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William Simmons

Packinghouse Workers Want Action Policy

(September 1939)

From Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 70, 15 September 1939, pp. 1 & 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

CHICAGO – Ever since the Packinghouse Workers Organizing Committee delegation, headed by Van Bittner, presented its appeal to the Secretary of Labor in Washington, it has been clear that further moves in negotiations with the packers would be more closely related to the clean atmosphere of the national administration buildings than to the ill-smelling recesses of the stockyards.

Unfortunately for the young union, it has thereby also permitted itself to be maneuvered onto weaker ground. Its strength lies in the yards. There the workers feel the pinch of their mounting grievances, and they have shown on more than one occasion that one ounce of action brings quicker results than a whole carload of beautifully adorned appeals.

Action Got Results

Here are some of the most outstanding examples from various parts of the country:

A few weeks ago the Armour superintendent fired 13 shop stewards from the Chicago main plant because they had left the assembly line to demand a grievance hearing on wage adjustments. The same evening a meeting of 650 shop stewards elected a strike strategy committee and ordered it – not merely authorized – to call a strike immediately unless the 13 were reinstated. Results followed quickly. The company yielded. While Armour officials were permitted to indulge in a little empty face saving by declaring that the punishment – firing – had been too severe, the thirteen were reinstated.

At the Denver Armour plant workers similarly made demands for grievance adjustments during working hours. The plant manager fired the protesters. But he quickly agreed to complete reinstatement when confronted with the threat of an immediate strike.

Chicago Tie-Up

And now just a few days ago 2,700 workers in the killing department at the main Armour plant of the Chicago stockyards tied up the production line for a hour in protest against the increased speed-up. (Elimination of the speed-up is now the major demand of workers in every yard in the country.) Yet, startling as it may seem a statement issued by the plant superintendent said that: “union leaders disclaimed having planned the stoppage and termed them runaways.”

The same day 2,400 men in the John Morrill and Co. plant at Ottumwa, Iowa, went on strike in protest against the firing of four workers prominent in the organizing activities of the PWOC. This is the largest individual packing plant in the country.

Leaders Back Down

In Washington, however, the union delegation started out by making an important concession to Armour and Co. It withdrew its previous demand for a single nation-wide wage agreement covering all of the company’s plants. It declared the union was willing to negotiate with the packing firm on a plant by plant basis, provided that contracts made are put in writing. Van Bittner, in making the announcement from the Secretary of Labor’s office said: “The modification of our demands was made as a concession to prevent a strike.”

That concession falls right into the lap of the meat packers, for it should be remembered that they have from the outset flatly refused to even consider a nation-wide wage agreement and simply referred the union leadership to their local plant managers. On the other hand the union officials have themselves pointed repeatedly to the futility of trying to buttonhole local plant managers who do not formulate or control policy for the corporation.

One very striking instance of this fact was afforded at the Fargo, N.D., plant when two workers were fired on similar grounds and at about the same time as the 13 Chicago shop stewards. The heads of Armour and Co. simply refused to discuss the matter and told the union officials that they could go to Fargo and see the local plant manager if they so desired. The Fargo workers, however, struck the plant demanding immediate reinstatement.

Incidentally the union leaders had already previously weakened the union position when in the midst of its demands for a nation-wide signed contract it agreed to hold elections for determination of collective bargaining rights in additional Armour plants. With such an agreement any lost election in any one plant, regardless of company coercion, would automatically eliminate that plant from a national agreement. It would no longer be nation-wide, and the company would seem quite justified and have new arguments to back up its refusal.

Two plant elections were held subsequently. The one in the Chicago by-products plants the union carried by a large majority. The other in Oklahoma City, Okla., the union lost by a narrow margin. Elections are still pending in the plants at Fort Worth, Tex., and Albert Lea, Minn. Armour has twenty-nine plants in the country. Elections have been held to date in eighteen plants and thirteen of these were won by the PWOC.

Workers Have Set Example

The PWOC now claims to have enrolled under its banner a total of 84,000 out of the 129,000 organizable workers in the packing industry. It is true that these figures are being disputed by the meat packers; that is to be expected. But there need be ho doubt that union organization is making gains in the stockyards right along.

Time and again the workers have taken action at the drop of a hat, using the strike weapon as a means of redressing their grievances. On the other hand, as Van Bittner announced, the leadership seeks to prevent a strike. It attempts to start the battle by giving heavy concessions to make a plea for negotiations become more palatable. Continuing this, what will happen to the demands of the workers? Are not labor organizations built for the fight to defend the workers’ interests? An organization drive which does not voice clearly and precisely the demands of the workers is foredoomed to failure; and a leadership which does not prepare for struggle in defense of these demands is not worthy of a militant union. The workers have already set the example for union policy.

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