Upton Sinclair Lecturer: The Workplace Is Still a Jungle

By Ed Rutkowski

San Antonio (June 3, 2014) — Investigative journalist Gabriel Thompson delivered the 14th annual Upton Sinclair Memorial Lecture at AIHce 2014 today, recounting his experiences working long hours in low-paying, unsafe, and harmful jobs. Drawing on material from his book Working in the Shadows, Thompson discussed the unsafe conditions facing many immigrant workers in the United States—conditions which, in some cases, Thompson knows from firsthand experience as an undercover journalist harvesting lettuce, working in a poultry processing plant, and picking tobacco.

During his talk, Thompson expressed admiration for Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle, which is best known for its depictions of deplorable conditions in the late 19th-century meatpacking industry. Thompson credited Sinclair’s novel for sparking significant improvements in workplace safety, but the bulk of his lecture described contemporary jobs that place workers in danger and have ruinous effects on their health.

"Although there's a lot of improvement being made, workplaces are still a jungle,” Thompson said. “And just like in Sinclair’s day, there are forces that are trying to make it a little more jungle-like, and forces that are trying to tame it.”

At the Pilgrim’s Pride poultry processing plant in Russellville, Alabama, where Thompson worked for a short period, he and other workers were required to tear chicken breasts with their hands, a task that caused their hands to become completely swollen within two weeks, he said. Another task at the facility involved carrying 75-pound tubs of frozen chicken a short distance before unloading them. Thompson calculated that each worker performed approximately 25 tons of unloading in a single shift.

"It was very clear you just can't do this very long without breaking down,” he said.

He also recounted the sympathy of the plant’s Human Resources staff, who advised workers to take painkillers every few hours for the duration of their employment at the plant. Vending machines at the plant were filled with painkillers, Thompson said.

Thanks in part to Thompson’s journalism, the Russellville plant was eventually cited for several workplace safety violations, including exposing workers to acid burns and electric shock. Thompson said that Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA David Michaels e-mailed him personally to inform him of the citations. Pilgrim’s Pride has since closed the plant.

"I think it’s important to think about words like ‘acid burns’ and ‘electric shock’ the next time you hear someone complain about government regulations,” Thompson said.

Another job he took while researching his book was in a North Carolina tobacco field, where longtime workers were exposed to pesticides. Some suffered acute nicotine poisoning, a condition that results from nicotine leaching from tobacco leaves into workers’ skin.

Thompson concluded by expressing his admiration for the workers who told him their stories and who have spent many years working jobs that require such hard labor.

"It’s skilled work, it's hard work, it's important work, it's work that deserves to be respected,” Thompson said. “And one way to respect it is to make sure it's being done in a safe way.”

Ed Rutkowski is AIHA's managing editor, periodicals, and editor in chief of The Synergist.