There’s an arc to the history of meatpacking in America. It starts with the wretched Midwestern sweatshops described in Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel The Jungle. It rises through the mid-20th century as the trade unions of the old Congress of Industrial Organizations pushed for better working conditions and pay that was, by the 1970s, some 20 percent higher than the average U.S. manufacturing wage.

But since the 1980s, it’s been in a free fall. Wages have since dropped to 24 percent below the U.S. manufacturing average. Injury rates have soared.

“Since the breakdown of national bargaining agreements, meatpacking has become the most dangerous factory job in America,” says Cornell University labor economist Lance Compa, author of the 2004 Human Rights Watch study Blood, Sweat, and Fear: Workers’ Rights in U.S. Meat and Poultry Plants.

From terrible to better to bad againwhy? The answers to that question are readily seen at the Smithfield Packing plant in Tar Heel, 80 miles southeast of Raleigh. They are: industry consolidation in poor rural areas; a migrant labor force willing to work for less (or be “exploited,” take your pick); union-busting; and finally, politics.

And if politics is, as Harold Lasswell’s classic definition goes, “Who gets what, when and how,” then it’s all about politics. In the New Deal, labor was up. In the Reagan-Bush era, labor is down. And in North Carolina, labor’s never been anything but down, especially if the workers are black and Hispanic.

But even by our benighted standards, the Smithfield plant is breathtaking in its scale and in the audacity with which it’s returned 21st-century factory work to the 19th-century sweatshop model. Lisa Sorg and I wrote about it in last week’s Indyup to 32,000 hogs slaughtered, chopped and packaged every day by a workforce of 5,200. I don’t want to be repetitious. But I do want to make a few points.

First, I appreciate the company letting us in. Until recently, they didn’t, and people got it in their heads that Smithfield was a damned hellhole. Not so. The plant is vast, smelly, cold (except in the killing area, which is outside), and nowhere you’d want to work if you had a choice. (And indeed, turnover’s more than one-third a year.) It is, however, just this side of bearable.

So if you’re OK with people working in barely tolerable conditionsbecause, after all, nobody’s forcing them to work therethen you won’t think Smithfield needs a union.

Since I visited, I’ve discovered that Cy King led a delegation through the plant last summer from Community United Church of Christ in Raleigh. Like me, he was braced for worse. His group reported that the plant was “amazingly clean” and “very efficiently run.” That said, they concluded after prayerful study and interviews with the managers and some workers that: “In order for the workers in the [plant] to receive a modicum of justice, they need a third party to negotiate for them and to bargain for them.”

Second, I suspect the Rev. Mac Legerton, the Lumberton social activist, was right when he said that Smithfield will never accept a union at Tar Heel and will fight it with everything it’s got. That’s a scary thought, given its brutal, illegal tactics of the past.

The company, now showing a friendlier, more public-minded face, says it’s no longer anti-union, though it will “educate” its workers if there’s another union election.

Still, can Smithfield afford to have a union shut down Tar Heel for even a week? Smithfield isn’t just slaughtering the pigs, it owns them, too, following its acquisition of Murphy Farms, IBP and every other significant pork-producing entity on the East Coast. Now it’s out to buy Premium Standard Farms, antitrust issues notwithstanding. Whether it’s allowed to or not, what’s it going to do with 200,000 hogs a week if the United Food and Commercial Workers should lead a walkout at the plant?

Third, the issue of plant safety cries out for, if not a union, then at least third-party evaluation. As the UFCW says, it’s not a good sign when supervisors continually blame the workers for hurting themselveseven when outsiders are listening. The labor-backed group Research Associates of America proposed that the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), part of the Centers for Disease Control, be invited in. Dennis Pittman, spokesman for Smithfield, said that was a reasonable suggestion. It should happen immediately.

Fourth, Smithfield should be using its clout in the General Assembly to support training and education programs for immigrant Hispanic workers. They’re the reason Smithfield’s getting away with labor-union murder in Tar Heel. (Imagine trying to organize workers who are, many of them, illegal and will move on in a year or two.) The least Smithfield can do, while they’re here, is be on their side.

After all, the UFCW is on their side, and it doesn’t even represent themyet.

Fifth, Smithfield needs to clean up its cesspools, the s***-holes it so colorfully calls “lagoons.” It’s been seven years since then-Attorney General Mike Easley cut the deal that, so far, has allowed the corporation to own most of the state’s 10 million hogs and yet not be required to treat their wastes in an environmentally responsible way. (Better methods would cut into their profits? Aw, gee.)

Driving back from Tar Heel, I hit a pocket of hog-stink in Robeson County. It was not bearableyet people Down East are forced to bear it every day.

The politicians have let Smithfield run amuck in Tar Heelliterally and figuratively. It’s time they cleaned up their mess, and forced Smithfield to do the same.