A Religion of Unity

For black meatpacking workers, multiracial class politics was the path to economic and social advancement.

UPWA District Area 5 Members Parade float, circa 1960. (Chicago Public Library)

“For a working man, I mean a black working man, you could hope to be one of those Pullman porters, but the next best thing was to earn top dollar over in a packinghouse.” This sentiment expressed by a Chicago meatpacking worker was echoed by many black workers in the early to mid-twentieth century. Though jobs in meatpacking were always among the better industrial jobs available, it was the United Packinghouse Workers of America (UPWA) that made the industry a leading source of economic stability, racial justice, and workplace empowerment for black workers.

The material gains achieved by the UPWA in collective bargaining elevated black packinghouse workers into the loosely defined “blue-collar middle class.” But the union offered much more than that. The story of the UPWA is an inspiring example of multiracial unionism and labor’s broader political engagement beyond its membership. In many urban areas packing houses were the largest and most important multiracial institution around. African Americans, Eastern Europeans, Irish, Germans, Scandinavians, and native-born Protestants could all be found laboring in meatpacking plants across the country.

Oral histories of the experience of black workers in these plants, provided at length in the excellent work Meatpackers, by Rick Halpern and Roger Horowitz, give us deep insight into the crucial role the union played in improving the lives of working-class black people during this period. The UPWA used shop floor actions to fight boldly against racial and gender discrimination on the job, and made a point of challenging racist attitudes among white union members in the name of class unity. The relentless activism of the UPWA did not stop at the plant gates, however. UPWA leaders used their engaged membership to take on civil rights initiatives that mattered in the communities where workers lived.

The struggles of meatpacking workers provide an excellent model for how unions today can address the fight against racist and xenophobic views among union members and inequalities in other realms of society. A spotlight on the UPWA also provides a corrective to simplistic claims about the labor movement’s role in perpetuating racism, and the relationship between class politics and the fight against racial discrimination.

Black meatpacking workers did not see class-based organizing as inadequate or an impediment to their fight for racial equality. As the words of these workers show, they saw their union as the primary institution they could use to secure a life of dignity in every sense of the word.

Growth of an Industry

Before 1860, small local firms provided most meat because perishable items could not be shipped over long distances. The technological breakthrough of refrigerated train cars facilitated the creation of large meatpacking firms in or near urban rail hubs. Like many other industries at the time, large-scale industrial production brought with it specialization and division of labor.

Highly skilled butchers gradually became replaced by knife workers and laborers with very narrowly defined tasks. The work still remained labor intensive due to the inconsistent size of meat stock and the difficult angles required for cutting. Machine operators and helpers were only 20 percent of the workforce.

The goal of securing steady employment in meatpacking plants attracted many Southern blacks to northern industrial centers during the Great Migration of the 1910s. As in many other industries, black workers were primarily used as strikebreakers in the early twentieth century. This was the perfect tool for employers to reinforce fragmentation within the working class and distrust between workers of different races. Many American Federation of Labor (AFL) unions excluded blacks at the time, which of course all but ensured that those same workers would be easily recruited to break strikes.

Black male workers consistently worked in the more physically demanding jobs with environmentally dangerous conditions. In the rendering house and hide cellar, workers absorbed disgusting odors on top of developing skin problems and respiratory illnesses. On the “killing floor” they dealt with chronic back injuries and temperatures over 100 degrees during the summer months. However, it was on the killing floor that workers had the greatest leverage. After all, production cannot start until dead animals are available to cut and process.

Women mostly worked in departments that developed processed food. White women dominated in cleaner jobs like bacon slicing. Black women primarily worked in offal and casing departments where they prepared organs like intestines, bladders, and hearts. In casings workers often suffered from pneumonia, rheumatism, and arthritis.

The process of engaging black workers in union activity was long and painful. In 1904 there was unity among skilled butchers and unskilled immigrant laborers during a national strike. The company brought in large numbers of black strikebreakers and racial violence ensued. Many working-class black people seemed to be permanently alienated from trade unionism because of experiences such as these.

Hopes for multiracial unionism in meatpacking revived during World War I, which caused a severe labor shortage and greater leverage for workers. The suspension of immigration from Europe also led to the massive recruitment of black workers to the industry. The Stockyards Labor Council (SLC) was created in 1917, and by 1918 it had enrolled 90 percent of Chicago’s white packinghouse workers. Organizing southern black migrants proved difficult because major black institutions like churches and newspapers were anti-union. Meatpacking companies cynically curried favor with these institutions in order to exploit this division to the fullest.

As shop floor militancy increased throughout the war, Secretary of War Newton Baker was forced to create a mediation commission in the hopes that it would prevent disruptions in key industries. Arbitration produced concrete advances for Chicago packinghouse workers: an eight-hour workday, forty-eight-hour work week, dollar-a-week raise, and overtime provisions. This victory opened up the way for huge membership gains among previously skeptical black workers. Black shop stewards began serving alongside whites, and the union sponsored multiracial social events such as picnics and dances.

The end of the war, however, immediately turned the labor shortage into a labor surplus. The Chicago race riot of 1919 further destroyed hopes of a multiracial union, and the SLC soon collapsed. Taking advantage of the opening, packing firms withdrew from the arbitration agreement and unilaterally reduced wages. In 1921 the Amalgamated Meat Cutters (AMC) called a strike, but again black workers were used as scabs and the union was defeated. As the AMC became further discredited, packing companies set up welfare programs that won the allegiance of a significant number of workers. A special effort was made to nurture a following among skilled black workers, deemed “strike insurance” by one company executive.

The Coming of the CIO

By the 1930s black packinghouse workers were no longer recent migrants without industrial experience. They had been able to win at least a small degree of respect and confidence from their white coworkers. The failed strike of 1921 proved to many whites that support from black workers was absolutely essential if the union were to win any strike. White packinghouse worker Gertie Kamarczyk said, “They [white workers] didn’t come in and hug ‘em and kiss ‘em . . .  But they knew they had to be together, period. Even though some of them were anti-Negro, they still knew you had to be together to form a union and to win some of their demands.”

Packinghouse workers rode the wave of organizing breakthroughs made by the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in the mid-1930s, many of which involved significant numbers of black workers. In October, 1937 the Steelworkers Organizing Committee (SWOC) helped to form the Packinghouse Workers Organizing Committee (PWOC). The SWOC sent the brilliant orator and prominent black trade unionist Henry Johnson to work on the organizing drive.

The PWOC set up departmental organizations and stewards boards with deliberate representation from different ethnic groups. Union organizers constantly reminded black workers that the union could push back against racist management practices. The local at the Chicago Armour plant won a major victory against discrimination by getting rid of the stars on black workers’ time cards. These stars served no other purpose that to single out blacks for layoffs. In several cities, there were even strikes by majority white plants to stop discriminatory practices, including a plant occupation in Kansas City in 1938. In 1943, delegates from hundreds of meatpacking local unions voted to form the United Packinghouse Workers of America.

Fighting Discrimination on the Job

From the beginning the UPWA made it a priority to fight racism on the shop floor and in the meatpacking labor market. In 1950 the union formally adopted a robust anti-discrimination program and encouraged civil rights initiatives throughout the union.

The integration of segregated departments, dressing rooms, and other plant facilities was one of the first priorities. They also sought to end hiring discrimination against black women at the plant and in the broader community. As an aid to these initiatives the union tried to work with and influence community organizations such as the NAACP. One black worker recalled how local union officials told reluctant white workers, “Either work with them or find another job. That was spelled out to them and they cooperated very nicely.”

Black workers were strongly committed to the idea that the union could only survive on the basis of racial unity in the plants. Philip Weightman, steward and worksite leader at the Chicago Swift Plant, described how he fought to keep the union from dividing along ethnic lines. “We could not cater to whites and we could not cater to the blacks. This is the principle on which this union is organized: no second-class citizenship . . .  We never met with a black group or a white group; it was always bringing together.” By consistently stressing the material benefits the union was winning, they were able to convince some hesitant white workers to support the multiracial union. Many packinghouse workers claimed they “made a religion of unity.”

Exciting demonstrations of shop floor power were used to enforce racial equality within the plants. This was especially true of the workers who were part of the second phase of the Great Migration and entered the plants during World War II. They tended to be more militant and had higher expectations. Sam Park and Charles Hayes were part of this cohort in Chicago, and decided to take matters in their own hands when management refused to hire black women in the bacon slice department. They led a group of black workers from the killing floor up to management’s office, still dripping in blood, and sat on their desks until the company relented.

The union was also instrumental in helping black women secure employment in meatpacking plants. They were supported by other efforts to take on racism in the labor movement. For example, Rowena Moore became involved in an initiative directly inspired by A. Philip Randolph’s March on Washington Movement. Moore and others tried to secure employment for black women in Omaha’s defense industries and coordinated with packinghouse unionists. This experience stayed with Moore: “I’ve said I’ll always have a special love for the union because they did support getting the black women in there.”

Anti-discrimination initiatives did not always go smoothly, of course. The 1952 national agreement with Armour mandated desegregation of all plant facilities, but in some locals white workers demanded that signs for separate facilities be reinstated, which they promptly were. By now, however, the national union was too invested in this fight to let it go easily. UPWA president Ralph Helstein threatened to strike the company, and the signs were removed again.

Most black workers had no illusions that the union was perfect or that it was going to be easy to fight discriminatory practices. Activists like Rowena Moore often butted heads with certain union officials who were more resistant on matters of racial and gender discrimination. But most workers still believed that taking ownership of the union as a vehicle for transformative change was the best way forward. In the words of Moore, “If you’re not satisfied with something, you don’t just pack up your books and go home. You work with the group and try to change it or do something to improve it.”

The organized Left, mostly in the form of the Communist Party, was crucial to the success of multiracial organizing in many cases. In the 1930s some younger black workers came into contact with the Left in unemployment campaigns and its support for the Scottsboro Boys. Herbert March, a white worker, got involved in labor organizing through the Young Communist League and started working at the Chicago Armour packing plant in 1933. There he built a strong CP unit that was always at the forefront of fighting discrimination.

Even black workers who were never interested in joining the Communist Party had to acknowledge their impressive track record when it came to fighting racism. Philip Weightman said, “They talked multiracial. Anti-discrimination . . .  I give them credit for that . . .  I may not have been as aggressive as I was if it hadn’t been for them, you see?”

Beyond the Shop Floor

Early in its life, the UPWA sent clear signals that it would get involved in issues beyond the plant gates. At their second convention in 1944, the host hotel refused to house black delegates. Packinghouse leaders moved it to a cramped union hall despite 102 degree heat.

Solidarity between black and white workers on the job was leveraged in fights to desegregate local bars, restaurants, and hotels. A particularly effective tactic was to send teams of black and white workers into a local bar asking for service. When the black workers were denied service, whites would also walk out. Back at the union hall a complaint would be filed with the state’s attorney and usually the establishments would have to desegregate. In Fort Worth, Texas the UPWA was successful in desegregating both the Holden Hotel and Tarrant County public schools.

This activity reflected a historical period when civil rights struggles had a decidedly working-class character and were closely linked with the labor movement. William Rasberry, a packinghouse worker in Kansas City recalls, “The labor movement, we were sort of like an advisory to the civil rights movement, and we supplied the money.” This labor-civil rights coalition reached its peak in the 1940s and 1950s and was based on a fundamental premise emphasized by leaders like A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin: since the vast majority of African Americans were working-class, a broadly social democratic program anchored in industrial unionism was the best way to advance their interests.

Many of the campaigns mounted during the apex of southern civil rights activism targeted the specific political-economic foundations of the Jim Crow system, not an abstract “white supremacy” Aside from union campaigns, these included struggles around the poll tax, fair hiring, and public education. By the end of World War II, there was consensus even among black moderates and liberals that expansion of the industrial union movement would be critical for further advancement. As the 1960s unfolded, black poverty was increasingly studied and explained in individualist/psychological terms rather than in the context of political economy. Unfortunately, the close connection between labor and civil rights during this period is often overlooked in historical accounts today.

To advance UPWA’s civil rights objectives, black packinghouse workers took over many local NAACP branches in places like Chicago, Omaha, and Kansas City. Where this happened, the class character of the NAACP was changed from middle-class to working-class. Rowena Moore so effectively dominated the NAACP in Omaha that management let her set up a table in the plant.

The UPWA and allied community groups also turned their attention to opening up job opportunities for black workers in other industries. William Rasberry became regional Vice President of the National Negro Labor Council and targeted major industries that discriminated in hiring like airlines, banks, and department stores. Throughout Martin Luther King Jr’s career UPWA was always a staunch ally of his. They strongly supported the Montgomery Bus Boycott and invited King to their anti-discrimination conference.

End of an Era

By the mid-1950s, the UPWA was already dealing with mechanization and the closing of unionized packing plants. Electrical “wizard” knives and new slicing/weighing machines led to layoffs across the industry. As with so many other unions, structural changes limited their ability to practice the robust social unionism they were known for. Restructuring of the industry led the union to eventually merge and form the United Food and Commercial Workers in 1979.

Many black UPWA activists continued to use the organizing skills and values they attained through the union for the rest of their lives. For some the experience was a life-changing one. Chicago UPWA member Jimmy Porter said, “It offered me an opportunity I never dreamed I would have before . . .  it gave me an opportunity to broaden my education.” When responding to the common accusation that UPWA leaders were Communists, Porter quipped, “God damn, if this is Communism, don’t ever let it die!”

As we enter the 2020 presidential election cycle, the race/class debate will continue to sharpen. It will be used by some as a cynical ploy to attack the budding democratic socialist tendency in US politics. The successes of the UPWA should offer us hope and a historically grounded perspective.

The black women and men who labored in packinghouses saw no contradiction between advancing their own specific interests and the need to maintain a multiracial alliance with white coworkers through the UPWA. In fact, one could not be done without the other. This same kind of organizing on the basis of trust and mutual support in pursuit of concrete objectives is what will continue to move us forward today.