Johann N. Neem: When it comes to manufacturing, it's still a "Jungle" out there

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Johann N. Neem is assistant professor of history at Western Washington University in Bellingham.]

When Upton Sinclair wrote "The Jungle" (1906) describing the horrendous conditions in Chicago's slaughterhouses, he hoped to convince Americans to improve labor standards for American workers.

Instead, disgusted by Sinclair's descriptions of what entered their food supply, Americans passed the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Meat Inspection Act, which led to the establishment of the Food and Drug Administration. They hoped to improve their food, but forgot about the workers.

"I aimed at the public's heart and by accident hit its stomach," Sinclair observed.

In the recent scare about Chinese-made products, we risk once again putting products ahead of the people who make them.

It was not until the Wagner Act (1935), passed as part of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, that American workers gained the right to organize in order to have greater control over their working conditions, including hours and safety, and to demand a fair share of the fruits of their labor.

Yet, between the Civil War and the New Deal, hundreds of American workers had died in industrial accidents and in armed combat against their employers. Americans in the late 19th century feared "industrial warfare" as they watched employers and employees literally take arms against each other....

We cannot forget the lessons of our own history. It took generations of conflict between workers and their employers before the United States established fair and safe working conditions. In certain sectors of our economy — most notably agriculture and, once again, slaughterhouses — that fight continues....

Lead-laden toothpaste and toys from China put us at risk. Americans are right to demand that China improve its products' safety. But, this time, let's not forget that Chinese laborers also work long hours, sometimes under egregious conditions, and are denied their right to organize in a country that benefits from global capitalism while refusing its workers the freedom that should be part of all free markets....

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