Thirty-three years after Upton Sinclair published The Jungle, with its grim account of Elzbieta at her sausage machine, Estelle Zabritz told federal writer Betty Burke about operating a power machine in the dry casings department of Armour & Co. (Casings are the guts used to make sausage coverings.) In the spring of 1939 conditions in the Chicago stockyards were still "really awful," but the spirit of the workers was no longer crushed. "It was an exciting time when the CIO [Congress of Industrial Organizations] was organizing," Zabritz recalls. "We were young and daring and willing to do things."
I'll tell you how I got to working in the yards. I wanted to finish high school but we had a lot of sickness and trouble in my family just then; my father got T.B. and they couldn't afford tro send me anymore. Oh, I guess if I had begged and coaxed for money to go they would have managed, but I was too proud to do that. I thought I'd get a job downtown in an office or department store and then maybe make enough to go to school. Me and my girl friend used to look for work downtown every day. We lived right near the yards, but we wouldn't think of working in that smelly place for anything.
But we never got anything in office work and a year went by that way, so one time we took a walk and just for fun we walked into Armour's where they hire girls. We were laughing and hoping they wouldn't give us applications -- lots of times they send new girls away because there's so many laid-off girls waiting to get back, and we really thought working in the yards was awful. Lots of girls do even now, and some of them even have the nerve to tell people they don't work in the yards. They'll meet other girls who work there, at a dance or some wedding, and they'll say they don't. But you always know they're lying, because their fingernails are cracked and broken from always being in that pickle water; it has some kind of acid in it and it eats away the nails.
Well, in walks Miss McCann and she everybody and what did she do but point at me and call me over to her desk. I guess she just liked my looks or something. She put me to work in dry casings. You might think it's dry there, but it isn't; they just call it that to distinguish it from wet casings, which is where they do the first cleaning out of the pig guts. The workers call it the Gut Shanty and the smell of that place could knock you off your feet. Dry casings isn't that bad, but they don't take visitors through unless it's some real important person who makes a point of it and wants to see. Lots of those ritzy ladies can't take it. They tighten up their faces at the entrance and think they're ready for anything, but before they're halfway through the place they're green as grass. The pickle water on the floors gets them all slopped up, just ruins their shoes and silk hose. And are they glad to get out! They bump into each other and fall all over themsleves, just like cockroaches, they're so anxious to get away and get cleaned up. We feel sorry for them, they look so uncomfortable.
I operate a power machine in dry casings. It's better where I am because the casings are clean and almost dry by the time they come to the machine and I sew them at one end. Mine is a semi-skilled job and I get good pay, piecework, of course. On an average of from $23 to $27 a week. In my department there aren't so many layoffs like in the other places. I was lucky: I only got it three times in the five years I was there. I think they sort of like me, Miss McCann and some of them.
But the first week I was there, you should have seen my hands, all puffed and swollen. I wasn't on sewing then; I was on a stretching machine. That's to see the casing isn't damaged after the cleaning process it goes through. That pickle water causes salt ulcers and they're very hard to cure, nearly impossible if you have to keep working in the wet. The acids and salt just rot away a person's skin and bone if he gets the smallest scratch or cut at work. Most of the girls in casings have to wear wooden shoes and rubber aprons. The company doesn't furnish them. They pay $3 for the shoes and about a $1.50 for the aprons.
My husband got the hog's itch from working there. He can't go near the yards now but what he gets it back again. He used to have his hands and arms wrapped up in bandages clear up to his elbows, it was so bad. The company paid his doctor bills for a while till it got a little better, but they broke up his seniority. They transferred him to another department after he had worked three and a half years in one place, and then after a couple of months they laid him off because they said he was new in that department. They just wanted to get rid of him now that he was sick and they had to keep paying doctors to cure him. Finally he got a job outside the yards so he said to hell with them.