A Century of Meatpacking Unionism

Lisa M. Fine

Down on the Killing Floor.
Black and White Workers in Chicago’s Packinghouses, 1904-1954
Rick Halpern
University of Illinois Press, 1997; paperback $17.95.

Negro and White, Unite and Fight!
A Social History of Industrial Unionism in Meatpacking, 1930-1990
Roger Horowitz
University of Illinois Press, 1997; paperback $17.95.

THE END OF the twentieth century provides a wonderful excuse for historians to assess the trends of the last 100 years.  For United States labor historians, this is an opportunity to widen our gaze to allow for a more integrated and connected vision of the past and to work out a more historically informed understanding of present-day events.

The themes and lessons of these two wonderfully researched and written books about the meatpackers, their labor organizations, their industry, and their communities are worthy candidates for this fin-du-siecle enterprise.

One of the most gratifying aspects of both these books is that they are products of an effective collaboration which not only resulted in the two excellent works reviewed here, but also produced a large body of oral history documents which will be of use to labor historians for years to come. These oral histories, Meatpackers, initially published by Twayne, will be issued in an accessible paperback edition in 1999 by Monthly Review Press.

The Jungle in History

Rick Halpern begins his book in the Back-of-the-Yards Chicago neighborhoods that were powerfully rendered in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.

By the start of the twentieth century, all of the players in this infamous story had appeared on the scene to begin our story: oligarchic and exploitative companies, immigrant (most from Eastern Europe) and migrant (African Americans from the south and whites from the south and midwest) workers, and the patchwork of ethnic/racial enclaves and their distinctive cultural institutions in the contiguous neighborhoods.

From the very start, the main meatpacking companies identified this diversity as a means to control their workers.  As Halpern describes, “Chicago’s meatpackers were among the first concerns to take advantage of what scholars have termed labor market segmentation.  They tapped one market for skilled labor and another, larger one of the remainder of their requirements.  A third pool of workers, consisting of African Americans, was held in reserve for use during periods of unrest or labor shortage.” (23)

Philip Armour admitted pursuing policies intended to “keep the races and nationalities apart after working hours, and to foment suspicion, rivalry, and even enmity among such groups.” (24) During the turbulent era around World War I, the Chicago Federation of Labor, which “advanced a militant, class-conscious style of unionism” sponsored the Stockyards Labor Council.

The SLC, despite skillful organizing by radical members and impressive mobilizations, suffered painful strike defeats as a result of the power of the companies and the power of racism and ethnic divisions.  Efforts to bring Black and white workers together would prove impossible in the incendiary atmosphere created by the Chicago race riots of 1919.

Blacks who had recently migrated from the South in search of jobs in Chicago came into contact with European ethnic groups in neighborhoods, parks and workplaces amidst the economic difficulties of the post-World War I era. The result was deadly race tensions, erupting into riots in the Summer of 1919.

Unionization and racial unity fared no better in the 1920s, an era of industrial paternalism (especially at Swift) and repression.  Nevertheless, shared experiences on the shop floor provided the raw material for future organizing success.  I quote a key point at length.

The packing companies’ policy of placing black workers in strategic departments and advancing them into skilled positions rebounded against them. Unlike the black migrants who were newcomers to the yards in the 1917-1922 period, the blacks who labored alongside whites at the close of the decade were seasoned packinghouse veterans.  The grievances they shared with other workers provided the most important common ground for the movement that emerged in the 1930s.

Organization and Solidarity

Building upon important organizing work done by the AFL unions, the SLC and Communists who had been organizing through Unemployed Councils, the CIO swept through the packinghouses in 1937 with the Packinghouse Workers Organizing Committee.

More than creating the movement of organizing among the packinghouse workers, PWOC organized, disciplined and legitimized it. “The workplace was the primary arena in which solidarity was forged.” Or as Halpern quotes one packinghouse worker, “It was a bunch of guys in bloody aprons that got us these things, not some pretty smelling, sweet-talking lawyer in a hundred dollar suit.” (132-133)

This was, of course, only the start.  Through the 1930s and 1940s each packinghouse, with its own management style and mix of personnel, struggled to bring basic dignity to the workplace.  As Gercie Kamarcsyk described bringing the company to terms, it was a question of being treated “like a human being with real rights.  a real whole person for the first time in my life.” (166)

Direct Action

Two features characterized the work of the packinghouse workers during this period and, as we will see, throughout its twentieth century history.  First, packinghouse workers relied on direct action to bring their employers to terms.

My favorite example from Halpern’s book was an episode at the Roberts and Oake plant when management stalled in talks with the union.  By ceasing to cut up beef carcasses and piling them up instead, workers held the meat—and the employer—hostage.

In a carefully coordinated action, black and white butchers worked through their noon break filling the `dead rail’ with large five-hundred-pound carcasses.  With the government inspector watching the clock, local president Jesse Vaughn sought out the superintendent and raised the question of a formal agreement.  When the superintendent balked, Vaughn pointed to the sagging dead rail. “That man went this high off the floor,” Vaughn recalled.  “Oh my god,” he said, “I’m done.” Within a few days, the company signed.  (134-135)

Indeed, there was little choice: If that meat was not processed shortly, it would rot.

The other feature was the rank and file’s recognition that shop floor and ultimately union success was dependent upon racial solidarity and their participation in efforts to eliminate racial barriers both in the packinghouses and in the community.

As Halpern sees it, “at a time when the mainstream of the industrial union movement allowed itself to become incorporated into the liberal-democratic state…  the packinghouse union asserted its independence and affirmed the legitimacy of political dissent within its ranks…preserving their commitment to social equity…” and advancing “the interests of its black membership by supporting the civil rights movement and playing a direct role in numerous local struggles for racial justice.” (202-203)

The UPWA’s Long March

While Halpern is primarily concerned with meatpackers in Chicago, Roger Horowitz widens the scope by exploring the different experiences of industrial unionism in meatpacking in a number of different locations between 1930 and 1990.

Four case studies in the middle of the volume explore the local conditions in Austin, Minnesota, Kansas City, Sioux City, Iowa, and Chicago.  Horowitz explores the battles over the nature and scope of organizing an international union to propose a thesis that elaborates upon the foundation laid by Halpern.

Because of the importance of Blacks and racial issues and because of the United Packinghouse Workers’ commitment to social unionism and shop-floor bargaining in post-war America, “the UPWA contradicts many assumptions in the literature about twentieth century industrial unionism.” (7,8)

This notion of social unionism is perhaps best exemplified by the words of the preamble of the constitution of the international (1943):

We recognize that our industry is composed of all nationalities, or many races, of different creeds and different political opinions.  In the past these differences have been used to divide us and one group has been set against another by those who would prevent our unifying.  We have organized by overcoming these divisive influences and by recognizing that our movement must be big enough to encompass all groups and opinions.  (139)

When the international shielded and supported communists and other leftists during periods of expulsions, and when the international sponsored anti-discrimination conferences and activities (one culminating in the appearance of Martin Luther King in 1957), it revealed its ongoing commitment to these principles of social unionism.

The use of “chains,” “webs of shop steward organizations connected into `chains’ of local unions in the same plants of national firms” (210), allowed for industry-wide standardized wage rates, counteracting racial and gender divisions while keeping the power of the bargaining on the local level.

These chains allowed for the use of stop-and-go strikes, which were coordinated strikes in different plants of the same firm during negotiations to “exert financial pressure on management by making it hard for the companies to plan production while workers were able to draw their full paychecks.” (217)

The Jungle Again

All this was not enough.  The UPWA, established during the ascendancy of the Big Four meatpackers and a relatively unchanged, labor-intensive labor process, suffered as market share was stolen by new competitors who employed new production technologies and fewer workers, particularly among the most skilled.

New plants were smaller, more specialized and geographically diffuse.  The power, distinctiveness and gains of the packinghouse unions were all but lost.

Horowitz movingly ends the book with an account of meatpacking plants and adjacent communities in Garden City, Kansas:

Initial housing shortages, which forced workers to live in tents and cars, were partly relieved through the construction of cheap mobile home parks on the outskirts of town. In East Garden Village, Asians, Latinos, and white packinghouse workers crowd into dilapidated homes along streets populated by others of similar ethnic backgrounds.

Virtually untouched by city services, the neighborhood has been racked by destructive fires, burglaries, and automobile accidents.  Another trailer court populated by packinghouse workers, the Wagon Wheel, has no paved streets and relies on an inadequate cesspool for disposing household waste.  When it rains, children play in the foul “muddy quagmire” of dirt streets and sidewalks .  .  .

Workers risk dismissal if they buck their supervisors .  .  .  .  The low starting pay of $6.00 an hour forces entire families to work in order to survive, and constant turnover prevents many workers from receiving fringe benefits tied to length of service.  Six day weeks and mandatory overtime alternate with sudden layoffs as the packers adjust to fluctuations in meat supply and demand.

A steady stream of job applicants reminds current employees that there are plenty waiting to take their place.  Inside the plants, ethnic divisions inhibit shop-floor cooperation and mute workers’ resistance to company policies.  (281-282)

We are back in a jungle again.

Lessons of Struggle

Even though the ending of this ongoing story is not victorious, it is not without vitally important lessons.  Halpern and Horowitz do have some differences in their approach and style, but they certainly agree regarding these lessons.  I would like to highlight these lessons/conclusions and use them as a vehicle to elaborate ways the importance of this case study could have been even more powerfully made.

First, meatpacking was a distinctive activity within the context of industrial unionism.  Both historians constantly evoke comparisons to the UAW and steel, and examples of direct action on the shop floor continually reminded the reader that carcasses are not chassis: While chassis can become idle stock that can be used at a later date, rotting carcasses are a loss.

Because of this, I think, comparisons to other large scale consumer goods industries might have been more useful than to large “heavy” industry.

Similarly, both authors missed the importance of changing consumption patterns to the story they told. The workers depicted in Sinclair’s The Jungle could not afford to eat the meat they processed in their long hours of toil. By the 1990s, even the poorest members of U.S. society eat meat in their diets on a regular basis.

A society in which huge multinationals like McDonalds, Burger King and Wendy’s are selling $2 hamburgers on every corner certainly deals with the processing of meat differently than early twentieth century Chicago.

Second, the shared experience of work and shop floor militancy energized this labor organization in ways unparalleled by other industrial unions.  This allowed the packinghouse workers to accomplish goals which eluded many other unions: interracial cooperation and social justice; allowing for diverse political orientations; effective bargaining of local shop demands; outreach to community activities.

Yet I think there is a blind spot here (and I know Rick and Roger, both friends from graduate school, probably see this coming!) Even though both authors describe the activities and frustrations of women workers of both races and the unions’ relative lack of sophistication regarding women’s issues, there is little on gender-and here I mean masculinity.

Horowitz, for example, attempts to understand why the union did not take on gender differences in the same way it did race differences.  He mentions a number of very useful reasons-the number and placement of women workers, the male culture of the union, for example-then proposes that the deep commitment to the “family wage inhibited objections to widely held male notions that women were temporary or secondary wage-earners who did not deserve access to male job preserves.” (241)

Even though I certainly agree, I believe that a further exploration of this, i.e. how males of all races could effectively come together because of this common belief, could have lent explanatory power to the unusual degree of racial (among men) unity in this industry.

Third, the meatpackers were at their best when they were guided by the rank and file. And Halpern and Horowitz certainly took this to heart.  Both authors let the workers speak throughout their texts and were judiciously influenced and guided by their views.

Nevertheless, I could not stop thinking about the fact that both the companies and the unions, the Big Four meatpackers and the UPWA lost out as the rules of the game changed.

As distasteful as it might have been to do, perhaps the words of a displaced foreman or middle manager (perhaps a worker who was promoted) would have rounded out this story.

Political Alienation

The importance of these lessons to present-day events was highlighted in unusual relief as I was working on this review article during the Flint/GM strike in the summer of 1998.

As a labor historian living and working in Michigan and presently working on an automotive topic, it was gratifying to see even the shallowest talking head on the news mention the Flint Sitdown of over sixty years ago. But to my ears, the comparisons were thin and strained.

The conditions of auto workers, the nature of the union, the industry, the political economy of the nation in 1998 are not those of 1936/7, just as the meatpackers’ jungle of the 1990s is not the same as the jungle of 1904.

It is a new world where old tactics will not meet new challenges.  Perhaps learning from the meatpackers being guided by the rank and file and staying committed to uniting workers across race, gender, region and yes, perhaps even national boundaries, will help to accomplish new goals and gains.

These lessons echoed in my brain as I sat in the conference room of the offices of a local Lansing UAW office.  While I was there doing some historical research, out-of work or striking workers were working the phone bank for the upcoming Democratic primary for the Michigan governor’s race.

The phone bankers were a frustrated group because very few of those they were calling pledged their support for the UAW-endorsed candidate Larry Owen. Most were going to vote for the man who ultimately won, Geoffrey Fieger, and many were not Democrats at all.

[Fieger, winner of the Democratic primary in the race for governor, ran as a flamboyant political outsider and populist.  A highly successful medical malpractice attorney who achieved notoriety as the lawyer for Dr. Jack Kevorkian, Fieger made an asset of his lack of connection to the regular Democratic machinery.  His primary victory indicates the degree of Democratic voters’ alienation.

[While striking a pro-labor and liberal stance, Fieger has friendly connections to the Teamsters Old Guard and attempted (unsuccessfully) to enlist a right-wing Republican politician and talk show personality, Ronna Romney, as his running mate! Fieger received a large working-class and especially Black vote in the primary.  He is considered certain to lose by a large margin in the general election to the right-wing Republican incumbent governor John Engler-ed.]

The experience was a lesson in the dangers in the distance between the workers and their union leadership.  As I walked to the adjacent lot, the only location the UAW officials would let me park my Subaru, it occurred to me that the packinghouse workers were at their best when they embraced previously shunned and exploited workers-those considered not “suited” to organizing-and when they participated in efforts to unite, not divide the working class.

We may hope that workers and their organizations will heed these lessons and work to create new and innovative ways to reinvigorate working class organization in the twenty-first century.

Lisa M. Fine is an Associate Professor of History at Michigan State Univerity.  She is author of Souls of the Skyscraper: Female Clerical Workers in Chicago, 1870-1930 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990), and is currently working on Reo: An Industrial History of the Twentieth Century.

ATC 77, November-December 1998


  1. Below is a letter I sent to my Congressman…blue collar worker in the meat packing industry should be outraged that President Obama is now outsourcing poultry processing to China without any USDA inspectors at the China facilities and no label requirements indicating that the processed chicken came from China.

    Dear Congressman:

    My concern below transcends across agriculture, health, labor, and trade.

    This past week it was reported on Fox News Business channel that the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) approved the import of processed chicken from China that was slaughtered in the United States or in a country eligible to export slaughtered poultry to the United States. I verified this by reading the approval USDA letter, dated August 30 2013 to China signed by Andreas Keller.

    This is very disturbing as reported there would be no USDA inspectors at the China processing plants. Additionally there are so many things that can go wrong with this entire concept. For example: Are the chickens slaughtered in the United States shipped as simply frozen dead chickens that are completed unprocessed with feathers and internal organs? If so, how can this be safely processed, and what if the frozen chickens somewhere in the transporting process thaw out to become spoiled? There are no safety checks that would ensure that spoiled slaughtered chickens would not be processed into processed chicken and shipped back to the United States to fast food outlets as chicken nuggets or chicken hot wings, or end up in grocery stores throughout the United States as frozen chicken nuggets, chicken breast, chicken wings, gizzards, livers, etc.

    The second part of this USDA decision that will impact the United States is the potential loss of 10 of thousands jobs in the poultry processing businesses throughout the United States. While many of these jobs may be minimum wages or on the lower end of blue collar pay any loss of these jobs will simply swell the roles of unemployment and increase welfare dependency. The economy cannot keep losing these types of jobs to China, and at the same endanger the food supply of processed chicken for thousands of restaurants grocery stores.

    Please imitate Congressional Legislation to stop this United States Department of Agriculture malfeasance from taking place to protect the United States consumers.

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