In 1906, Upton Sinclair pulled back the curtain behind which the meat-packing industry used and abused desperately poor people—mostly immigrants—to crank out food product as cheaply and quickly as possible. The book traced the plight of animals and workers from stockyards to sausages; an unsuspecting public was horrified to discover that their sausages might include a few plant workers mixed into the hog meat. The Jungle exposed the greed and immorality of corporate barons for whom profit was the only concern. It became the foundation upon which what we know now as the Food and Drug Administration grew.
Sinclair’s main goal was to expose the deplorable conditions of workers caught in the lowest rung of the capitalist society. It took nearly thirty years for labor relations and unions to address the employee abuses in factories and meat-packing plants. From the 1930s till the late 1970s, production workers’ lives improved dramatically, thanks to implementation of rules and regulations promoted by labor unions.
While the meatpacking industry was forced to clean up its act, companies like the Radium Dial Corporation slipped under the radar, so to speak. In the 1920s Radium Dial Corp offered well-paying jobs to agile-fingered young women to paint watch and clock faces with the feather-thin luminescent markings that provided glow-in-the-dark features for wristwatches and Big Ben and Little Ben clocks.
Kate Moore’s book, Radium Girls; The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women, is today’s wake-up call to examine where industry and political will is headed. This 2017 book examines the lives, the hopes and dreams, the loves and passions of young girls who felt lucky to be gainfully employed in the 1920s with jobs that were “fun” and where they made life-long friends as they toiled together painting the glow onto tiny watch faces—in the process of which, they walked about the plant and returned to their families encased in an ethereal glow of escaped radium particles. The dark consequences of their jobs came to light within a few years of employment, as one by one, they watched each other endure horrendously painful and disfiguring diseases that could only be related to their shared work experiences.
The book details how the women spent money they didn’t have on dentists and doctors, none of whom understood the maladies they were confronting. Their complaints to management were met with disdain and threats of lost wages, which due to expensive medical treatment, were more important than ever. With unbelievable strength and determination, these women hauled themselves to work, lost more parts of themselves, searched for answers, and eventually searched for legal advice. Here again, they spent money they didn’t have for legal representation that always fell short of the mark against the well-equipped and financially strong corporate shield.
Radium Girls is a maddening reminder of how reckless and inhumane an unregulated capitalist society is. It is a reminder that the people in the board room view employees as nothing but another tool to be exploited for higher profits to themselves. Tools can be replaced. The more difficult the tool is to use, the more quickly it will be replaced by a less recalcitrant tool—aka employee. Today, labor unions are losing members and power. America’s capitalist society is surging under the current GOP platform that caters to industry by rolling back legislation and regulations that once protected both people and the environment we live in. Like Upton Sinclair’s book, Kate Moore’s book is a clarion call, a plea to not return to the bad old days of all-powerful men in suits.