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[from The Nation]

Eric Schlosser
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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.
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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. ...
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In 1970 the typical American meatpacking worker earned about 20 percent more than the typical factory worker. Today he or she earns about 20 percent less. Enormous changes have swept through the industry over the past thirty years, as big companies swallowed up small ones, moved slaughterhouses from urban areas (where unions were strong) to rural areas (where unions were weak), imported poor immigrants from Mexico and ruthlessly cut wages by as much as 50 percent. ...
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When my book Fast Food Nation was published in 2001, the meatpacking industry had the nation's highest rate of serious injury. It was about three times higher than the national average for factories, despite widespread underreporting of slaughterhouse injuries. The rate of cumulative trauma injury in meatpacking was about thirty-three times higher than the national average. Today it's impossible to know how many meatpacking workers are really getting hurt. ...
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Meanwhile, the industry continues to peddle its version of reality. In June the American Meat Institute held a luncheon for journalists in Washington, DC, to celebrate Upton Sinclair and the passage of the 1906 Meat Inspection Act. French champagne was served, glasses were raised in honor of the centennial and a commemorative booklet was handed out. It outlines the industry's labor, environmental and food safety policies, with the title: "If Upton Sinclair were alive today... He'd be Amazed by the U.S. Meat Industry." That much is true. He would be amazed--by how little has fundamentally changed, how brazenly a new set of immigrants is being exploited in a familiar way, how old lies are being repeated. But you'd never catch him at that luncheon, sponsored by an industry that tried so hard to destroy him. If Upton Sinclair were alive today, you would find him in Tar Heel, North Carolina, fighting for the union and angry as hell.

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full story:
http://www.thenation.com/doc/20060911/schlosser
 

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