- The Hamlet Fire: A Tragic Story of Cheap Food, Cheap Government, and Cheap Lives by Bryant Simon
In this book Bryant Simon examines the 1991 fire at Imperial Food Products in Hamlet, North Carolina, that claimed 25 workers' lives from the inhalation of toxic smoke, a disaster largely forgotten outside the state itself. Using a combination of oral histories, contemporary news coverage, and state records, Simon pieces together the story of both the small, economically depressed town and the troubled company that came to occupy a former-ice cream factory in the early-1980s where it processed chicken carcasses, putting together tenders and nuggets for a range of national chains like Shoney's and Long John Silver's. The company's entirely charmless owner, Emmett Roe, a businessman from upstate New York, operated an oppressive regime that employed a workforce of mostly African-American women, and under-invested in the basic repairs required to establish safe conditions at the plant. When an avoidable accident occurred involving a hydraulic fuel line and a cooker that had not been turned off to avoid a delay in production, workers struggled to escape through padlocked and obstructed emergency exits. Why the doors were locked was a matter of dispute: the company claimed that it was to prevent flies entering the building in response to threats of USDA inspectors to halt operations; some in the town alleged that Roe was worried that workers were stealing bags of chicken.
In bringing close attention to this seemingly obscure event, Simon does the valuable service of relocating discussion about American industrial decline and the end of the New Deal Order from the rustbelt of the Midwest to the to the hinterlands. In selecting Hamlet, a declining railroad town, Simon writes, "Emmett Roe smelled the town's despair from afar." In case the title did not make clear, Simon's argument centers on the notion that in order to make up for the declining wage power of the working class, Americans in the 1970s began to embrace a "social gospel of cheap" in which downward pressure upon prices created the illusion of growing prosperity. This concept of an "age of cheap" encompasses everything from small-government conservatism to the panoply of corn-based edible items—as well as chicken nuggets—offered in what he labels "rural ghettos" like Hamlet, to the treatment of workers as an easily replaceable resource. This is implicitly a discussion of late-twentieth century American capitalism, though Simon largely refrains from employing this particular term. [End Page 1463]
The growth of the chicken business into a major area of domestic U.S. production in rural enclaves is clearly an important subject of examination and provides a valuable counterpoint to the oft-considered decline of the unionized heavy industries that once made organized labor a major political player. Emmett Roe shifted production at his unionized Imperial Food Products plant in Moosic, Pennsylvania, to Hamlet in the early 1980s in order to take advantage of the business climate in North Carolina, a state that historically had been a graveyard for labor organizing campaigns. Nonetheless, selecting a region largely untouched by the effects of the Wagner Act in some ways makes for a problematic case study of the decline of the New Deal industrial order. While Hamlet experienced job losses in the railroad business and freight yards, these were mostly male jobs in a sector that had been in many cases unionized prior to the 1930s.
At the same time Roe was moving his company to a state that was already a leader in industrial poultry processing through the rise of companies like Holly Farms, later to be purchased by Tyson. While the demand for cheap foods may have created downward pressure upon wages, before chicken was a mass-produced affordable product it was a premium product. In the 1950s and 1960s in small North Carolina towns like Wilkesboro and Monroe a workforce consisting largely of African-American women experienced many of the same pressures that were...