Written by Gideon Batai
The person I look up to most is Upton Sinclair. Upton Sinclair isn’t exactly a household name, but he is one of the parents of the modern labor movement. He’s best known for his 1906 novel; The Jungle exposed the horrific conditions of early 20th-century meatpacking plants. The Jungle contained graphic descriptions of animal cruelty, workplace sexual harassment, and poverty. It inspired public outrage and helped propel Congress to pass the Federal Meat Inspection Act of 1906.
The early industrial age was an era of massive wealth gaps. Billionaire tycoons like Cornelius Vanderbilt and Henry Ford (a Nazi sympathizer and high-ranking member of the Order of the German Eagle, the highest honor of Nazi Germany) lived luxurious lives in sprawling mansions. Meanwhile, impoverished immigrants lived in tenements where hundreds of people shared a single toilet, leading to massive outbreaks of infectious diseases. Sometimes without significant knowledge of the English language, immigrant workers were manipulated, used, and harassed by greedy businesspeople.
In writing The Jungle, Upton Sinclair joined the early 20th-century investigative journalism the movement is now known as “muckraking.”
Sadly, many of the conditions Sinclair wrote about are just as egregious. In one especially atrocious example, managers at a Tyson meatpacking plant placed bets on how many workers would get infected with COVID-19. Outside that example, meatpacking plants have some of the highest rates of COVID-19 transmission, alongside nursing homes and prisons.
As for animal cruelty, the industry may even be worse than when Sinclair wrote The Jungle. Cows, pigs, and chickens live knee-high in their feces. Companies inject animals with artificial antibiotics that cause abnormal abscesses (and promote antibiotic resistance). Some farmworkers have even been diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder after working on factory farms or meatpacking plants.
Nonetheless, much has improved since Sinclair wrote The Jungle. For example, despite its imperfections, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) does a reasonably good job of preventing workplace injury and discrimination. One researcher found that workplace injuries declined nearly 10 percent after OSHA started conducting random workplace safety inspections. Many employers, especially in the tech industry, are moving to allow permanent remote work so employees can choose where, when, and how to work. Sinclair’s work represents what it means to stand up for the ordinary person. The bosses, oligarchs, and billionaires of the world can buy their way out of anything. The typical person, though, does not share the same benefit. Sinclair, through his journalism, placed the cruel world of hyper-capitalism on full display for the whole world. Like Sinclair, I hope to dedicate myself to the ordinary person and a gradual return to wealth equality as I grow older.