busting and the coronavirus decimating workers throughout the industry, the meatpacking industry is back to The Jungle.

Chicago's Union Stock Yards, which inspired Upton Sinclair's 1906 novel The Jungle. (Library of Congress)

By Friday, over eleven thousand coronavirus cases had been confirmed with ties to the US meatpacking industry. At least forty-nine meatpacking workers had died of COVID-19. The workers who died worked at twenty-seven different plants across eighteen states.

The virus is so widespread in the meat processing industry that forty plants have shuttered, either because they were ordered to by public health officials or because so many workers were out sick that ordinary production was impossible.

The closures have threatened to cause meat shortages, prompting Donald Trump to pass an executive order invoking the Defense Production Act commanding that they stay open. Due to the severity of the ongoing health crisis, the plant closures have continued in violation of Trump’s executive order, leading the Department of Agriculture to warn that “further action” would be taken against companies if they don’t reopen plants as soon as possible.

Meat shortages won’t lead to hunger, but they will cause meat suppliers to lose money, and inspire frustration in meat-loving consumers who are also, often enough, voters. To avoid these outcomes, the Trump administration is scrambling to preserve the integrity of the meat supply chain.

One strategy has been to displace blame for coronavirus cases in meatpacking onto workers themselves. On Thursday, Trump’s Health and Human Services secretary Alex Azar said that the sickness and death of meatpacking workers, their family members, and others in their communities were linked more to the “home and social” aspects of meatpackers’ lives than conditions in the plants. He even menacingly suggested sending law enforcement into the neighborhoods where meatpacking workers live to enforce social distancing.

But while Azar is playing dumb, meatpacking companies have themselves acknowledged that there are special problems inside their facilities that make them vulnerable to contagion. Smithfield Foods, one of the largest meat processing companies in the United States, published a statement saying, “There are inescapable realities about our industry . . . Meat processing facilities, which are characterized by labor-intensive assembly-line style production, are not designed for social distancing.” There’s no doubt that conditions inside factories are indeed responsible for the spread of the virus.

It’s not a coincidence that workers are getting sick in plant after plant, all across the country. One major reason that meat processing workers have become hotbeds of coronavirus lies in the labor-intensive nature of the work itself. Assembling the geometric and standardized parts of an automobile is a more machine-friendly task than disassembling organic material like meat. While advances in automation have changed the industry already and continue to do so, many stages of production still require human hands, and therefore a lot of humans.

But even though meatpacking is more manual than some other manufacturing, it is still subject to all the efficiency-focused changes in manufacturing generally, aimed at increasing the speed and volume of workers’ output and therefore profits. As a result, meatpacking plants often feature workers lined up in rows, where they stay clustered together for extended periods of time without breaks.

Furthermore, the work environment in a meat processing plant needs to be refrigerated, which is expensive in a large area. For this reason, meatpacking companies, even more than other manufacturers, try to minimize the amount of space they use, which increases the proximity of workers to each other. And if all this wasn’t enough, lower temperatures often leave people more vulnerable to contagious illness, as we observe every year when the flu spreads during the winter months.

Finally, Azar’s point about home conditions, however manipulatively deployed, is not completely irrelevant. Whether we’re talking about black workers at a Tyson Foods plant in Georgia or Mexican immigrant workers at a JBS plant in Colorado, it’s true that meatpacking workers may not have the space to practice perfect social distancing when they leave the factory. But like crowded workplaces, dense living arrangements are also intimately tied to their bosses’ drive for profit. At an hourly rate of under twelve dollars an hour, meatpacking workers can’t afford roomy living conditions, meaning they’re likely to spread the virus they acquire at work to their families, their neighbors, and eventually everybody else.

Out of the Jungle

More than a century ago, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle brought the difficult working and living conditions of meatpackers to light. The 1906 novel’s vivid portrayals of immigrant life in and around Chicago’s slaughterhouses and meat processing plants alarmed and distressed the rest of the nation, creating immense public pressure that led to reforms in the industry.

Sinclair was a socialist who had started down the road to The Jungle by writing articles about the real-life Chicago meatpacking industry. The Jungle was serialized in the socialist magazine Appeal to Reason before it was published as a single volume. Accordingly, Sinclair’s writing was sharply focused on the exploitation of labor in the meatpacking industry, full of 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.

But while these labor-centric passages certainly inspired the socialists and class-conscious workers who encountered them, the novel inevitably became more famous for passages like these:

There were cattle which had been fed on “whiskey-malt,” the refuse of the breweries, and had become what the men called “steerly” — which means covered with boils. It was a nasty job killing these, for when you plunged your knife into them they would burst and splash foul-smelling stuff into your face; and when a man’s sleeves were smeared with blood, and his hands steeped in it, how was he ever to wipe his face, or to clear his eyes so that he could see? . . .

There would be meat stored in great piles in rooms; and the water from leaky roofs would drip over it, and thousands of rats would race about on it. It was too dark in these storage places to see well, but a man could run his hand over these piles of meat and sweep off handfuls of the dried dung of rats. These rats were nuisances, and the packers would put poisoned bread out for them; they would die, and then rats, bread, and meat would go into the hoppers together. This is no fairy story and no joke; the meat would be shoveled into carts, and the man who did the shoveling would not trouble to lift out a rat even when he saw one — there were things that went into the sausage in comparison with which a poisoned rat was a tidbit.

Later, Sinclair said, “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”

Still, when the public became outraged by the exposure of horrifically unsanitary conditions in the meatpacking plants, Sinclair gladly took the opportunity to publicly antagonize the meat industry, which he referred to as the “Beef Trust.”

President Theodore Roosevelt received so many outraged letters that he requested an audience with Sinclair. Sinclair pressured Roosevelt to establish a commission to investigate the meatpacking industry. And while Sinclair may have had his sights set on economic freedom for meatpacking workers and the working class generally, he was nonetheless pleased when Roosevelt signed into law the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, both of which were focused on prohibiting the production and sale of adulterated food.

Sinclair continued to strive for socialism. For their part, class-conscious meatpacking workers didn’t stop after The Jungle and the reforms that followed it, either. In fact, organized meatpackers reached the height of their power in the middle of the twentieth century, many decades after the first round of reforms to the meat industry. “For several decades after World War II,” writes Michael Haedicke at The Conversation, “conditions in meatpacking plants steadily improved as a result of pressure from workers themselves.”

In the early 1940s, the openly left-wing United Packinghouse Workers of America (UPWA) found phenomenal success organizing meatpacking workers across racial lines. This had always been the primary puzzle — meatpacking plants were multiracial, multilingual, and, many assumed, simply too diverse to organize. The UPWA decided to solve this problem by taking on discrimination head-on, both at the workplace and in broader society. The union was actively engaged in civil rights struggles in the 1950s and 1960s.

At the bargaining table, the union was militant and effective, in large part because its multiracial workforce was united. At its peak in the middle of the twentieth century, the UPWA was so powerful that it was able to engage in sectoral bargaining on behalf of the entire industry, not just its own members. The story of the UPWA is one of the most encouraging examples of social movement unionism in American history, demonstrating that a strong political conscience and broad commitment to equality is a boon to worker organization, not a distraction from it.

Back to the Jungle

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 eventually, meatpackers’ unions were dismantled along with the rest of the labor movement. Changes in manufacturing methods broke the power of skilled meatpackers. New companies cropped up and replaced the old unionized ones, undercutting them on labor costs. These new companies began to move their plants from union-dense traditional meatpacking cities — Chicago, Memphis, Kansas City — to rural areas that were harder to organize. Immigrant workers were hired at these new plants in places like Iowa and Nebraska for lower wages, and our country’s brutal immigration regime kept them in line, afraid to organize with their native-born workers or resist dictates from on high.

And that brings us up to the present day. Right now, immigrant meatpackers are showing up for work in what they know are dangerous pandemic conditions because they’re afraid that failing to show will result in losing their job, which could lead not only to income and benefits loss but also potentially to detention and deportation. The same is true for black meatpacking workers in the South who, living in the long economic shadow of Jim Crow, know they will be punished for insubordination with total poverty, which their austerity-minded state governments will do little to alleviate. The workforce’s sense of strength-through-solidarity has largely evaporated.

The Trump administration is doing everything in its power to ensure that America’s meatpackers, immigrant and native-born alike, continue to work during the coronavirus pandemic at considerable risk to themselves, their families, and the entire public. “It’s genocide against the working class,” the leader of Teamsters Local 238, which represents meatpackers in Iowa, told the Guardian. And while the unions that continue to represent these workers are pushing back, their actual power is a shadow of what it was fifty years ago.

So workers crowd in refrigerated facilities as a deadly virus makes its way down the disassembly line — all so the grocery store shelves will remain stocked for consumers and voters, and the Beef Trust will stay in the black. Modern meatpacking may not be the unsanitary industry of The Jungle, but in the absence of strong worker organization, the nauseating disregard for human well-being remains.