The novel The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair, focuses on the Progressive Movement in the United States through the life of the main character, Jurgis Rudkus, who came to America from Lithuania in search of the American Dream of freedom and fortune. After arriving in America, Jurgis and Ona go to Packingtown, an area of Chicago, to find work. Once Jurgis begins work, he is quickly subjected to horrible working conditions and very low wages that are very often swindled away by those in power. Ona and her second child both died during labor, and Jurgi’s son Antanas died shortly after.
Jurgis spends time in jail on several occasions fighting; during his second sentence, he meets an experienced criminal, Jack Duane, in prison, and upon his release, he takes up a life of crime. During this period, he begins to comprehend the relationship between crime, law enforcement, politics, and business. Jurgis begins to get involved in politics until his violent temper once again causes him to get into a fight with Phil Connor; though this time, he is not sentenced to jail, he instead loses all of his current power and means of obtaining money because of Connor’s political connections. Jurgis ends up back on the streets until one day when he attends a socialist meeting as a means of getting out of the cold. Jurgis is impressed by the ideas and concepts of the socialist ideal, and he quickly joins and becomes an active member of the Socialist Party. He is convinced that socialism is the only solution to everyone’s problems and that capitalism is the cause of most problems in the world. The end of the book goes on to glorify and support the ideals of socialism.
Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle is a good example of big business and its lack of concern for its workers and the rest of society. Many of the concepts in this book back up what was discussed in the lecture. In the Jungle, the main goal of the socialist party was to end the corruption of the Beef Trust. One quote that describes the power that big business had during this time period is: In the national capital, it had the power to falsify government reports; it violated the rebate laws; and when an investigation was threatened, it burned its books and sent its criminal agents across the country. (312) During this time period, there was not a great deal of government regulation on businesses, and big business was able to take advantage of not only the workers but also the American public. Much of the meat that was sold to the public was subpar. In the words of the tour guide who gave Jurgis a tour of the plant in Packingtown, They use everything about the heat except the squeal. (38)
The Jungle also provides a commentary on the poor working conditions that took place during the early part of industrialization. During Jurgis’s time working at the meat packing plant, he was injured and quickly replaced; however, the meat plant was far less dangerous than Jurgis’s next job, at the fertilizer plant. Jurgis Rudkus provides an insight into the dangers of working at a fertilizer plant through the following passage:
Worst of all, however, were the fertilizer men and those who served in the cooking rooms. These people could not be shown to the visitor, for the odor of the fertilizer man would scare any ordinary visitor at a hundred yards, and for the other men, who worked in tank rooms full of steam, and in some of which there were open vats near the level of the floor, their peculiar trouble was that they fell into the vats, and when they were fished out, there was never enough of them left to be worth exhibiting–sometimes they would be overlooked for days, till all but the bones of them had gone out to the world as Durham’s Pure Leaf Lard! (120)
The preceding passage demonstrates the lack of on-the-job safety or even any concern at all about the workers. As long as employers could get away with mistreating workers, they would exploit them to the fullest extent. While working at the meat packing plant, Jurgis was making only 17 + cents per hour, and nobody was paid for part of an hour’s work (anything short of being a full hour is not counted). Because of these conditions and poor wages, Jurgis, who was quite skeptical of unions at first, decided to join one. After joining, he is quickly convinced that the union is good for the workers and becomes a very active member of the union.
The formation of unions was important to fight the powers of the big businesses and preserve some of the worker’s rights to safety and wages. These early unions were not as effective as modern-day unions, but they still provided the worker with more security than not belonging to one at all. Much of the problem with the unions was the lack of support. One early union that still exists today is the American Federation of Labor. In the early 1900s, only 10% of the nation’s workers were enrolled in the AFL, so the power of the group was not overwhelming. During the early 1900s, the American Federation of Labor grew exponentially, from under 500,000 members in 1897 to 1.7 million in 1904. The Jungle took place around the same time that the union movement was going on, and Jurgis represented one of many workers who joined during that time period.
In the meatpacking factory, there were substantial injuries to Jurgi’s fellow workers. There were many trends, such as those who used knives having their thumbs cut a lot, the people who worked in the chilling rooms getting rheumatism, and the workers who plucked wool losing fingers from the acid used to loosen the wool on the sheep. The businesses had no concerns at all about the safety or well-being of their workers. The main concern of the businesses was to make as much profit as possible and to produce as much product as cheaply as possible. No measures were taken to try and improve worker safety, such as using protective equipment or anything else that would help preserve the health and lives of those who worked in the meat packing plant.
There was also a great deal of corruption within the businesses, not just among the top executives. Many of the foremen were the most corrupt and dishonest people within the organization. Phil Connor, a foreman, pressured Jurgi’s wife, Ona, into having sexual relations with him on repeated occasions through threats of not allowing her or her family to work in Packingtown through his connections. One does not want to be with him, but she feels that she has no choice because her family needs the money to survive, so she is forced to give in to the advances of Phil Connor, even though it upsets her. Another example was the forelady of the canning factory that Ona worked at, who ran a brothel. She and a male friend who was the boss of a loading gang often fired regular girls to give the jobs to the prostitutes who worked at her brothel. Many hard-working, honest women lost their jobs to less respectable women due to this corruption and were forced to find new jobs, oftentimes for less pay.
The Jungle has a continuing theme of the power and corruption of big business and the way the workers and consumers were exploited by them. The main focus of the book was the powerful Beef Trust, which was later brought down due to investigations after The Jungle was published. This book exposed the public to the behind-the-scenes actions that took place at the meat packing facilities in Chicago. This created a public outcry and investigations into the Beef Trust, which eventually brought an end to this once-powerful entity. Upton Sinclair’s insight and experience that he put into The Jungle were extremely significant and helped to bring about a great deal of change.
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