Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Yesterday or Today?

Let's play a game. I'll give you a fact or a quote, and you decide if it's culled from Upton Sinclair's novel The Jungle, set in 1904, or from Eric Schlosser's 2001 nonfiction book Fast Food Nation.

Fact: A coalition of corporations secretly bought up city-owned tunnels intended for phone cables and tracks used for public transportation, then used them to set up profitable private ventures without the public realizing a thing.
Which book?: Both. Beginning in 1903, a private corporation bought up Chicago's under-street tunnels intended for phone cables and secretly installed a freight subway on which to transport goods around the city for private companies - a way of circumventing the demands of the teamsters.
Later in the century, a coalition of corporations (led by GM) bought up all the trolley lines in a number of cities and made secret deals to replace the trolleys with buses; tires, roads, and auto parts for buses would bring them more money than the highly efficient trolleys ever did. (Fast Food Nation)

Quote: "Meatpacking is the most dangerous job in the United States, performed by armies of poor, transient immigrants whose injuries often go unrecorded and uncompensated."
Which book?: Fast Food Nation

Fact: In a slaughterhouse, the speed of the workers is the crucial factor in efficiency. Injuries aren't important, because injured workers can be temporarily replaced, or fired.
Which book?: Both. From Fast Food Nation: "Throughput [the speed and volume of a producer's flow] is a much more crucial measurement than the number of workers it employs or the value of its machinery; a small number or workers can produce an enormous amount of goods cheaply. Throughput is all about increasing the speed of assembly..." In Texas, injured workers in meatpacking plants can be summarily fired. Uninsured workers may also be given a choice between receiving treatment (from the company doctor) or waiving their right to seek compensation for the injury.
From The Jungle: "If we are the greatest nation the sun ever shone upon, it would seem to be mainly because we have been able to goad wage-earners to this pitch of frenzy." Sinclair adds that the nation's drink bill was $1.25 billion/year.

Fact: 4 companies control 84% of the cattle-slaughtering market in the U.S.
Which book?: Fast Food Nation. In 1917, the peak of the illegal "Beef Trust"'s power, 5 companies controlled 55% of the market.

Fact: The company was so stringently anti-union that shops were known to close overnight when workers got too close to unionizing.
Which book?: Both. This happened routinely to unskilled workers in 1904 Chicago, and still happens to employees of McDonald's today.

Fact: Slaughterhouses lured unskilled laborers to the U.S. by placing ads for fine living and luxurious wages in impoverished parts of the world.
Which Book?: Both. The companies of the Beeef Trust advertised in poor Eastern European nations, seeking wokers who didn't speak English, would accept low pay, long hours, and abysmal conditions, and would be unlikely to unionize. Today, it's the Mexicans and the poor of El Salvador who see the colorful posters and hear the promises of middle-class happiness in a land of plenty.

Fact: Some meatpacking jobs are so smelly, workers can't remove the scent from their clothes and skin by any means.
Which book?: Both. In The Jungle, Sinclair described fertilizer workers who had the smell in their very pores and carried it with them everywhere they went. In Fast Food Nation, packinghouse sanitation workers can't remove the stench of the rendering plant from their skin; "The smell comes home with you, seeps from your pores."

Fact: Hearing rumors that a bank is about to collapse, people stand in line for hours, frantic to remove their money.
Which book?: Only The Jungle...but last week, people in London lined up outside a bank for that very reason.


Wandering Coyote said...

Yeah, FFN is a grim, sickening tale, isn't it? I'm not sure I want to read The Jungle.

SME said...

Parts of FFN are bleak, and it's depressing to know that no real changes have been made (and some have been reversed) since 1904. But at least Schlosser has some solutions...that's one thing Sinclair, as a novelist, didn't bring up. He just wished to call attention to the problems so other people could deal with them.

tweetey30 said...

That is sick to know people know about an issue but they dont want to address it. I have thought about checking out one of the two. Not sure which one yet.

SME said...

I'd go with Fast Food Nation. It's not as depressing as The Jungle.

A century apart, both Sinclair and Schlosser were unhappy that their books didn't produce any changes for the workers. The Jungle made people demand higher quality meat, but it didn't make them demand changes for slaughterhouse workers. And Schlosser says nothing has changed for the workers since his book first came out, either.

Vest said...

Halal and kosher slaughtering methods are beyond belief. totally disgusting.

SME said...

Very true. Neither book went into that, but of course you're not going to convince people to abandon ancient religious practices that could mean the difference between Heaven or Hell for them.