Are Honesty and Hardworking Always Good?
The opportunity to choose work people like to do is a privilege of our time. It was historically stipulated that different time periods offered different working opportunities and conditions to people from different layers of society. The book The Jungle by Upton Sinclair takes us back to the beginning of the 20th century. We can see the plight of the working class, immigrants in particular, but it is not likely that the situation was any different with Americans. The story is about poverty, death, awful living and working conditions, absence of any social programs that could lighten people’s lives, as well as hopeless being that brings nothing but pain. The story also raises fundamental issues of monopolies, corruption and unfair labor practices (Abrahamson 120; Wilson 29). The Jungle provides food for thinking about how hard is to stick to ideals and remain honest in atmosphere of lies, contempt, injustice and raven-black poverty.
The Jungle was published in 1906 when many deficiencies of the Industrial revolution in the United States became painfully apparent. In the novel we are able to see the outcomes of raw, savage chase for profits under the capitalist economic system (Boylan 100).
The novel is the tragic story of Jurgis Rudkus, Lithuanian immigrant. In his pursuit of American Dream, Jurgis went through industrialized Chicago, where he worked in meatpacking industry and in various mills. It is truly painful to follow how America greeted this man and his family, whose intentions were to improve their poor lives. The author introduced many unfair labor practices and describes in details reasons why the union movement in America took place (Klein 42-44).
In this essay I am going to reveal and discuss what the workers had to go through in order to keep their jobs and earn for life, as well as working conditions people had to bear during that time period:
This was the first time in his life that he had ever really worked… Jurgis had stood with the rest up in the gallery and watched the men on the killing beds… The pace they set here, it was one that called for every faculty of a man – from the instant the first steer fell till the sounding of the noon whistle… Jurgis saw how they managed it; there were portions of the work which determined the pace of the rest, and for these they had picked men whom they paid high wages, and whom they changed frequently.” (Sinclair 42).
Jurgis observed the process of speeding up wherein the boss forced a pace man to set almost impossible pace for other workers on this line that lead to extremely dangerous distress, exhaustion, physical ailments, and in the worst cases even to death. If the workers were not able to follow the set pace, they were fired right away (Hussey 25).
The crack was wide while Dede Antanas was hunting a job – and it was yet wider when he finally got it. For one evening the old man came home in a great state of excitement… the man had gone on with matter-of-fact frankness to say that he could get him a job, provided that he were willing to pay one-third of his wages for it” (Sinclair 44).
Dede Antanas was the elderly father of Jurgis. He was offered a job with on simple condition that he would pay the third part of his salary to his boss. It was his first step to the world of bribes and corruption, which was comprised of obtaining money through fraudulent use of power. This was the first time Jurgis realized that honesty and justice were not living in the yards.
Working at the meatpacking plant with unheated workroom was extremely dangerous during the winter period:
In summer the stench of the warm lard would be nauseating, and in winter the cans would all but freeze to his naked little fingers in the unheated cellar (Sinclair 54).
People suffered frostbiting. They were n despair and therefore were sticking their frozen feet in the carcasses that were steaming, when their employers did not see them. But the steam itself was so thick that it created the dangerous environment where men had to work in the cloud of hot steam and suffer from various injuries. The situation was so bad that blood was even on the floors and some men slipped on it when it was frozen:
At first he hardly noticed it, it was such a slight accident – simply that in leaping out of the way he turned his ankle. There was a twinge of pain, but Jurgis was used to pain, and did not coddle himself. When he came to walk home, however, he realized that it was hurting him a great deal; and in the morning his ankle was swollen out nearly double its size, and he could not get his foot into his shoe (Sinclair 86).
Pain was such a common thing when at work that people simply get used to it. People were afraid to think what can happen tomorrow if they would not be able to work, as they knew that if they get to the hospital it is all their responsibility to take care of themselves:
The injury was not one that Durham and Company could be held responsible for, and so that was all there was to it, so far as the doctor was concerned (Sinclair 87).
This was another case revealing that the whole system was corrupted from the very bottom:
People said that old man Durham himself was responsible for these immigrations; he had sworn that he would fix the people of Packingtown so that they would never again call a strike on him… The people had come in hordes; and old Durham had squeezed them tighter and tighter, speeding them up and grinding them to pieces and sending for new ones(Sinclair 50).
People coming to America had no choice what to do when they arrived as they thought that somebody would take care of their future (Goode 11-12). People believed in the better tomorrow on the new continent and put high hopes for better life. They did not realized that they were just dolls in the drama with written script that they did not read and did not accepted the offer to participate. Grandmother Majauzskiene told her family that the immigrant movement was created and stimulated by Durham from Durham's Meat Packing Plant, who was pursuing the goal to satisfy his own labor needs, as well as increase profits by cutting labor costs (Levin 1). It was him who created his own immigration policy by making numerous unsuspecting families come to America under false pretexts and afterwards he just left them to live in absolute poverty. This fact underlines that at that time people immigrating to America did not have any social securities and were not able to get any support from the government. They were simply left on their own:
The winter came, and the place where he [Antanas] worked was a dark, unheated cellar, where you could see your breath all day, and where your fingers sometimes tried to freeze. So the old man's cough grew every day worse, until there came a time when it hardly ever stopped, and he had become a nuisance about the place(Sinclair 57).
People were not getting any medical care. Their lives cost nothing and therefore their bosses were exploiting them at top speed:
Then sores began to break out on his feet, and grow worse and worse. Whether it was that his blood was bad, or there had been a cut, he could not say; but he asked the men about it, and learned that it was a regular thing – it was the saltpeter (Sinclair 58).
It becomes apparent that injuries received at the working place did not bother anyone and were under worker’s own responsibility- he could leave and loose his job and subsequently income or stay and suffer.
As the story develops we are able to follow other unfair practices. This time the situation occurs with closing the factory down during winter without notification and provision of financial assistance to the workers:
For her [for Maria] canning factory shut down!... And they had not given her any explanation, they had not even given her a day's warning; they had simply posted a notice one Saturday that all hands would be paid off that afternoon, and would not resume work for at least a month! (Sinclair 64).
People were left on the streets to starve. Even though it was opened again on a whim, no compensation was offered to workers who were left out without work.
Bosses did not care not only for their worker's health; they were also cheaters trying to cut their wages as much as they could: “…often the bosses would start up the gang ten or fifteen minutes before the whistle. And this same custom they carried over to the end of the day; they did not pay for any fraction of an hour – for "broken time." (Sinclair 66). Bosses did not care not only for their worker's health; they were also cheaters trying to cut their wages as much as they could. This shows that bosses had unlimited power and there were no authorities or legislation regulating relationships between employers and employees. Even if the worker worked 50 minutes from an hour and managed to finish his work and did not find any other work for this time period, he was not paid for this hour at all:
A man might work full fifty minutes, but if there was no work to fill out the hour, there was no pay for him (Sinclair 66).
The amount of workers at the plant was not fixed either. Demand defines the price. When the plants started to bring extra people to work, the wages began to decrease and create the labor surplus:
There were new men every week, it seemed – it was a regular system (Sinclair 83).
More people at the plant created the crowd that made working conditions at the plant even worse: "... it was for all the world like the thumbscrew of the medieval torture chamber” (Sinclair 83). Even though the abundance of workers was strange, people did not realize at once that those new-comers were trained as strikebreakers (Noon 302):
The men were to teach new hands, who would some day come and break their strike (Sinclair 83).
It is obvious that any problem can be considered from several points of view. From one hand are bosses who take advantage of poor immigrants, but on the other hand are those immigrants who do not know language and laws (Coffman 17; Sumper 80). They are the perfect target to be fooled.
Of course she knew nothing about it, except that it was big and imposing – what possible chance has a poor foreign working girl to understand the banking business, as it is conducted in this land of frenzied finance? (Sinclair 84).
Even though in this situation with bank Marija was not fooled and received her money back, she was almost numb from this uncertainty whether she would get her money back.
Big plants were not interested in employing people who became ill from the work; in weak or exhausted workers (Derrick 66; Widdicomb 64). It is quite understandable as they were seeking increasing their profits. When Jurgis started to look for another job, he realized the scheme according to which big plants worked: first, workers were brought to rage with this “speeding up” process, and then negated when he became injured, ill, weak or exhausted:
He [Jurgis] was no longer the finest-looking man in the throng, and the bosses no longer made for him; he was thin and haggard, and his clothes were seedy, and he looked miserable (Sinclair 93).
That time was ruthless not only for men, but for women also. Even though women were suffering the same awful working conditions and other troubles, they could also be subjected to sexual harassment. Phil Connor, as an employer empowered by criminal connections, had a certain power over Ona, who could not reject his advances, because he could easily ruin her family:
She lay perfectly motionless, and he had to hold his breath to catch her words. "I did not want – to do it," she said; "I tried – I tried not to do it. I only did it – to save us. It was our only chance.”(Sinclair 114).
She was both physically and emotionally raped and could do nothing. This is the image of a worker of that time who is crippled, suppressed and silenced by the powerful capitalistic boss on the constant basis.
Capitalism has perverted not only employer’s attitudes to their workers, but also the American justice system (Rotherham 46). When Jurgis is sentenced for the attempt to defend the honor of his wife and his family by attacking Connor, it becomes obvious that power and money can do anything they feel is right. Money can buy court’s decisions and release from penalty men like Connor. In case with Jurgis, the judge even has not taken into consideration the fact that his ruling would lead not only to sentencing innocent person, but also to starvation and to struggle for survival for all his family:
There was no justice, there was no right, anywhere in it – it was only force, it was tyranny, the will and the power, reckless and unrestrained! They had ground him beneath their heel, they had devoured all his substance; they had murdered his old father, they had broken and wrecked his wife, they had crushed and cowed his whole family; and now they were through with him, they had no further use for him – and because he had interfered with them, had gotten in their way, this was what they had done to him! (Sinclair 122).
The society was deeply corrupted and it was hard to find an independently acting institution(Whitt 13).
All of these agencies of corruption were banded together, and leagued in blood brotherhood with the politician and the police; more often than not they were one and the same person,--the police captain would own the brothel he pretended to raid, and the politician would open his headquarters in his saloon (Sinclair 193).
When Jurgis entered the underworld of crime, it becomes apparent that thievery and merciless predation are much better rewarded in America of the beginning of the 20th century. There is no democracy, the corruption rules. Then, Jurgis is able to make more money in unfair way by mugging and rigging elections. The author underlines that before Jurgis failed to achieve American dream, but after he changes his attitude from honest and hard-working- he achieves success: “To Jurgis the packers had been equivalent to fate; Ostrinski showed him that they were . . . a gigantic combination of capital”(Sinclair 241).
The real horror began when plants started to restructure their workforces and replace common workers with prisoners and African-Americans attracted from the Southern states:
Meantime the packers had set themselves definitely to the task of making a new labor force (Sinclair 208).
In their majority they did not have families or did not care about them much, as their living conditions were filthy and they mainly lived about 700 people in one room. It is apparent that such places were rife with diseases and vermin:
Some of them were experienced workers, – butchers, salesmen, and managers from the packers' branch stores, and a few union men who had deserted from other cities; but the vast majority were "green" Negroes from the cotton districts of the far South, and they were herded into the packing plants like sheep (Sinclair 208).
The final unfair labor practice I would like to mention is when the plants refused to re-negotiate a contract between workers and unions. The strike was settled. When they came to consensus to go to arbitration, they refused to hire members of the union, which itself was illegal actions, but no institution could regulate this.
In a society dominated by the fact of commercial competition, money is necessarily the test of prowess, and wastefulness the sole criterion of power (Sinclair 257).
This quote vividly describes the essence and the spirit of that time period. For us, people living at the beginning of the 21st century, such type of society seems to be improbable. We live in democratic society, in which labor is regulated by relevant institutions, our government cares about its people and we feel safe for our present and future. But it was a long way. And without realization of our past, we will not be able to build our future.
The novel ends with the following lines:
We shall organize them, we shall drill them, we shall marshal them for the victory! We shall bear down the opposition, we shall sweep if before us – and Chicago will be ours! Chicago will be ours! CHICAGO WILL BE OURS! (Sinclair 264).
It is their energy and intentions lead to the formation of the society we are living today.
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