Undocumented and Essential

Posted on 05/30/2020. Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , |

It is ironic that a significant portion of work considered essential during the covid-19 pandemic is being done by undocumented workers. An example is meat packing plants, where ICE could be having a field day if it weren’t in the national interest to ignore the status of the citizenship in this instance. It is hard dirty work that hardly pays a living wage and is in many ways reminiscent of the Upton Sinclair book, The Jungle, that described nineteenth century packing plant sanitary conditions and worker exploitation.

A 21st Century Packing Plant

Publication of The Jungle caused a national concern about the unsanitary conditions in which meat was being processed. This led to laws that forced meat packing plants to adapt processes that produced meat under more sanitary conditions. However The Jungle had little effect in improving the the social and monetary aspects of packing plant workers.

Upton Sinclair was disappointed that the book he had written to highlight the exploitation of the workers resulted in changes to the unsanitary way meat was being processed, but not changes in worker conditions and compensation. The nation was more concerned about their stomachs than the exploitation of the workers.

The worker’s concerns were not addressed until labor unions gained power in packing plants after a long and contentious struggle with meat processing company management.

Initially the large packing plants were concentrated in large cities with good rail connections where animals could be brought to the packing plants from long distances by rail and the processed meat could be distributed by rail. This concentration became a problem for the meat packing company’s when labor union strength grew during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Despite the meat processing companies best efforts, the unions gained power and won improved working conditions and pay for workers.

By the mid nineteen hundreds packing plant wages supported a middle class life style and packing plants attracted all the workers it needed from the general population. This all began to change in the sixties and seventies. Trucks replaced trains as a means of transporting animals to packing plants and distributing the processed meat. Small off label meat packing plants began popping up in small towns through out the Midwest. They featured new factories and non-union labor. The old line companies like Swift couldn’t compete and moved out of the big cities and into the rural Midwest. That was the end of the unions power, middle class wages and improved working conditions. The packing plants soon ran out of local workers who would work in packing plants for the wages being offered. Fortunately there were a lot of people south of the border who would work in the conditions that existed and for the wages offered similar to those described in The Jungle.

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