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Industrial unionism in the meatpacking industry

Meatpacking workers in 1904

Here are old notes of mine on a very good book by the historian Roger Horowitz, “Negro and White, Unite and Fight!”: A Social History of Industrial Unionism in Meatpacking, 1930-1990 (1997).


Unlike most CIO unions after 1950, the UPWA (United Packinghouse Workers of America) “retained the insurgent spirit of the 1930s’ labor movement in the changed circumstances of postwar America. The union remained, by and large, democratic and accepted considerable internal political diversity throughout its existence. UPWA locals generally retained considerable influence over the work process through extensive shop-floor steward organizations....” (2, 3). Committed to social justice and anti-discrimination activity on behalf of black members, and contributed to the civil rights movement.

Three general factors: “the endemic conflict over work between labor and management in meatpacking, the interracial composition of the workforce, and the capacity of the union’s founders to reproduce, in the 1940s and 1950s, a new generation of union militants” (3). These features explain the differences between the UPWA and other CIO unions after World War II. In many respects the union became more progressive after the war, not less. (However, it was less progressive on gender issues than racial issues -- even though women were about 20 percent of the workforce in every packinghouse.)

The book focuses on four meatpacking centers crucial to the UPWA and the industry: Chicago, Kansas City, Sioux City, and Austin, Minnesota. It takes its story up to the collapse of union power in the late 1980s.

The rest of the book:

Four histories of how unions were established in each of the four cities mentioned above. General themes: interracial unity, rank-and-file initiative. “Militant minorities” in the packinghouses. Chapter 6: the UPWA is born in 1943, succeeding the PWOC (Packinghouse Workers Organizing Committee). CIO leaders want it to be structured like the United Steelworkers, with top-down, centralized control, but the locals force it to have a relatively democratic, decentralized character. Their success in this struggle influences the UPWA’s progressive nature during the 1950s and 1960s.

The labor movement’s anticommunist hysteria between 1947 and 1950 had less effect on the UPWA than other CIO unions largely because of the great power that the locals wielded -- as opposed to the UAW’s top-down structure, for example. The rank and file’s influence ensured that the UPWA only paid lip-service to anticommunism; members knew how essential Communists had been to the union’s past victories, and they saw no need to eject them. Nevertheless, the union was forced to comply with the Taft-Hartley Act after a failed strike in 1948.

In the 1950s the UPWA expanded its social unionism, especially with regard to anti-discrimination activities inside and outside the workplace. It actively supported the voter registration drives of Martin Luther King’s SCLC, indeed was the only AFL-CIO union to send representatives to the formative meetings of the SCLC. Packinghouse workers also fought to end segregation in their own communities. On the other hand, the union’s masculinist bias ensured that its efforts on behalf of gender equality were far less aggressive than on behalf of racial equality. Nevertheless, women activists succeeded in eliminating the pay-differentials between male and female workers.

After World War II, the big packing companies with which the UPWA had contracts started to lose market share to expanding companies like Hormel, IBP, ConAgra, and Excell, which prioritized low labor costs. Technological innovation made it possible for firms to exert greater control over the work process, and the development of highways in the 1950s made it more efficient to build plants in distant rural areas with little unionization. As a result, the Big Four companies that had formerly dominated the industry were forced to reduce costs in competition with the “new” firms, and they did so by closing plants in the Midwest. The UPWA lost so much of its membership in this way that in 1968 it was forced to merge, on unfavorable terms, with the AFL-affiliated Amalgamated Meat Cutters. The decline of unionism in the industry continued, however, because workers were forced to accept concessionary bargaining with the Big Four firms (Armour, Swift, Wilson, and Cudahy) due to IBP’s significantly lower labor costs. (Some of IBP’s plants were unionized, but the company simply closed these unionized plants and built others in Texas, etc.) Eventually pattern bargaining itself collapsed; wages varied from plant to plant. Companies recruited Mexican and Asian immigrants, further reducing levels of unionization. The pace of work sped up, in part due to automation, and conditions in packinghouses continued to deteriorate. By 1990, the industry had returned to the “jungle” of sixty years before.


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