MIA: History: ETOL: Newspapers & Periodicals: International Socialist Review: Issue 4

International Socialist Review, Spring 1998

Joe Allen


Return to The Jungle

From International Socialist Review, Issue 4, Spring 1998.
Copied with thanks from the ISR Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the ETOL.

“Negro and White Unite and Fight”: A Social History of Industrial Unionism in Meatpacking, 1930–1990
Roger Horowitz
University of Illinois Press, 1997, 373 pages $17.95

UPTON SINCLAIR’S 1906 novel The Jungle exposed the horrible working conditions that plagued the lives of packinghouse workers in turn-of-the-century America. Almost a century later, according to historian Roger Horowitz, “packinghouse workers in the United States have tragically returned to the jungle.”

The retreat of industrial unionism in meatpacking over the last 20 years has had a devastating impact on the lives of workers in the industry and in the communities that depend on it. Once considered symbols of postwar blue-collar prosperity, these meatpacking communities are now boarded-up towns. Well-paid union workers have been replaced with a new impoverished, underpaid immigrant workforce. At the same time, the new giants of the industry – Excell (a division of Con Agra), Cargill and IBP – prosper in ways that their robber-baron forebears could only dream of.

Horowitz’s excellent history of the United Packinghouse Workers of America (UPWA), “Negro and White Unite and Fight”: A Social History of Industrial Unionism in Meatpacking, 1930–1990, comes out at a time when many people see the urgent need to rebuild an industrial union of meatpacking workers.

The UPWA was one of the most militant, interracial and left-wing unions of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) era and retained much of its militancy in the postwar period. Horowitz gives us a real understanding of both the battles fought to create an industrial union in the meatpacking industry and the union’s tragic decline.

Meatpacking was historically one of the most difficult industries to organize. At the turn of the century, four firms dominated the industry: Armour, Swift, Cudahy and Wilson. They pioneered mass production methods, breaking down into minute detail every aspect of slaughtering cattle and hogs. Yet despite the virtual monopoly of the Big Four over the industry, profit margins were small. Meatpacking was labor-intensive work and management was obsessed with the need to control labor costs. So management produced the notorious “drive system” which used fear and intimidation to raise worker productivity.

Failed organizing attempts

With the exception of a short period during the First World War, when the American Federation of Labor (AFL)-affiliated Stockyard Labor Council unionized packinghouse workers, most early attempts to build the union failed. Workers waged militant struggles in 1904, 1920 and 1921, but these fights were defeated by the employers’ union-busting tactics and racism within the AFL.

The employers recruited an ethnically and racially diverse workforce in order to prevent unionization. Many of the packinghouses were literally “Towers of Babel” where one group of workers could not communicate with another. The employers consciously used the historic racism toward Black workers within the predominately white AFL-affiliated Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen’s union to divide the workforce. This was particularly true in 1921. As the president of a Chicago meatpacking company explained, “We took the Negroes on as strikebreakers in 1921 and have kept them ever since in order to be prepared for any kind of outbreak.”

The meatpacking giants pioneered the American bosses’ short-lived experiment with “welfare capitalism” in the aftermath of the failed strikes of the 1920s. Management combined the open shop with a limited amount of seniority rights for older, skilled workers and company-sponsored recreational and social programs.

The Great Depression of 1929 shattered the thin veneer of welfare capitalism. The return of wage cuts, speedups and brutal working conditions all undermined the employers’ paternalistic policies. After the passage of the National Recovery Act (NRA), union activists began to re-emerge in the packinghouses. Communists, socialists and former syndicalists made the crucial difference in organizing the industry at this time.

In Austin, Minnesota, Frank Ellis, a former member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), was key in organizing the Hormel Company in 1933. Veterans of the Socialist Party in Kansas City were at the center of the organizing of the huge stockyards there. Chicago, with its 20,000 packinghouse workers, was key to organizing the heart of the industry, and it was here that the Communist Party (CP) played the decisive role.

According to Horowitz, “As one of the few interracial organizations in Chicago, the CP helped bridge the divisions among packinghouse workers and also initiated the process of unionization.” The CP, lead by Herb March, trained a cadre of Black, Mexican and Polish members who organized the packinghouse workers in Chicago. Many were veterans of the CP’s unemployed struggles and Scottsboro Boys campaign who brought their organizing experience into the plants.

In 1937, the CIO created the Packinghouse Workers Organizing Committee (PWOC) as a rival to the AFL’s Amalgamated Meat Cutters to centralize the struggle against the Big Four meatpackers. The chief target for the PWOC in Chicago was Armour – the largest meatpacker in the city. The PWOC won by developing a militant shop-floor strategy rooted in an extensive shop steward network that could put pressure on the companies where workers had the most power. After a two-year battle, Armour capitulated to the PWOC in 1939. Swift and Wilson fell soon afterward.

Unionizing the Chicago meatpackers was part of a national strategy to bring all of the meatpackers under national contracts. Out of these struggles, the PWOC created its unique “chain system” of plant-based local unions which ensured regular contact between workers of the same company so they could respond to any assault from the companies.

A generation of militants

The CP recruited a whole generation of militants out of the packinghouse workers’ struggles. According to Horowitz:

“[O]nly Chicago’s Communists were able to build a durable organization and retain their influence well into the 1950s. Their immediate membership, and the larger circles of packinghouse workers influenced by Communist notions of class struggle and inter-racial unity, lent a distinctive character to the Chicago UPWA [PWOC became the UPWA in 1943], which in turn would profoundly affect the international union.”

Despite the McCarthyite witch hunts of the 1950s, the “UPWA retained the insurgent spirit of the 1930s workers’ movement in the changed circumstances of postwar America. The union remained, by and large, democratic...and contributed to the development of the civil rights movement.” Martin Luther King spoke at their conventions and they poured money into the Civil Rights struggle in the South.

Beginning in the 1950s, the industry went through huge changes that would produce a profound crisis for the UPWA over the next two decades. Competitors challenged the domination of the Big Four by employing new technology and building nonunion plants in rural areas closer to livestock. Slowly the great urban meatpacking centers like Chicago began to decline and brought the UPWA down with them.

In response, the UPWA merged with its old rival, the AMC, in the 1960s. But this move only temporarily halted the slide in membership. In 1979, the UPWA merged with the Retail Clerks International Union to form the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW). This merger, meant to save the union, ended up conceding most of what the UPWA had built in the 1930s and 1940s. As Horowitz explains,

Within the UFCW, the packinghouses were a dwindling minority in large, multi-unit locals covering entire states and headed by local union leaders who came from completely different trades. Coordinated national bargaining had disappeared. Regional directors controlled negotiations with packing firms, and only for the plants in their districts. Contacts among unionized workers in different plants of the same firm were irregular and minimal. The industrial unionism established by the UPWA in the 1940s was no more.

From 1979 onward, the packinghouse workers came under siege. A torrent of concessions, union busting and the erosion of national contracts destroyed what a generation of militants had built to push back the jungle. P-9’s heroic attempt to hold the line in Austin, Minnesota, inspired many, but ultimately could not withstand the sabotage engineered by their own UFCW president, William Wynn, who put the local in receivership rather than back its fight against concessions.

Horowitz isn’t sure what the solution is to the sharp decline of industrial unionism among packinghouse workers today. But he has many good suggestions, including the establishment of master agreements, democratically functioning chains, plant-based local unions and a commitment to equality for all members. Horowitz understands that “cooperation based on common grievances and concerns as workers ... will offer the best hope for packinghouse workers to unite and improve their lot in the twenty-first century.” Yet, he goes on to say that there is no way to “predict” how this kind of unionism can be rebuilt today.

But Horowitz’s own history provides the answer. Conditions will force workers to organize and fight back. New militants will emerge from the experience of struggle. And a key ingredient in the fights of the past – organized socialists rooted in the struggle – will once again be crucial in shaping a fighting movement. Horowitz’ book provides an excellent look at an important chapter in working-class history. It should be read by all.

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