Back of the Yards, Chicago, Illinois
I just finished rereading The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. This is a book I knew about about since about the third grade because the Lithuanian nuns also mentioned it at Holy Cross School. The nuns always wanted to remind us that we didn’t always have life so easy. They would often describe the squalid living conditions of our neighborhood, The Back of the Yards, and the horrendous working conditions at the Union International Stock Yards. They stressed that education was the best way to improve our lives and that we should excel in grade school, in order to get into a good Catholic school, in order to prepare us for college. I always recall the incident about the boy who drowns in the street. Several nuns over the years described that scene. And we were so lucky to live in a neighborhood with concrete sidewalks, paved streets, and a sewage system. No one from our neighborhood ever drown in the street–that I know of.
When I worked at Derby Foods, we didn’t have a union even though Chicago has always been known as a union town. And I didn’t realize at the time, but we didn’t need a union because all the other factories around us were unionized. Our factory paid us above-average wages and we worked under better-than-normal working conditions. They followed bidding by seniority for different job openings in the factory.
Regardless, I hated working there because I was a lowly manual laborer. The money was good, but I was unhappy about not being able to go to college. I continued working there because … because–just because. When I started at Derby Foods, about three-hundred people worked there. But over the years, the company kept modernizing by buying machinery that would replace employees. By the time I had eight years on the job, I was still near the bottom of the seniority list of about 134 employees due to the lack of hiring because of the worker displacement caused by the new machinery. Since I was at the bottom of the list, I had to work an undesirable work schedule. In food production, the plant and machinery have to be cleaned and sanitized on a regular basis. Well, I had to work the midnight shift from 11:00 pm until 7:00 am the next morning. Regardless of what anyone says, the human body never fully adapts to a nocturnal life. The schedule was bearable until Saturday when I would get off at 7:00 am, but would have to return at noon to clean and sanitize the plant. Everyone else who worked the Saturday shift worked either days or afternoons, so they didn’t complain. Besides, they enjoyed working for time and a half because it was a Saturday.
I complained about my schedule to my foreman, the shift foreman, and the manager. No one thought it was a problem. I had no union with whom to file a grievance, so I called the federal labor law organization and they told me that my employer was not violating any federal laws by requiring me to return to work an eight-hour shift within four hours of working an eight-hour shift. Well, I was happy that I tried everything possible to improve my working conditions.
Then, it dawned on me! I’ll read The Jungle! I’ll find scenes in the novel that compare to my present working conditions! So, during my breaks and down time in factory, I read the paperback edition of The Jungle that I always carried in my back pocket. When I was done, I was so grateful to be working for Derby Foods! I never realized how good I had it compared to the Stockyard workers in the early 1900s. Because of that book, federal laws were enacted, the Pure Food and Drug act in 1906 for one, in order to improve the lives of millions worldwide. The unions in Chicago and nationally became stronger. I had forgotten the lessons of my dear Lithuanian Catholic nuns at Holy Cross School. But upon rereading The Jungle, I was grateful, nay, thankful, to be working for Derby Foods. I never complained about my employer ever again.