Today marks the 100th anniversary of muckraker Upton Sinclair's book The Jungle, which took a harrowing look at the hideous conditions faced by meatpackers a century ago.
While conditions for workers in the industry improved over the decades, peaking in the 1950s and 1960s, it's clear that in Bush's America, the work remains dangerous and pay is declining.
To read The Jungle online for free, go here.
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In the new meatpacking capitals, historian Roger Horowitz says, paychecks have been shrinking. In 2004, the average annual wage for a worker in a slaughtering plant was about $25,000 — compared with $34,000 for manufacturing, according to federal figures.
It wasn't always that way.
The workers had their heyday in the 1950s and 1960s, when the union flexed its muscle and helped push up wages, turning meatpacking into a stable, middle-class job.
"For blue-collar people without much education, packinghouse workers were able to have second homes, send their kids to college so they don't have to do (the same job)," Horowitz says. "It became the American success story."
It didn't last.
In the late 1970s into the 1980s, big changes came. A new tough breed of competitors, mostly nonunion, led by Iowa Beef Processors — now part of Tyson Foods — emerged. Old-line companies went bankrupt. The master contract, one that covered several plants with a standard wage, vanished.
Meatpacking wages that were 15 percent above the average manufacturing salary in 1960 dropped to 20 percent below by 1990, says Don Stull, a University of Kansas anthropology professor and industry expert.
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