The following post was written by Ariel Jacobson, senior associate for UUSC’s Economic Justice Program and program leader for the upcoming UUCSJ Justice in the Food Chain program.
Some say Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle changed the world. Sinclair’s depiction of Chicago in 1906 was of a city teeming with exploitation of low-wage, primarily immigrant workers barely eking out a living. These workers — the backbone of the meatpacking industry and the engine of Chicago’s industrial growth — faced dirty, unsafe working conditions, poor housing, and no recourse for their grievances.
Sinclair describes the struggling workers:
They were beaten; they had lost the game, they were swept aside. It was not less tragic because it was so sordid, because that it had to do with wages and grocery bills and rents. They had dreamed of freedom; of a chance to look about them and learn something; to be decent and clean, to see their child grow up to be strong. And now it was all gone — it would never be! They had played the game and they had lost.
But history ended up telling a different story — ultimately, the workers didn’t lose. The groups that had been calling for just working conditions since before Chicago’s Haymarket massacre in 1886 continued to organize to amplify their collective voice. As a result of their efforts, and spurred into action by the first woman U.S. cabinet member Secretary of Labor Francis Perkins, Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938. It was a landmark piece of legislation that established the federal minimum wage, created the 40-hour work week, and put an end to child labor. Over the course of the 20th century, workers’ rights made significant advances and a middle class was created, in large part because of the industrial labor union movement and wage-growth policies like increases to the minimum wage. Chicago was always at the center of these struggles.
However, when Sinclair’s book was published the immediate public reaction took a slightly different turn. Consumers responded more to the revelations about food safety, rather than to the moral implications of a hardworking underclass of immigrant workers whose dreams would never be realized. While food safety in mass processing plants undoubtedly had to be fixed, the rights of the workers were never fully addressed. It took many years to improve standards for migrant and farm workers, an ongoing struggle that continues today, and many restaurant workers have earned a disgracefully low $2.13 per hour since 1991.
Although labor organizing improved through, many of the underlying patterns exposed by The Jungle have persisted as industrial unionism has been severely eroded. Wealth and income inequality are now off the charts, and we face a food system that is unsustainable due to corporatization and industrialization. Thus, the food-justice movement has sought to challenge the safety of pesticides and genetically modified produce; reduce the environmental damage from food production; ensure access to local, fresh food for low-income communities; and promote animal rights through veganism or more humane treatment of livestock. And workers, employers, and consumers are now seeking to advance the human rights of all the people who harvest, process, pack, sell, and serve our food.
While we have not yet built a fully mobilized consumer movement dedicated to demanding labor rights for all the immigrant workers who are the backbone of today’s U.S. food system, UUSC’s Choose Compassionate Consumption initiative seeks to do just that. In partnership with groups like the Food Chain Workers Alliance and the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, UUSC is making progress on changing the conversation about food justice to include the deplorable conditions faced by food workers.
This is where you come in! UUCSJ and I believe that we can catalyze increased activism on food-worker rights through transformational service-learning experiences. During Justice in the Food Chain: An Exploration of Eating and Worker Organizing, you will learn about the historical struggles of immigrant workers in Chicago, new challenges to worker organizing, and ways that workers are meeting those challenges through organizations like the Restaurant Opportunities Center Chicago, the Center for New Community, and Warehouse Worker Justice. You will be invited into face-to-face conversation with workers in restaurants, warehouses, and meatpacking, and learn tools to engage as a faith-based consumer in the new food-justice movement. And since eating is a deeply human endeavor, it will be not only a historical and sociopolitical exploration, but also a personal and spiritual one.
In a 1906 issue of Cosmopolitan Magazine, Upton Sinclair was quoted as lamenting, “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.” We hope that the time you spend in Chicago for the Justice in the Food Chain program will touch your mind, your heart, your stomach — whatever it takes to join together to improve wages and working conditions for the 20 million workers in the U.S. food system.