Amid protests of stay-at-home orders and calls to “reopen the economy” despite the ongoing covid-19 pandemic, BBC News revealed “the untold story of America’s biggest outbreak.” On March 25, a young whistleblower, the daughter of immigrant workers at the Smithfield Foods pork plant in Sioux Falls, S.D., prompted an investigation into coronavirus at the plant.

Acknowledging a confirmed case among its workforce the following day, the company asserted that its operations were “a crucial part of our nation’s response to covid-19” and thus the plant needed to remain open. By April 12, when Smithfield finally closed under pressure from the South Dakota governor’s office, the plant had become the No. 1 hot spot in the United States, with a cluster of 644 confirmed cases among Smithfield employees and people who contracted the virus from them.

Even then, the company’s president and CEO, Kenneth M. Sullivan, stressed that the closure, along with others, was “pushing our country perilously close to the edge in terms of our meat supply” and threatened “severe, perhaps disastrous, repercussions for many in the supply chain, first and foremost our nation’s livestock farmers.”

Yet, despite public pronouncements that the company prioritized the health and safety of its employees — mostly immigrants and refugees — “taking the utmost precautions and actions” to ensure their “health and wellbeing,” workers allege that Smithfield ignored their requests for personal protective equipment and pressured them to remain on the job. One former employee asserts: “They don’t care about employees. They only care about their money.”

More than a century ago, an investigation into Chicago’s meatpacking industry revealed similar working conditions. It transformed a scholar into an activist and launched a movement for labor reform that resulted in new laws regulating working conditions, hours and wages. It exposed how the pursuit of profit can lead to the exploitation of a predominantly immigrant workforce — lessons essential for understanding the debate around worker safety in the meat processing industry today.

In 1906, the muckraking journalist Upton Sinclair published his expose of the meatpacking industry in Chicago, “The Jungle.” The novel seared images of downtrodden workers and diseased flesh into the minds of his readers. He described the meatpacking industry as “the incarnation of blind and insensate greed … the spirit of capitalism made flesh.” Shortly after its publication, Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act, which protected consumers but did nothing to improve conditions for workers. Sinclair quipped: “I aimed for the public’s heart, and by accident hit it in the stomach.”

While Sinclair’s work left deep impressions on generations of readers, it was the activism of social scientist Sophonisba Breckinridge — who conducted her own investigation into women’s working conditions in Chicago’s infamous stockyard district that same year — that created meaningful change for American workers. And it is to her example we should look today.

In the decades following the Civil War, Chicago’s location in the nation’s heartland, the spread of railways and the invention of refrigeration all combined to make the city the epicenter of the nation’s slaughtering trade. In the late 19th century, entrepreneurs such as Philip Armour and Gustavus Swift utilized the division of labor and took advantage of technological innovations to build vast meatpacking plants that turned “waste” into “by-products.”

This process commodified every ounce of the 400 million cattle, sheep and hogs that were shipped from the hinterlands to be killed, processed, packaged and sold between 1865 and 1900, producing revenue of more than $5.5 billion.

By the turn of the century, Chicago’s scattered slaughterhouses and stockyards had been consolidated into the vast Union Stock Yards, occupying approximately one square mile on the city’s South Side. The nation’s greatest concentration of meat-product companies such as Armour’s, Swift & Co. and Libby’s processed up to 40,000 hogs per day — each. Meatpacking moguls employed approximately 30,000 workers, more than 10 percent of them women.

The high profits of the meatpacking industry came at a high price for its workers. The “disassembly” procedures of Chicago’s meatpacking industry foreshadowed the “assembly” lines that would come to characterize industrial production methods in modern America. By compartmentalizing the skilled trade of butchering and replacing it with repetitive tasks in multiple departments, meatpacking companies were able to pay low wages, demand high productivity and rely on seasonal labor. The constant influx of hungry, hard-working immigrants provided a ready supply of unskilled labor.

Ignoring “all considerations except those of the account book,” and exhibiting “callous disregard” for the workers, as Breckinridge put it, Chicago’s carcass capitalists thwarted workers’ attempts to unionize to demand better wages and working conditions.

Breckinridge spent more than four months inspecting the facilities and interviewing the employees of “Packingtown.” She spoke to nearly 2,000 girls and women — mostly Slavic immigrants between the ages of 16 and 22 — whom she found laboring to trim meat, can ham, make sausages, package “Butterine,” produce glue and process bones in unspeakably unsanitary conditions.

Whether paid by the piece or by the hour, packinghouse workers were vulnerable to periodic layoffs in slack periods and subjected to a “feverish pace” during the busy season. Working in cold, windowless rooms and standing on “dirty, blood-soaked, rotting wooden floors” for 10 hours a day, girls and women “toil[ed] without relief in a humid atmosphere heavy with the odors of rotten wood, decayed meats, stinking offal” and human waste from the doorless privies that vented directly into the workrooms.

Breckinridge’s investigation into the meatpacking industry convinced her that “industry is more perilous than war.” Her encounter with the packinghouses of “Porkopolis” made her a passionate advocate of so-called “protective legislation” for women workers: gender-specific laws regulating working women’s hours, wages and working conditions.

By focusing on women workers, labor legislation advocates sidestepped the Supreme Court’s hostility to labor legislation. While the court had ruled state laws limiting men’s working hours unconstitutional in the 1905 case Lochner v. New York, in the 1908 case Muller v. Oregon, the court upheld labor legislation — for women only. Building on this precedent, between 1908 and 1917, 19 states and the District of Columbia adopted legislation regulating women’s working hours. Another protective labor legislation campaign, this one focused on minimum wage legislation, achieved victory in eight states in 1913.

Protective legislation functioned as an “opening wedge” to promote labor legislation for all workers. Breckinridge’s proposal for a federal study of women’s and children’s working conditions garnered widespread support among national reform organizations, including the Women’s Trade Union League and the National Consumers’ League. In 1907, the proposal gained congressional approval and funding. The resulting 19-volume report, published between 1910 and 1913, provided the basis for the establishment of two new federal bureaus, the U.S. Children’s Bureau and the U.S. Women’s Bureau, within the Department of Labor.

These government agencies would advocate for a ban on child labor and better working conditions for women for decades to come. Ultimately, their collaboration with a national network of labor advocates, women activists and New Dealers culminated in the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which banned child labor and established a minimum wage for both male and female workers.

Breckinridge’s work highlighted the need for social advocacy and state action to protect workers from the rigors of industrial capitalism. As officials grapple with the revelations of conditions at meat processing plants today and consumers worry about interruptions to the nation’s “supply chain,” these lessons about the high costs of industrial capitalism and the need for meaningful protections for workers, as well as consumers, ring true once again.