This year marks the hundredth anniversary of Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle. Its depiction of unchecked greed and exploitation in the American meatpacking industry unfortunately remains relevant. A few months ago the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit upheld a December 2000 ruling by an administrative law judge at the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). The case involved the behavior of the Smithfield Packing Company between 1992 and 1998 at its plant in Tar Heel, North Carolina–the largest hog slaughterhouse in the world. According to the appeals court, Smithfield had violated a wide variety of labor laws and created “an atmosphere of intimidation and coercion” in order to prevent workers at the plant from joining the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union.
Here are some of the details: Smithfield threatened to close the plant if workers voted to join the UFCW. It harassed workers who supported the union and paid other workers to spy on them. It forced union supporters to distribute anti-union literature. It fired workers for backing the union. It asked workers to lie during their testimony to the NLRB and refused to hand over company videotapes that the government had subpoenaed. During a union election in 1997, two UFCW supporters were beaten and arrested by security officers and deputy sheriffs. The chief of security at the slaughterhouse–who also served as a local deputy sheriff–carried handcuffs and a gun on the job. Between 2000 and 2005 he ran a company police force, operating in the plant and staffed with other deputy sheriffs, that arrested almost a hundred workers, including UFCW supporters.
One of the most remarkable things about Smithfield’s behavior is that it was criticized by a branch of the federal government. Since George W. Bush took office in January 2001, the meatpacking industry has wielded more power than at any other time since the early twentieth century. The Bush Administration has worked closely with the industry to weaken food safety and worker safety rules and to make union organizing more difficult. The US Department of Agriculture now offers a textbook example of a regulatory agency controlled by the industry it’s supposed to regulate. The current chief of staff at the USDA was, until 2001, the chief lobbyist for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. Meanwhile, the sort of abuses criticized in the NLRB’s Smithfield decision are still being committed. A recent Human Rights Watch report on the US meatpacking industry found “systematic human rights violations.” Lance Compa, the author of the report, teaches labor law at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. Compa interviewed many workers at the Smithfield plant in Tar Heel. What’s happening there, he says, is “a modern-day version of The Jungle.”
While visiting Chicago slaughterhouses for research in 1904, Upton Sinclair met Eastern European immigrants employed at dangerous, dirty, low-wage jobs. Union organizers and injured workers were being harassed and fired. The publication of The Jungle two years later caused a public uproar–about the widespread contamination of meat, not the mistreatment of meatpacking workers. The book helped President Theodore Roosevelt gain passage of two important pieces of legislation, the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act. But it didn’t accomplish much for meatpacking workers. Conditions gradually improved in the nation’s slaughterhouses, thanks to years of labor organizing. The industry fought hard against unions, pitting one Eastern European immigrant group against another and recruiting African-Americans as strikebreakers. By the 1930s, however, most of the industry was unionized. And by the 1950s meatpacking workers had one of the highest-paid manufacturing jobs in the United States. It wasn’t always a pleasant job, but it provided a solid, middle-class income.