Jurgis Rudkus, the protagonist of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, attends church, but not often or enthusiastically. Christianity does not move him, and he worries that the stink and vermin that cling to his clothes after the days he spends toiling in a Chicago meatpacking factory will offend the sensibilities of his fellow congregants. The saloons and the gambling halls seem to offer a more welcoming atmosphere for a working man, but only the union inspires faith, a “new religion—one that did touch him, that took hold of every fiber of him.”
Yet many of Chicago’s real turn-of-the-century meatpacking workers—Lithuanians like Rudkus, as well as Italians, Poles, Jews, and Black Americans—may have felt differently. Churches and synagogues were the centers of communal life in the city’s “packingtowns,” the immigrant neighborhoods surrounding the Union Stockyards. Before the industrial labor movement and New Deal legislation secured the high wages and job security characteristic of the midcentury meatpacking industry, religious organizations were often workers’ primary source of financial and other support.
If the union was Rudkus’s church, then churches were the closest thing that many other workers had to a functioning union. As Kristy Nabhan-Warren shows in her fascinating new book, Meatpacking America: How Migration, Work, and Faith Unite and Divide the Heartland, churches are once again the institutions on which many of the industry’s workers most rely.
Beginning in the 1980s, meatpacking companies fled big cities for small towns in rural states such as Iowa, where right-to-work laws impede the growth of unions. Since then, real wages have plummeted. Long hours and mandatory overtime have become more common, and injuries more frequent. A new immigrant workforce has replaced the old, and its undocumented members lack access to federal benefits and are vulnerable to deportation.
Against this background, Nabhan-Warren argues that faith enables Midwestern meatpacking workers of diverse backgrounds to survive the day-to-day horrors of their jobs and seek better lives for their children. She describes how church leaders provide crucial material and spiritual aid for their congregations, and how they try to unite religious communities divided by race, immigration status, and language.
Whether churches can serve the functions unions once did—whether they can foster solidarity as well as tolerance, and empower workers as well as aid them—remains to be seen. Regardless, in a region and industry defined by faith, they will continue to play a key role in workers’ lives.
Today’s meatpacking workers enter an industry whose power dynamics employers have already established in religious terms. Companies such as Tyson Foods have embraced a corporate faith movement that aims to turn Christian values to the ends of profit and worker control.
For most of the twentieth century, the Midwestern meatpacking industry was dominated by “the Big Four”: Armour, Cudahy, Swift, and Wilson. Together, these companies modernized and mechanized meat-production methods, and employed hundreds of thousands of migrants from Europe and the American South to slaughter animals at previously unimaginable speeds. Workers experienced injury, disease, and death at appalling rates.