The human horrors of the meat packing industry

Originally published at: The human horrors of the meat packing industry | Boing Boing


Didn’t Upton Sinclair beat him to the punch by a century or so? I suppose we were due a gritty reboot.


Yes, but it’s been a century, everyone in American missed Sinclair’s point (they focused on the gross stuff, not the labor exploitation stuff), and most people are unaware of how bad things have gotten. The regulation put in place since Sinclair was writing about this stuff has eroded to the point that things are about as bad as when he was writing.


“ So long as we have wage slavery," answered Schliemann, "it matters not in the least how debasing and repulsive a task may be, it is easy to find people to perform it. But just as soon as labor is set free, then the price of such work will begin to rise.”

“To go on to another item— one of the necessary accompaniments of capitalism in a democracy is political corruption; and one of the consequences of civic administration by ignorant and vicious politicians, is that preventable diseases kill off half our population. And even if science were allowed to try, it could do little, because the majority of human beings are not yet human beings at all, but simply machines for the creating of wealth for others. They are penned up in filthy houses and left to rot and stew in misery, and the conditions of their life make them ill faster than all the doctors in the world could heal them; and so, of course, they remain as centers of contagion , poisoning the lives of all of us, and making happiness impossible for even the most selfish.”

It is also the story of the abuse of immigrants and the methodical, intentional creation of a lower caste.

“In (America) the poor man was almost as poor as in any other corner of the earth; and so there vanished in a night all the wonderful dreams of wealth that had been haunting Jurgis.”

“There is one kind of prison where the man is behind bars, and everything that he desires is outside; and there is another kind where the things are behind the bars, and the man is outside.”

Edited for a more concise quote.


I’m aware (if you mean The Jungle). What many Americans (white, non-immigrant, middle class, etc) focused on in Sinclair’s work was the contaminants in their food supply - which, Sinclair was more interested in showing how workers were exploited. But that’s what got us the FDA.

Most middle class Americans at the time, even the ones who identified as progressive, were more interested in public order with regards to labor, not so much fairness for the workers. Many blamed the workers for the ongoing labor unrest at the time. That’s how we got a majorly restrictive immigration law in the 1920s.


I always thought the first chapter in which he describes the wedding feast and their community attitude in the face of scarcity one of the most beautiful and vivid scenes in American literature. It doesn’t really indicate in any way what’s coming, which makes the devastation that follows that much more inhumane.


I watched the Oliver episode last night and was very dissappointed to see this today:

With Vilsack in charge, the USDA won’t clean this shit up like it needs to.
We really need to rebuild OSHA and address the worker safety issues.


So far, Biden doesn’t seem especially interested either in adding real teeth to the lip service he gives to supporting unions.


My wife and I were preparing to move to North Carolina (a much bluer state back then) in the early 90s when a chicken processing plant in NC caught fire. Many workers in the factory were killed because the code-required fire doors were chained shut. We learned later that this was because the plant management insisted on it to keep the workers from stealing chicken.

One of NC’s selling points is being job friendly, aka extremely anti-union. This was our wake up call that the state wasn’t nearly as progressive as we’d hoped.


This is pretty much Reagan’s fault – after his election (and especially after the air traffic controller thing) there was a concerted union-busting initiative across the industry.

In the 70’s the packers in my home town (Austin, MN) owned homes, boats and cabins; many of them had college degrees but moved back to get good jobs at the plant. After a failed strike wages and working conditions plummeted.

In 1980 the a plant worker earned $10.69/hour, which is $33.94 in 2021 dollars. Today’s workers start at $15.50. A full 50% wage cut!

(More wage numbers in this screed I wrote in 2014: Devo fans vs. inflation | unspecified )




Canada’s largest COVID outbreak was in an Alberta meat-packing plant last spring, and several workers died. I did a podcast episode on it that also explores the political economy of meat packing in Canada and North America generally. There has been a huge concentration of ownership in the whole industry that has been very bad for workers and consumers, but very profitable for companies.


I have to wonder if the meatpacking industry has worked under the understanding that white America would accept the most horrendous treatment of the immigrant labor force so long as rat bits were kept out of their hotdogs. And what we’re seeing is the most extreme consequence of that.

My father worked in meatpacking in the '50s, trying to unionized the workplace (and got beaten up and blacklisted for his efforts), and conditions have been on a horrendous decline since… consistent with the increase in the immigrant workforce.


I think that’s some of it, yeah.

Your dad sounds awesome!


Please, if Shuck the Elder is still alive to thank, convey my gratitude for his real courage and hard work.

I wish 1,000 more humans here had his commitment and vision.


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