Down the road from my house, the luncheon meat smell has faded from Madison’s former Oscar Mayer plant. Armour and Swift were big names in Chicago, where I lived years ago. Meat packers spurred the growth of Milwaukee and gave Green Bay’s football team its name. To me, spikes of coronavirus in meat processing plants feel up close and personal.
Railroads used to carry livestock from the land-rich West to Chicago, Carl Sandburg’s “Hog Butcher for the World.” At the Union Stock Yards, immigrants from eastern Europe cut and packed pork and beef to ship east in refrigerated railroad cars. Upton Sinclair’s bestseller The Jungle (1906) exposed the horrors of Chicago’s assembly-line slaughterhouses. Public outcry led to the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act, but no change in worker conditions.
Union organizing in the 1930s boosted wages and worker safety. For almost half a century, packing plants offered decent manufacturing jobs. However, refrigerated trucks freed the companies from a need to locate near railroad lines. Chicago’s stock yards closed in 1971. Dispersed rural sites allowed for lower pay and less union influence. To supplement local labor, employers recruited documented and undocumented immigrants. Wages plummeted.
Rapid, repetitive, shoulder-to-shoulder work with sharp instruments was dangerous even in better times. For a perfect storm, add a virus that thrives in cool, damp, noisy spaces and threatens anyone less than six feet away. The only way to produce as much meat as Americans want is to endanger the workers who process it.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.