This pandemic Labor Day, it’s still a ‘Jungle’ in Kansas

The Tyson plant at Emporia, Kansas, on July 17, 2020. (Max McCoy/Kansas Reflector)

Grilling this Labor Day weekend? Then take a moment to reflect on the meatpacking workers who have made your barbecue feast possible. You see, the history of Labor Day has a surprising connection to the Sunflower State, and it’s a legacy that is still playing out in meatpacking plants today.

As a society we continue to wrestle with the question of what we owe those who work the hardest, and in the most hazardous conditions, so the rest of us — or at least the carnivores among us — can enjoy cheap bacon and ribeye.

This pandemic Labor Day brings the question of meatpacking safety into sharper focus than at any time since Upton Sinclair published “The Jungle,” a muckraking novel about the Chicago meatpacking industry, in 1906. Meatpacking plants are perfectly suited environments for the spread of the coronavirus: Cramped working conditions, long hours, cold temperatures and many immigrant workers for whom the language barrier may hamper the dissemination of health and safety guidelines.

Meatpacking plants are the biggest single category among coronavirus clusters tracked by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. For the reporting period ending the last full week in August, there were 17 identified clusters in meatpacking, with 3,422 cases. That’s more than a third of all cluster cases. There have also been more virus deaths in the meatpacking industry — 19, according to KDHE — than in any other category except long-term care.

The challenges faced by our meatpacker workers are chillingly similar to those described by Sinclair more than a century ago.

The novel came about because J.A. Wayland, editor of the old-fashioned Socialist newspaper “The Appeal to Reason” — published in Girard, Kansas — invited Sinclair to investigate the lightly regulated meatpacking industry.

The “Appeal” had moved to Girard from Kansas City because the coal fields of southeast Kansas were a hotbed of radicalism. The paper had a circulation of half a million subscribers, and it published a Who’s Who of important writers in the early Twentieth Century, from Jack London to Helen Keller.

Upton Sinclair, author of “The Jungle,” photographed in New York in about 1900. (Library of Congress)

When 26-year-old Sinclair was dispatched to investigate the meatpacking industry, of course he went to Chicago, the capital of meatpacking. In the decades to come, the industry would leave cities like Chicago and Cincinnati for the heartland, to be closer to the animals that would be slaughtered.

What has not changed is meatpacking’s need for labor, with immigrants from Mexico, Vietnam and Somalia taking the place of those who once came from the Balkans in Europe.

“The Jungle” was originally published in 1905 in serial form in Wayland’s newspaper, and a year later in book form. Although “The Jungle” is a novel, it’s largely based on the conditions Sinclair found in Chicago, and it has many stomach-turning descriptions of abuses in the meatpacking industry. It’s most famous scene, however — of a worker falling into a vat and being rendered into lard — may be apocryphal.

The novel’s impact was immediate, although somewhat different than Sinclair had hoped for. He had written a novel that he had hoped would awaken the public’s sympathy for immigrants, just as “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” had inspired outrage over slavery; instead, the public outcry was about the stomach-turning conditions in the plants themselves. His audience, including President Theodore Roosevelt, was impatient with Sinclair’s screed but recognized something had to be done for the public health.

Upton Sinclair’s muckraking 1906 novel “The Jungle” reformed the meatpacking industry and resulted in the passage of hte Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act.

“I aimed for the public’s heart,” Sinclair later recalled, “and by accident hit it in the stomach.”

It is difficult to reckon the number of reforms that were inspired by “The Jungle,” but a short list includes the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act. It also contributed to the climate that would see Labor Day become a nationally recognized holiday, although the holiday had been celebrated by various state and local jurisdictions since at least 1882. In Kansas, Labor Day has been observed as a state holiday since Sept. 1, 1890.

Sinclair would become one of the most famous writers in America, winning the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1943. He abandoned the Socialist Party in 1934, when he ran unsuccessfully as a Democratic candidate for governor of California.

He died in 1968, at the age of 90.

“The Appeal to Reason” continued to publish until 1922, although it lost much of its luster after Wayland committed suicide in 1912. It also could not fight a growing anti-socialist sentiment in America that followed the Russian Revolution and the end of the First World War.

Meatpacking has never been an easy job, and it has always come with considerable risk, although safety reforms during the past century have made it increasingly safe. But during the pandemic, meatpacking has been particularly hazardous.

A vendor sells protective masks in a parking lot across the street from the Tyson plant in Emporia, Kansas, on April 30. (Max McCoy/Kansas Reflector)

Back at the end of April, when the coronavirus in Kansas was at its first peak, most everybody except essential workers was hunkered down indoors trying to flatten the curve. The people you saw on the streets were cops and mail carriers and others we depend on to keep society functioning. But in communities like mine, you may have seen another group gearing up and reporting for duty: those who toil in the meatpacking plants.

Thousands of meatpacking employees were reporting for work at plants across the state, even as cases were spiking. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration did not issue clear guidance for meatpacking until April 27. And even while the coronavirus was burning in clusters through meatpacking plants across the country, President Trump, amid jitters over the food supply, was invoking the Defense Production Act to make sure the plants stayed open. Bacon, apparently, was more essential to the country than the health and welfare of those who worked in the plants.

Still, the workers — many of them Latino, and some of them undocumented — went to work at Dodge City, at Garden City, at Holcomb and at Emporia. And they are still working today, even as the pandemic worsens as the summer wanes.

Again, as in the days of “The Jungle,” we are asking the most vulnerable among us to shoulder unthinkable risk. In Kansas, Latinos die of COVID-19 at a rate that is 40% greater than that of other ethnicities, according to KDHE statistics.

It is time, this Labor Day, to finally put our hearts ahead of our stomachs. We must stop crushing the working poor so that the rest of us can have cheap steaks.