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by Wilson J. Warren
Historical Research and Narrative

Because of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, nearly everyone knows that meatpacking was a central part of Illinois' economy and history. In fact, studying the meatpacking industry is one of the most useful prisms through which students can understand American industrial evolution and its impacts, including the history of workers and the labor movement. Illinois' role in meatpacking demonstrates the importance of agro-industrial expansion in the state, the region, and the nation. The industry capitalized on the growth of livestock farming in the Midwest, and it became one of the engines of the commercial and marketing expansion in the state and contributed centrally to American economic development. In turn, meatpacking significantly influenced the Midwest's demographics and standards of living. As The Jungle makes vividly clear, meatpacking also took a toll on its workers' lives in many ways. Nevertheless, workers struggled to improve their conditions, primarily through the formation of labor unions.

Until the Civil War era, meatpacking was primarily located in the Ohio River valley, particularly in and around Cincinnati. Although not as centralized in the Midwest as it would be later in the twentieth century, the industry was nevertheless concentrated in midwestern towns with transportation access via waterways

and access to animal supplies, especially hogs. Before the advent of mechanical refrigeration, the availability of fresh meat was limited, and meat required processing for commercial sale. Curing, pickling, or smoking improved the taste of pork, whereas beef was usually only available as fresh meat in the late fall. During this period, meatpacking operations took place primarily during the fall and winter months. In Illinois before the Civil War, Alton and Beardstown were significant centers of meatpacking before the 1850s. Until the Civil War, much of the Midwest's meat was shipped down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to New Orleans and then throughout the South.

The Civil War disrupted this pattern. Growth of the nation's railways then helped to shift the industry to Chicago. The opening of the Union Stockyards in 1865, just south of Chicago proper in the town of Lake, signaled the city's preeminence in meatpacking. The settlement of the newer parts of the Midwest, including Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa along with the eastern fringes of the Great Plains, including the Dakotas, Nebraska, and Kansas, and the subsequent extinction of the bison and replacement with cattle, hogs, and sheep was necessary for the city's growth as a meatpacking center in the late-nineteenth century. During this period, the Midwest's agricultural base shifted away from open range livestock grazing to mixed-crop- especially com-and livestock production.

Construction of the Union Stockyards centralized packing operations in Chicago and quickly led to large-scale animal slaughter. In 1878-1879, both the Anglo-American Packing and Provision and Armour companies packed nearly one million hogs in their Chicago plants. The scale of this activity required the development and implementation of several industrial innovations. Packers needed to store river and lake ice cut during the winter months year round. Doing so allowed them to pack during the summer months as well as the winter. To sell their meat products in eastern markets, Chicago's packers invested heavily in railroad livestock cars and holding facilities. In turn, the railroads invested large amounts of capital in stockyards and stockcars for the livestock trade. Chicago's Gustavus Swift developed the first successful fleet of refrigerated rail cars designed for the dressed beef trade. Armour


developed cold-storage facilities and a branch-house system for marketing their finished meat products that was then quickly followed by other packers. Henry Ford credited the inspiration for the auto's assembly line production to the packinghouse industry's use of overhead rails and gravity assistance that allowed men to lift and move heavy carcasses through division of labor. By 1900 three of the thirty largest factories in the United States were meatpacking plants in Chicago; Armour employed 6,000 to 8,000, Swift engaged 4,000 to 6,000, and Morris employed 3,000 to 4,000. These three packers plus Wilson and Cudahy constituted the so-called Big Five at the time of World War I. (The Big Five became the Big Four after Armour's purchase of Morris in 1923.) The stockyard district accounted for 30 percent of Chicago's total manufactures in 1900. In fact, Chicago's Packingtown was probably the nation's largest industrial center at the turn of the twentieth century.

Although Chicago became the center of the nation's meatpacking industry after the Civil War, East St. Louis also developed as an important stockyard and meatpacking center during the same period. In 1873 railroad magnates Jay Gould and Cornelius Vanderbilt helped to establish the stockyards in National City, Illinois, an unincorporated village controlled by corporate interests adjacent to East St. Louis's north side. National City remained unincorporated until 1907. As in the case of Chicago, the greater East St. Louis economy rested squarely on meatpacking's development during the late nineteenth century. While National City was home to the stockyards, the workers came from East St. Louis and the adjoining communities of St. Clair County. By 1880 meatpacking accounted for 46 percent of industrial employment and the total value of manufacturing products in St. Clair County.

From the late-nineteenth century through the mid-twentieth century, meatpacking workers in Chicago and East St. Louis pursued labor union affiliation as a means to improve their workplace and community lives. In fact, meatpacking experienced the most strikes of any industry in the United States between 1881 and 1905. Meatpacking workers were at the center of Chicago's 1886 eight-hour-day strike as well as the 1894 strike in support of the Pullman workers' boycott. The Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen of North America, affiliated with the American Federation of Labor, was founded in 1897 and quickly organized most of the skilled and unskilled meatpacking workers in Chicago and East St. Louis. Especially between 1900 and 1904, workers gained many important benefits such as seniority rights, common production standards, and common wage scales. But when the Amalgamated went out on strike in 1904, packers blacklisted union activists and hired strikebreakers. Factionalism resulted, and divisions among workers allowed packers to erase these gains when the strike ended. Then, during the World War I era, the Amalgamated once again bargained for many gains for workers before its 1921-22 strike ended disastrously.

The most important period of union-building for meatpacking workers throughout Illinois came during the era of the Congress of Industrial Organization from the 1930s through the 1950s. The ClO's United Packinghouse Workers of America (UPWA) not only improved the material lives of workers, it also was centrally involved in the community lives of Chicago's workers, especially through the Back


of the Yards Neighborhood Council, an organization formed in 1939 to help organize and promote the mutual progress of the diverse groups of people who lived around the stockyards.

As readers of The Jungle know, representatives from virtually every ethnic group found employment in Chicago's stockyard district throughout the industry's history. Before 1900 German and Irish immigrants tended to dominate meatpacking's ranks, especially among the more skilled segments of the workforce. Bohemians started entering the industry's ranks after 1880. After the turn of the century, especially among the common laborers that made up at least two-thirds of the workforce, Poles especially became prominent, followed by Slovaks and Lithuanians. Historian Rick Halpern estimates that by 1920, one-half of Packingtown was Polish and two-thirds of the neighborhood's residents came from East Europe. Blacks from the Deep South started to find employment in the stockyards district after 1900 and really jumped in numbers during World War I. Finally, Mexicans started to arrive during the early 1920s.

The pattern of ethnic arrival and succession was similar in the East St. Louis area. In both Chicago's and East St. Louis' packing districts, the number of nonwhites, especially African Americans, grew especially rapidly between the two world wars. In both locations, by 1950 African Americans made up at least half or more of the various packing plants' work forces. Although ethnic divisions certainly continued to exist within the plants and neighborhoods in both areas through the twentieth century, at the time that the CIO started organizing, the main division was between whites and blacks. Indeed, one of the UPWA's central concerns during and after World War II was promotion of civil rights in and out of the workplace. This was especially true In Chicago as well as East A JsSmfr St. Louis, though the UPWA did not organize the Swift plant in the latter city. But the Armour plant in East St. Louis was a UPWA stronghold.

Meatpacking became a remarkable source of opportunity for its workers, especially African Americans, during and immediately following World War II. In Chicago, blacks made up more than 50 percent of UPWA membership by war's end, and this proportion was almost as high in East St. Louis. In contrast to blacks' experiences in most other unions, including ClO-affiliated ones, the UPWA was much more egalitarian. Black women as well as black men benefited from the UPWA's civil rights commitments. The UPWA was committed to equal pay for equal work, and black women throughout the industry experienced significant breakthroughs in workplace opportunities and pay during the 1950s. Black women even started to assume leadership positions within the union.

Unfortunately for meatpacking workers in Illinois, however, the industry's evolution after World War II caused it to move increasingly away from plants centered on stockyards to more decentralized facilities closer to livestock. Instead of relying extensively on purchases of animals at centralized markets, packers, beginning especially during the 1920s, had started to buy animals for slaughter directly from farmers. Many of the independent packers started to establish plants in rural parts of the Midwest, and even the Big Four started to follow suit before World War II. After the war, packers began to abandon their stockyard-based facilities to try to meet the competition posed by new firms, especially Iowa Beef Packers (later renamed IBP, which in turn was recently purchased by Tyson). Significantly, IBP and its followers pursued strategies of union avoidance and union combat that resulted, especially during the 1980s, in making the industry into a low-wage employer. At the same time, incorporation of new technologies, such as the circular electric knives called whizards, and much faster production speeds, made possible by weakening or eliminating union regulations, have made meatpacking more injurious to its workers than at anytime since The Jungle. Meatpacking now has one of the highest injury rates of any non-agricultural industry. Because meatpacking has become both low-paid and quite dangerous, employers have pursued employment of migrant workers, especially from Mexico. In 1954 Cudahy was the first of the Big Four packers to close its plant at Chicago's Union Stockyards, and within six years most of the large plants located there had closed.


By 1970 the Union Stockyards closed for lack of business. The National City Stockyards remained open but greatly diminished in size, especially after the closing of the Swift and Armour plants there. Currently, there are only two significant meat-processing plants in Illinois, which reflects the shift in livestock production to regions further west and south. Both are located in small towns, as is now typical of meatpacking throughout the United States. Beardstown is home to the Cargill Meat Solutions pork plant, while Joslin has one of the Tyson Foods' beef processing plants. Excel, a wholly owned subsidiary of Cargill, purchased the Oscar Mayer plant in Beadstown in 1987. In recent years, both plants have been the subject of notoriety now common among meatpacking plants and communities. Recruitment of Hispanic workers at the Cargill plant has helped make Beardstown a center of Mexican Americans.

A community of 7,000 northwest of Springfield—Joslin, on the eastern fringe of the Quad Cities, has been the subject of intense scrutiny after recalls of thousands of pounds E. coli-infected ground beef from the Tyson plant therein 1998 and 2000.

The history of Illinois' involvement in American meatpacking suggests patterns common to the country's industrial and labor union evolution. Meatpacking began as a local, decentralized endeavor before the railroads helped to transform it into a highly centralized enterprise centered particularly in one Illinois city, Chicago. Over time, new developments in livestock production and marketing spurred changes in meatpacking's location and structure that drew it away from Chicago. Today, as is true throughout the country and in many other industrial sectors, meatpacking is once again a small-town, rural enterprise though, unlike the pre-Civil War period, it is dominated by a few large corporations. Workers through their labor unions were able to successfully organize and bargain for improved conditions when the industry was highly centralized and Chicago-centered. However, as it has shifted to smaller, more rural locations, labor unions have been much less successful in organizing and protecting workers.

Victoria E. Hollister


Main Ideas

Everyone eats, for survival, pleasure, or both. As America moves ever farther away from an agricultural economy and lifestyle, so does our knowledge of what occurs beforehand to bring food to our table. Neatly seasoned and de-boned chicken breasts, little pork chops all in a row on a styrofoam tray, or a fast-food hamburger seem worlds away from industrialized factory farms, pollution, slaughterhouses, and labor issues. When food is plentiful, cheap, and assumed safe, controversies dim in the national conscience.

The meatpacking industry has played a major role in Illinois history, from labor issues and employment opportunities to the growth of certain cities, and even improvements in refrigerated railroad cars. Most middle-schoolers can identify Chicago as the location of the once famous Union Stockyards, and high school students recognize the name Upton Sinclair and his epic piece, The Jungle. United States history texts routinely include information about Sinclair's research in chapters on the industrialized, pre-World War I era.

But the continuum is seldom found in later chapters. The student may be left with the impression it was a problem once, but no more. A false conclusion could be drawn that the Knights of Labor or the AF of L solved all disputes. Thus, it is the role of educators to bring them forward to the current controversies surrounding the production and manufacture o food, and to realize it did not end with Sinclair'; expose. If they like to eat, they need to know.

Connection with the Curriculum

The information and materials in this lesson fit well with both United States history and Illinois history. It also is applicable to a high school economics survey course. Students will use and enhance their skills in analysis, research, comparison, and written and oral presentation. Used as suggested, the materials may be appropriate for Illinois Learning Standards 15.C. 4b, 15.E.1, 15.D. 4c, 15.E. 4b, 16A.2c, 16.C. 4c, 16.E.1(US), 16.E.4a(US)and17.C.1a.

Teaching Level

The following activities are appropriate for middle school and high school students.


The depth of research and expectations for writing and presentation should be incrementally adjusted for older or gifted classes.

Materials for Each Student

Each student should be given a copy of the narrative section of this article, "Meatpacking in Illinois History," and the four activity sheets. The teacher may prefer to distribute each activity sheet as it is needed. Activity One is completed after reading the narrative section of this article. Activity Two sends the students on a research mission using the Internet to find the latest research on their assigned topic. Activity Three brings that research together for script-writing. The culmination of the student research is Activity Four, the production of a mock television news show.

Objectives for Each Student

•  Each student will work in a group.

•  Examine the historical chronology of the meatpacking industry in the Midwest, and in particular Illinois.

•  Identify issues and concerns of past migrant workers in the industry, and those of today.

•  Evaluate the environmental impact of rural, on-site slaughterhouses and packing plants.

•  Understand the rise, then fall, of worker's benefits in the packing plants, and future implications.

•  Describe the changes in family farming brought on by "factory farms." Comprehend the labor issues and roles evolving between the farmer and the corporation who manages farm production.


Opening the Lesson

Ask the students to envision their favorite foods and how often they enjoy them at home or in restaurants. Encourage a brief oral exchange to share their replies, and perhaps even tally the top choices. Chances are very good these will include hamburgers, tacos, fried chicken, and pizza. Guide the students to think of the steps and procedures that went into the production and processing of meat and poultry before it reached a grocery store or fast-food establishment. Suggest that a clean environment, safe working conditions, and healthful farming methods were not guaranteed at one time in America. Their mission will be to learn about past practices, and then research current problems and industry standards.

Their research will be presented in class as four segments of a television news-magazine format, the four together creating a full report. Review with students the typical format of net-work shows such as Dateline, Primetime, or 20/20. View brief sections of one of these shows, if necessary, for clarity of the final goal.

Developing the Lesson

The class should read the narrative after the opening activity discussion. Middle school students may need some help with this; high school students can read independently. Students should then be divided into four equal groups for the activities that follow.

Activity One:

Comprehension Questions

• Distribute copies of Activity Sheet One to every student. The four groups may answer the questions collectively or singularly, as the teacher determines.

• Follow-up class discussion of the completed worksheet is advisable, and serves as a segue to the next activity.

Activity Two:

• Each student receives a copy of Activity Two worksheet. The teacher assigns one research question to each of the four groups. The students write that assigned question onto their worksheet. The teacher should make sure the class is aware of all four research topics in order that everyone has a clear overview of the project.

• Allow each group time to organize and plan their research. The teacher may need to offer guidance for researching websites, newspapers, magazines, and other applicable sources. A main purpose of this lesson is to aid students in refining research skills. A partial list of websites and books is provided, but the available materials can increase almost daily. Students must understand that current references are essential; any previously prepared

list may already be obsolete.

• Remind students to stay focused on their topic question and the information that will help them write an informative broadcast script.

Four Questions for Research

1. How has the poultry/meatpacking industry reached out to create factory-farms and change the face of family farming?


2.  Are migrant workers being exploited in the same ways as a century ago? Compare and contrast conditions.

3.   How have union benefits and protections risen, then fallen, over the decades? What is the current outlook?

4.  What changes to the environment have occurred due to moving slaughtering and packing houses to rural, on-site locations? What cost saving did the industry anticipate in making this move?

Activity Three

• Students should be allowed time within their respective groups to share the research they have gathered.

• Organize these facts into a cohesive list from which they write their script. Self-check one another's efforts for fluency and accuracy.

• Students now decide who within the group will be on-camera presenters, the producer, or operate the video equipment. Whatever the role, each student must have contributed to the research, fact-checking, and script writing.

Activity Four

• Each group gives their presentation segment in the classroom. It is also being video-taped for extension purposes and for assessment of the lesson.

Concluding the Lesson

After viewing the four segments that came together to create a news-magazine broadcast,

allow time for student comment/reaction. Ask students to reflect on how the four segments collectively told the bigger story. Were they surprised at anything they learned? Why? Does the United States still face problems in the food production chain? How might changes in current laws correct problems? What role could unions and labor-relations boards play? In what ways do these concerns link past occurrences in United States food production with on going problems? What lessons can we learn from previous actions/solutions?

Extending the Lesson

The students may well believe they wish to pursue these issues further after the project. Continuation might take place in health class, home economics, or science. Teachers of those subjects may take up one aspect that fits their own curriculum objectives, that is, water and soil pollution, dangers in the workplace, or careers in food production. Economics classes could expand to researching immigrant labor issues and working conditions in other major industries.

Assessing the Lesson

• Guided-reading worksheets and notes and scripts could be graded for accuracy.

• The extent of research completed by each group might be a measure of effort.

• Class discussions, quality of the news broadcast, and connections made by the students as they relate to the four main research topics will be the best           monikers for measuring achievement.


Activity 1 — Reading Comprehension Guide

Answer the following briefly, and concisely, as a group or individually.

Guided Reading Questions

1.  Why was the Midwest the primary location for meatpacking in the nineteenth century?

2.  What role did rivers, and later the railroads, play in the evolving meatpacking industry? How did the Civil War have an impact?

3.  Take a closer look at Chicago and how it came to dominate meatpacking. Which major packers were located in the Union Stockyards? How many hogs were processed in these plants? What did packer giants Swift and Armour develop that even further improved and enlarged meatpacking?

4.  Where else in Illinois did meatpacking flourish? What two prominent American business men invested in and developed this area?

5.  Labor issues arose in the meatpacking plants, which in turn led to union organization. Briefly summarize the efforts of the A F of L and the CIO.

6.  Which immigrants had large numbers working in meatpacking? In what ways was this industry beneficial to African Americans?

7.  Like the Civil War, World War II brought profound change for the laborers in meatpacking? Bullet-point the core changes. What plants closed, causing unemployment? Which survive and where? What immigrant group dominates as workers today?

8.  In some ways, meatpacking is back where it began. In what ways does it resemble the Civil War-era beginnings? In what ways does it not?


Activity 2 - "Just the Facts, Ma'am!"

Your group is assigned a specific question to research.

Use the Internet and all possible sources to prepare the information for a news-magazine broadcast.

Copy the research question below:

Start organizing within your group. Working in pairs, head to the World Wide Web, the library, periodicals, and any other information sources you brainstorm. Use this work sheet for taking notes and jotting further resources to check!

Here are some web sites to get you started on your research:






6.  www.USDA/gov/farm

Here are some printed sources to get you started on your research:

Azzam, Azzeddine M. "Competition in the U. S. Meatpacking Industry: Is It History?"

Agricultural Economics: An International Journal Mi (1998): 107-126. Nelson, Kenneth E. "Issues and Developments in the U. S. Meatpacking Industry" (ERS Staff

Report No. AGES 850502) (Washington, D. C: Economic Research Service, National

Economics Division, 1985). Ruttan, Vernon W. "Technological Progress in the Meatpacking Industry, 1919-1947: An

Agricultural Act of 1946 (RMA, Title II) Contract Report (January 1954) (Washington,

D. C: U. S. Department of Agriculture, 1954). Stromquist, Sheldon. Unionizing the Jungles: Labor and Community in the Twentieth-Century

Meatpacking Industry. (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1997).


Activity 3 - "Time to Produce!"

OK future stars. It's time to synthesize your research and organize a coherent script. Your group will be on camera for 5-8 minutes, sharing your research in the format of a television news magazine. Think of the style used by Dateline, Primetime, or 20/20, as discussed in class.

Think accuracy! Everyone in the group should share their notes, and one person can begin to organize the data. Decide who will be the on-camera presenters, the producer, and the editor.

•    Collectively write a script that will deliver your main point(s).

•    The editor should proofread.

•    The producer will assist with script read-through and time the presentation.

•    If taping, the video photographer needs to be familiar with the use of equipment.

When the script is ready, rehearse! You want to be confident as you deliver your information.


Activity 4 - Lights! Camera! Action!

Time to stand and deliver! Use this sheet to write the vital statistics and hand it to your teacher. This will make your mission clear and facilitate the evaluation. Have a copy of finished script to give to your teacher. Take your places and let the show begin.


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