Meatpacking Workers’ Solidarity on the Killing Floor

Rick Halpern

In the 1930s and ’40s, meatpacking employers used racial hiring policies as “strike insurance,” strategically fostering racism to discourage unionization. The Packinghouse Workers Organizing Committee organized across racial lines and proved them wrong.

United Packinghouse Workers of America strikers burn company letters threatening loss of jobs, May 4, 1948. (Bettmann / Getty Images)

Interview by
Benjamin Y. Fong

Rick Halpern is professor and Biussell-Heyd Chair of American Studies at the University of Toronto. Among many other books, he is the author of Down on the Killing Floor: Black and White Workers in Chicago’s Packinghouses, 1904–1954 (University of Illinois Press, 1997).

This interview with Halpern focuses in particular on the genesis of the Packinghouse Workers Organizing Committee, one of the many organizing committees of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), and its remarkable commitment to overcoming the racial and ethnic divisions that had undermined previous organizing drives in the major packing centers of the United States.

Benjamin Y. Fong

What was the Packinghouse Workers Organizing Committee?

Rick Halpern

Beginning in 1933–1934, industrial workers across the United States in almost every industry began talking to each other, began organizing, began thinking about how they might link their project to that of President Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. Meatpacking was no exception. In places like Chicago, East St Louis, Sioux City, Kansas City, anywhere there was a major packing center, workers began thinking about how they could secure a bit of dignity on the shop floor and secure their wages in the midst of an ongoing depression.

In the mid-1930s, based on the initiatives of workers in those places I mentioned, as well as some smaller outlying packing centers in Austin, Minnesota, and Waterloo, Iowa, workers came together and formed the Packinghouse Workers Organizing Committee, or PWOC, which at that time was affiliated with the new CIO headed by John L. Lewis.

In many ways, the CIO functioned as an extension of the United Mine Workers, the big industrial union that Lewis headed. But a key point that needs to be emphasized is that the locus of activity was at the local level. Even beyond that, the locus of activity was in key departments in each of these giant packinghouses. It tended to be on the killing floors where workers had great power because they could stop the movement of the line. They could stop the flow of pork or lamb or steer carcasses through the killing process. That would exert pressure on the company, because dating back to the Progressive Era, there was government inspection of all meat. If those carcasses hung for more than a given amount of time, the company would lose thousands, sometimes tens of thousands of dollars.

Workers in those killing floors really took the lead in not just organizing other workers in the plant, but in demonstrating that workers’ power could deliver very real gains, and that the power of those workers in key structural positions could protect other workers. Under the auspices of the PWOC, slowly but gradually, some of the major employers — Armor, Wilson, Swift, Cudahy — began to be organized, and a few even began to sign contracts in the later ’30s.

Benjamin Y. Fong

What was so important and special about the Chicago stockyards in particular?

Rick Halpern

I want to emphasize first that this was a national movement. Chicago, in many ways, was in the lead, but workers elsewhere were both in contact with each other and in contact with Chicago, and in some cases were way out ahead of the Chicago packinghouses. In fact, the very first union to be organized in this period was in Austin, Minnesota. Before the PWOC, they called themselves the Independent Union of All Workers and organized very much on an Industrial Workers of the World (IWW)–type model.

But Chicago was the largest of the stockyards. It had the largest concentration of meatpacking companies, and it was nestled in a part of South Chicago that was surrounded by the neighborhoods where packinghouse workers lived. I think it’s also important because in some ways the Chicago stockyards were a microcosm of American capitalism in the early twentieth century.

The mechanization of death, which was at the heart of meatpacking, had reached its furthest extremes in the packinghouses of Chicago. Also, this was sort of a company town within a major metropolitan area. It had its own police department and its own fire department, it pumped its own water, etc. This really was, if you will, a citadel of American capitalism. And if that could be organized, and workers understood this at the time, then there was really no limit to what the workers’ movement of the ’30s might accomplish.

Benjamin Y. Fong

Could you describe how the PWOC worked to overcome ethnic and racial divisions in the yards?

Rick Halpern

Racial and ethnic divisions had been the Achilles’s heel of the workers’ movement in the meatpacking industry. Strikes in 1905, the 1917–22 organizing campaign — both ultimately fell apart because of racial and ethnic conflict. The workers who came together to form the PWOC knew both from personal experience, if they had been around in the 1917–22 period, or from hearing about those earlier phases of struggle, that if they were going to succeed, they had to overcome racial and ethnic divisions.

Probably the most important way this was done was on those killing floors. During the 1920s, the packing companies, falsely believing they were buying themselves strike insurance, quite consciously promoted African American and Mexican workers into positions on the killing floors. As one colleague, Paul Street, has put it, this became a dialectical boomerang in the 1930s because it’s precisely those workers who took the lead in organizing other workers in the plants under the banner of the CIO.

Partially because these were led by black workers, but partially because of the left-wing leadership in many of the PWOC-organized plants, there was a belief that industrial unionism in the 1930s meant no distinctions based on race, ethnicity, gender, no distinctions in terms of seniority, no distinctions in terms of treatment, and ultimately, when contracts were signed, no distinctions in terms of pay. That was a pretty important principle. I’d say it was a first principle of the PWOC.

We see it across the CIO, but I think in meatpacking, because of the very high concentration of black workers and Latino workers, this became more than just a talking point. It became a point around which organizing actually proceeded, not just in plant after plant, but in department after department. Now, this didn’t mean that there were no tensions; there certainly were. And it also would be romantic to think that outside of work, black workers, Latino workers, Poles, and Slavs all socialized together. They might have done so in the context of the union, but there were real limits to this interracialism. But within the union, on the job, in the union hall, this really was the first principle of organization.

Benjamin Y. Fong

Did that extend to how PWOC staffed up? Was it cognizant of its organizing core?

Rick Halpern

Yes, some of the early mass leaders were African Americans. One who really stands out is a man named Henry Johnson, Hank Johnson, who got his start in West Texas, son of a Wobbly. All through this period, Johnson is traveling across the Midwest speaking to workers after shifts in union halls and almost always appearing side by side with white workers, often Polish or Croatian workers, to actually demonstrate to the rank and file that the commitment to interracialism extended into the upper ranks of the PWOC, and even into the CIO itself. Many other mass leaders emerged in this period who were Mexican, who were African American, who represented the various kinds of Eastern European immigrant groups that made up the bulk of the workforce.

Benjamin Y. Fong

Could you describe the tension between the PWOC (and then later the United Packinghouse Workers of America, or UPWA) and the Amalgamated Meat Cutters (AMC)?

Rick Halpern

To understand this, we need to go back to the very basic distinction between the craft unionism of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), which the AMC was part of, and the industrial unionism of the CIO, which later the UPWA was a part of. The vast bulk of the AMC membership didn’t work in packinghouses. They were what we might call block butchers, retail butchers. And every time in the early twentieth century that the AMC entered the packinghouses and stockyards, that experience ended with defeat. I’ve already alluded to the 1905 strike, the 1917–22 organizing period, and so on.

Like almost all AFL unions in the early twentieth century, the AMC organized skilled workers only. It only episodically made room in its ranks for the vast majority of packinghouse workers who would’ve had certain knife skills or other skills, but could not really be called craft workers. The union was focused on wages and benefits. The theory was if you could control access to the craft of butchering, you could exert pressure over the employers. By contrast, the CIO and the PWOC, from the get-go, said, “We’re out to organize all workers regardless of skill level and regardless of race or ethnicity.” Yes, wages were important, the contract was important, but the idea was that the industrial union movement would look beyond the workplace and begin to transform American society as well, making it more egalitarian in the context of a mass movement.

In the middle of the 1930s, when the PWOC was becoming active, and certainly in the later ’30s and the World War II years, when the UPWA was the dominant union in the meatpacking side of the meat industry, the AMC was not looked kindly upon by the vast majority of packinghouse workers. It responded in several ways, one of which proved in the long run to be very damaging, which was to be anti-communist. The UPWA had some very prominent and open left-wing leaders, both Trotskyists and members of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA).

The AMC also, in certain locales, particularly in the southern part of the United States and in the Southwest, appealed to white workers on the basis of a thinly disguised racism. In other words, join with the AMC, become an AFL member, and you won’t have to share your locker room with African Americans. You won’t have to integrate your departments that have remained lily-white and so on. This was never a major factor in the stockyards and packinghouses in this period, but it was a thorn in the side of the UPWA.

There was a disastrous strike in 1948. The packinghouse workers went out in violation of the newly passed Taft-Hartley Act and were defeated. At this time, the AMC reappears and tries to raid twenty-two different packinghouses across the country using anti-communism and an appeal to white racism. It is defeated in seventeen of the twenty-two elections.

In some ways, that marks the end of open conflict between the UPWA and the AMC. In an irony, when deindustrialization in the 1950s and 1960s decimated the meatpacking workforce, the two unions merged in the later 1960s. Then they merged again with the retail clerks to form the United Food and Commercial Workers.

Benjamin Y. Fong

How important was the influence of the Left within the PWOC to its organizing successes?

Rick Halpern

In plant after plant in Chicago, but also in the other packing centers as well, there had been leftists who had worked quietly day after day, week after week through the 1920s, and into the early ’30s, alongside other workers who had either no politics or very different politics. When conditions changed in the early 1930s with the coming of the New Deal and the movement of workers in other industries, it was these left-wing organizers already implanted in the industry who in many cases took the lead. In many cases, they became the first staffers of the PWOC or became the first presidents or the first secretaries or the first treasurers of these fledgling locals that emerged. It’s important to remember that in the early 1930s, during the Popular Front period, these leftists were open about their political affiliations.

In addition to building the PWOC, they also built a fairly effective cadre of fellow left-wing organizers who sometimes would go out beyond meatpacking and begin to organize workers in other industries, particularly on the South Side of Chicago. There was a lot of cooperation between, for instance, farm equipment workers, autoworkers, and packinghouse workers, not just in Chicago, but in all the major urban centers where meatpacking was central. There was also activity in local politics beyond the narrow confines of the union movement. I think this gets back to a point that came up earlier in our discussion when we noted that the CIO in this period of its history really was more than just a labor movement. It was becoming the social conscience of urban, ethnic, racialized Americans in trying to transform the status quo.

It was a movement that certainly was based in the working class, rooted in industrial workplaces, but was active well beyond the economic sphere. The Left played a really important role here — not just the CPUSA, but in many packing centers there were important concentrations of Trotskyists associated with the Socialist Workers Party. As I mentioned earlier, with specific regard to Minnesota, there’s this very strong syndicalist tradition that dates back to the heyday of the IWW earlier in the century. There’s this very heady mix of what we might call some of the most powerful features of rank-and-file unionism that grew up over the previous few decades, and a tradition of Leninist organization, whether it comes from the CPUSA or the Trotskyists. This remarkable fusion empowered this movement through the middle and end of the 1930s.

Benjamin Y. Fong

From the perspective of the packinghouse workers’ history, do you think the CIO played a primarily supporting or constraining role on their efforts?

Rick Halpern

One feature missing in this formulation is the way the CIO really attached itself to the Democratic Party. When we think nationally about politics and the CIO, the CIO funneled working-class votes to Roosevelt and the Democratic Party, locally, statewide, and nationally. You could argue, and some historians have made this case, that for most of the ’30s, the CIO really was the left wing of the Democratic Party. There was a point though, particularly after the CIO drive nationwide slowed down in the later ’30s, that workers were expecting Lewis and the CIO to form a Labor Party and to break with the Democratic Party.

In fact, leading up to the election of 1940, they were poised to follow Lewis into an American Labor Party. I remember hearing in a number of oral history interviews with packinghouse workers in this period that they were gathering in the union hall around the radio because Lewis was going to make a nationwide address, and they were sure this was the moment. But rather than announce the formation of a Labor Party, he endorses the Republican, Wendell Willkie. In one case, and maybe this is apocryphal, but it gets repeated in the interview, there’s dead silence in a union hall packed with hundreds of workers, and then someone walks up to the radio and throws it out the window.

Now, this may not be true literally, but there was an important crossroads that was encountered and a fork was taken in the later 1930s where to be in the CIO meant to support the Democratic Party. During World War II, that alliance between the CIO and the Democrats is cemented. Many labor leaders are given high-level positions in the federal government. There’s a no-strike pledge, etc. The story of meatpacking plays out a little bit differently: in the 1940s, they retain a tradition of political independence, which actually comes back and haunts them in some ways.

In 1948, Roosevelt’s one-time secretary of agriculture and one-time vice president Henry Wallace ran for president on the Progressive Party ticket. Wallace campaigned on continued peaceful coexistence with the Soviet Union, which had been a wartime ally, and on the extension of the New Deal. This was very attractive to a number of workers, not just in meatpacking, but in other industries as well. In some other industries, unions that supported Wallace were actually expelled from the CIO, largely because of this support for Wallace and this ongoing visible left posturing. The UPWA was not expelled and continued to hold space open for a more pluralistic approach to politics.

So politically, the CIO was constraining, but I don’t think joining the CIO was in any way a mistake. It was absolutely necessary for workers in an industry like meatpacking to bring the large packers to the table. It was all well and good to organize the Armor plant in Chicago, but if you couldn’t organize Armor in Birmingham, Alabama, and in Dallas/Fort Worth, you weren’t going to be able to deliver the goods in terms of wages and benefits to all packinghouse workers, and you weren’t going to be able to continue to carry the interracialism of Chicago into the South.

The packinghouse workers were able to organize outside of the industrial North largely because they were connected to the CIO, because it was a national movement. The CIO helped create the mobilization of an entire working class that would not have been possible without being part of that larger organization, regardless of what happened later.

The CIO in the ’30s had what I might call a cosmopolitan orientation. In other words, it took workers from Chicago and said, “You’re not just Chicago packinghouse workers, you’re part of America’s packinghouse workers.” Or, “You’re not just a packinghouse worker, you’re a worker, you’re a member of the working class.” That was a very, very powerful thing in this period and helped extend organization into hundreds of other industries.

Benjamin Y. Fong

What is the beginning of the end for the CIO?

Rick Halpern

I think it largely has to do with World War II. It’s a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the agreements that CIO unions make with the federal government allow them to secure contracts where contracts were not forthcoming in an open Wagner-era period of organizing and bargaining. The agreements with the federal government during World War II give them enormous financial clout because there’s automatic checkoff of union dues, but there’s a price to be paid. When your dues are checked off automatically, and you’re a union steward or a local officer, all of a sudden it’s not that incumbent on you to wander the plant and talk to workers and convince them to join based on the benefits that the union will bring them.

Then there’s the no-strike pledge, which makes sense given the war against Germany and Japan. But the no-strike pledge in many industries really serves to erode workers’ organization at the point of production. It serves to diminish the ability of workers to exercise power on their own when conflicts arise. Now in meatpacking, although they formally agree to the no-strike pledge, they make a crucial distinction between enforcing the contract and going out on strike in violation of the no-strike pledge. There are all sorts of pretty sophisticated tools of communication that stewards devise to make it clear when workers are to slow down or to stop work to enforce the contract. And this is not just a semantic distinction, enforcing the contract versus going out on strike.

I remember in an oral history interview with someone from a very small plant in Iowa where he adamantly denied that there were wildcat strikes during the war. We turned off the tape recorder, and we showed him documents from the archives in which he’s named as leading a strike on the killing floor. We turned the recorder back on and he said, “Oh, that wasn’t a wildcat strike, boys. That was a job action. They were chiseling on the contract.” It’s really a remarkable interview and gets at something that’s very, very important. Throughout the 1940s in the packinghouses, in contradistinction to what’s happening in the auto plants, what’s happening in the steel mills, workers’ power at the point of production actually grows rather than erodes. I think the most remarkable figure I heard was that the Kansas City Armor plant in the 1940s had a steward ratio of almost one steward for every forty workers. And every steward was empowered to stop the line.

This is really an outlier in the history of the CIO, but it also underscores how the bureaucratization that preceded apace during the 1940s hobbles the CIO at the end of that decade. It goes into the anti-communist period greatly diminished. In some ways, the civil war within the labor movement that you see because of the struggles around the left-wing question is really the final act. I don’t want to take too much away though from CIO leaders in the later ’40s. A while ago, I was looking at the 1946 CIO convention records, and it’s remarkable what was on the table and what’s being envisioned in 1946. Universal childcare, education, and health care, and not just for workers who are covered under union contracts. In many ways, that’s the high watermark.

Benjamin Y. Fong

What lessons can we draw from the experience of the PWOC and the CIO for the present moment?

Rick Halpern

Let me draw on the discussion to maybe make three points. The first big lesson is the power of industrial unionism, the power to organize workers across lines of race, gender, and ethnicity. It can yield an organization that can accomplish a great deal because employers have always used those divisions to weaken unions. I think that’s really been the Achilles’s heel of the old AFL craft union model.

Related to that, and perhaps more specific to the case of packinghouse workers in the 1930s and ’40s, is that when workers are empowered on the job, they can get a lot done. They can protect each other, and they can transform what can be a dangerous and degrading work situation into a situation where they can take pride, where they can be protected, and where they can earn a wage that will allow them to retire rather than be carried out of the plant. When they can earn a wage that will allow their kids to go to university, when they can earn a wage that can allow them to enjoy life, that’s pretty important. And I think it’s probably worth saying that a generation of packinghouse workers, thanks to the UPWA, rode these working-class jobs to a very comfortable middle-class lifestyle and tried to extend that to others.

I think the third lesson is that when industrial unionism spills beyond the workplace, when it becomes social unionism, when it begins to address workers’ concerns for equity and acceptance and dignity outside of the workplace, in the community, in the political arena, it’s even more powerful. Again, the UPWA accomplished something pretty remarkable in an era before what we recognize as the Dr King–led civil rights movement. They desegregated not just the plants in Chicago and Kansas City, but the plants in the South. In some cases, this was in violation of local statutes. But they were able to do that, and they were able to bring workers along, farther than they ever thought they were going to go, in building a consciousness of equity and inclusivity.