An art deco theater, now boarded up, in Hamlet, North Carolina. Photo by Sammy Feldblum.

The price of cheap: Bryant Simon’s “The Hamlet Fire”

A visitor could be forgiven for assuming that Hamlet, North Carolina is a railroad town. A newly refurbished depot museum anchors Main Street, an expansive three-track model-train reconstruction of its heyday tooting lonesome in the basement. Outside, tracks skirt the pagoda-like building and merge in a wide delta. During the town’s boom, in the early-to-mid 20th century, it housed the regional headquarters of Seaboard Air Line Railroad. The men working union railroad jobs provided the town’s economic spine.

But Hamlet is nowadays identified with another industry: chicken processing. On the morning of September 3, 1991, hydraulic fluid sprayed out of a disconnected hose in the town’s Imperial Foods chicken processing plant, and fire erupted. Some of the doors were locked from the outside, the loading dock was occupied by a truck, and, with no pre-planned exit strategy, workers in the back rooms never stood a chance. Most of the line workers were women; many were Black. Twenty-five died.

In his 2017 book, The Hamlet Fire, Temple University historian Bryant Simon argues that the plant’s death-trap working conditions were not an aberration, nor the result of individual negligence. Rather, they were the logical result of a shift in the American political psyche, which promoted the ethic of “cheap” above all else. In place of the New Deal ideal that higher worker pay and regulation against the worst depredations of the marketplace would benefit Americans collectively, the ethic of cheap rode the coattails of Carter-era stagflation to propose that, in Simon’s words, “the combination of less pay, less regulation, and less attention to the economic and racial inequities of the past was the best way to solve the nation’s most pressing problems.”

But the logic of cheap came at a cost. Shoney’s sold the chicken tenders that the Imperial plant processed with fries for $1.99. Meat should cost more. To explain how the price got so low, Simon examines, in turn, the town’s changing fortunes; the convenient silence of North Carolina’s powerful and its desperate workers alike; the industrialization of the food economy and the rise of cheap chicken (not a section for the squeamish); changing labor laws and practices; bodies and health; and deregulation, the handmaiden of cheap. Simon’s book spirals out like “The Wire,” each additional political and economic force further stifling the town and plant until they blow from the pressure.

Hamlet’s transition from thriving railway hub to the hard-luck burgh of 1991 is instructive. Through the first half of the twentieth century, the town’s men—mostly white, a few Black, the jobs segregated based on Jim Crow codes—who worked in the unionized railway jobs could count on solid employment and middle-class lives. In the 1960s, the expanded highway system siphoned passengers off the railways, but its main arteries failed to cut near Hamlet. Seaboard sloughed off jobs. Globalization likewise swallowed the local textile industry, which employed around 15,000 women and men after World War II but just a third of that workforce by the 1970s. In 1974, a year in which national inflation hit double digits, Hamlet’s Richmond County saw 24 percent unemployment.

To revitalize rural areas, North Carolinian politicians—practicing a sleight of hand common in the “New South”—worked to lure job-creators with tax breaks, anti-unionism and lax workplace protections. Thus were father and son Emmett and Brad Roe of Imperial lassoed, and other businessmen along with them; by 1990, the year before the fire, the state was the most industrialized in the country, a surprising laurel for a traditionally agricultural state. At the same time, it had the lowest rate of unionization and the lowest average hourly wages.

Main Street in Hamlet, North Carolina. Photo by Sammy Feldblum.

Local officials, thankful that the Roes opened their plant in town in 1980, did not investigate the plant’s condition after a fire in 1983, nor after another in 1987. Wastewater problems were more water under the bridge. Problems with flies in the plant were “solved” by locking the back doors from the outside, a shockingly unsafe fix but one that jived with the Roes’ accusations of rampant chicken thievery, and one that obeyed the harsh demands of cheap.

Workers resented the ubiquitous chicken stench that clung to them even off the job, the freeze that migrated from the chilled meat into their numb hands, and the antagonistic stance of management. But, as they watched machinery jerry-rigged back together in obviously unsafe ways, and as they were barred from taking bathroom breaks, they felt unable to complain. Imperial was one of the only non-specialized workplaces in town that paid above minimum wage, and the laborers were in a very real sense lucky to be there. As worker Loretta Goodwin recalls, the job was “a blessing and a curse.”

The story of Hamlet is a story of desperation. The rural poverty taking root amid a changing economic climate in the Carter and Reagan years produced a class of workers for whom rickety chicken plants offered a lifeline. After the end of formal segregation, that was even truer for Black Hamletians, who were much poorer than their white counterparts, and who remained effectively locked out of the town’s power structure despite their legal inclusion in political affairs. Single mothers, white and Black, were more vulnerable still, and jobs on the chicken line could save their families. Eighteen mothers died in the fire, leaving behind 49 orphaned children.

Simon’s book spirals out like “The Wire,” each additional political and economic force further stifling the town and plant until they blow from the pressure.

The logic of cheap warps both production and consumption. As Hamlet’s workers made less money, they began to shop more often at the Food Lion and Wal-Mart that opened up in next-door Rockingham. “Understanding the 1970s in the United States,” writes Simon, means “recognizing the deep impact of inflation and declining wages,” which left people “dependent on cheap meat and cheap calories.” Those who had trouble affording produce, or the time it took to cook from-scratch meals, could turn to the type of goods packaged at Imperial.

“In the 1980s, places like Hamlet, with its boarded-up businesses along Main Street, cheered when a company like Imperial came to town,” Simon writes. “They called men like Emmett Roe job creators. But the jobs they offered and products they sold took healthy people and turned them into physical wrecks.”

It was not only the workers who were squeezed. Simon details how the pressures of the corporatized chicken marketplace, dominated by giants like Tyson and Perdue, left the Roes with slim margins and little leeway to invest in workers or facilities if they were to remain afloat. The nod of sympathy to the Roes, who otherwise appear mostly as villains, hints at a wider sense of entrapment. In the 1970s, following the Jim Crow-era denial of education opportunities to the Black community, as many as 70 percent of Black men in cities and surrounding areas had blue-collar jobs; that number fell to 28 percent by 1987. The same pattern held for white men, to a lesser degree. As men’s earnings shrank, women entered the workforce to make up the shortfall, further expanding the pool of expendable and cheap labor for industrialists like the Roes, and exerting additional downward pressure on wages.

Tracks near the train station in Hamlet, North Carolina. Photo by Sammy Feldblum.

In the Reaganite 1980s, as inequality climbed, lifestyle choices of the poor became moralized by those who could afford to live differently; they were blamed for their weight, among other faults, while a brutal economy got off scot-free. That individualizing social analysis, in turn, justifies an unjust political economy. If it is the fault of the rural poor that they are poor, the fault of single mothers that their out-of-work husbands have left, then society owes them nothing but a stern talking to.

The state government, in the thrall of job-creating businesses, neglected to send inspectors to the Imperial plant to protect its workers. A decade after the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) was signed into law under Richard Nixon in 1970, the national mood turned against it, with business-friendly politicians declaring the “Gestapo tactics” of OSHA the cause of the slowdown in American business. Government became the problem in America, rather than a solution, as it had been in the aftermath of the New Deal.

By 1991, a still-rural North Carolina was the most industrialized state in the nation, but it hardly had the manpower or willpower to oversee that bounty. The state had only forty-two safety and health inspectors for its nearly 2 million workers; each place of business could count on a random inspection once every seventy-five years. Little wonder, then, that they never got to Imperial before the fire.

With cheap government, you get what you pay for. Those who stand to benefit most from effective governance lose faith in government. As Simon writes, “Deregulation tended to erode support for state action among those who needed it most.” After the fire, Hamlet’s Black residents especially felt that the government had failed to protect them, and race relations in the city turned uglier—two separate memorial services were held at the one year anniversary of the fire, separated along racial lines.

With cheap government, you get what you pay for. Those who stand to benefit most from effective governance lose faith in government

Simon’s narrative echoes George Packer’s in 2013’s The Unwinding. Packer traces a similar dissolution of the American social contract and its replacement with individualist myths and scorched-earth politicking. In a section on Sam Walton, founder of Wal-Mart, Packer writes: “Over the years, America had become like Walmart. It had gotten cheap. Prices were lower and wages were lower. There were fewer union factory jobs, and more part-time jobs as store greeters.”

The logic of cheap, already flourishing in 1991, was in fact ascendant, and remains the dominant strain in American politics today. It is the logic by which President Trump nominates a Secretary of Labor, Andrew Puzder, who does not believe in a minimum wage and who violated labor laws in his fast-food restaurants (he was not confirmed, thanks to allegations of spousal abuse). It is the logic that leads North Carolina’s current Secretary of Labor Cherie Berry to advocate for abolishing the minimum wage. It is the logic by which public-sector unions remain illegal in North Carolina.

It is the air we breathe. North Carolina has received plenty of attention in the last few years for its enormous hog-farming operations—which spray fecal vapor onto their neighbors, and which leak waste into rivers and cause fishkills—but the poultry industry has been booming in the state lately, with oversight still lax. An “ag-gag” law that took effect in 2016 prohibits documenting conditions inside animal farming operations, and other workplaces, across the state.

The logic of cheap, already flourishing in 1991, was in fact ascendant, and remains the dominant strain in American politics today… It is the air we breathe.

The race-to-the-bottom style of business incentives remains in vogue. As Amazon searches for a location for its second corporate office, hopeful cities have kowtowed with promises of tax breaks and business incentives that should be familiar to any small-town Southerner. Even Rust Belt states, traditional labor redoubts, have begun to follow the South’s lead, gutting public unions and passing right-to-work laws in hopes of attracting outside investment. But while luring industry can mean more jobs, which can indeed boost the economy, cheap cannot bring a town back to life.

I recently visited Hamlet. It was a cloudy Saturday afternoon in early December, unseasonably warm. I wandered Main Street, a short walk from where the plant had burned down a quarter-century ago, and found not a single business open. A stately bank building of granite, built in 1912, had been turned into an electronics shop, which had since closed. A grand pink art-deco theater sat boarded up.

A train clattered by, and I spoke with a man out for a walk. He had recently moved to Rockingham for its cheap housing and was the only other pedestrian in town. At his suggestion, I visited the train depot museum, which was open but deserted, and wandered downstairs to the model train set. As the trains chugged in circles, the model town bustled with activity—gleaming cars prowled the streets, children played in the green yards of lively residential neighborhoods, bathers lounged by the lakeside. The trains whistled to a halt, the model town’s smile frozen into a rictus. I went upstairs and got in my car and left, and saw not a soul.

  • About

    Sammy Feldblum recently moved from Western North Carolina to Albuquerque, NM. He reports from all over the map.