To be presented at the Working Class Studies Association, 2011 Conference, Chicago, Illinois
Worker ferment, including uprisings in Minneapolis, Toledo, and San Francisco, reverberated inside the U.S. labor movement in the 1930s. John L. Lewis stormed out of a 1935 national meeting of the American Federation of Labor to create by1940 what would become the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) with 4 million industrial workers marching to the banner of trade union militancy.
Herb March was sent by the Communist Party USA to Chicago to help organize workers in the meat packing plants on the south side of Chicago. The slaughtering and distribution of meat products in the 1930s was centered in a small number of locations. The Chicago Stockyards constituted the largest site. Work on the line was brutal as graphically described earlier in the century by Upton Sinclair in his classic novel, The Jungle. Workers tried to organize at the time in which Sinclair wrote and again after World War I. Such efforts failed, often because of racial divisions.
When March was sent to Chicago in the 1930s, he and other activists knew that racism would have to be overcome along with monopoly control of the industry by “the Big Four packers.” March recruited a young émigré Michigander, Vicky Starr, to help organize in the “yards.” They networked with college students from the nearby University of Chicago and worked with Communist, Socialist, and religious activists from the plants to build a militant CIO union that for a time represented meat packing workers in their struggles to improve wages and working conditions and end racism and sexism in the plants.
This paper examines the political theory and practice of March and Starr as they helped organize the UPWA CIO in the 1930s and 1940s with particular attention given to possible meanings for 21st century organizing of the working class.
Class and Race in the US Labor Movement
Historic connections between organized labor and African Americans have been problematic.
During the period of modern labor history, that is, from the formation of the CIO in the 1930s, to its merger with the AFL in 1955, and into the present, labor's struggle against racism has been mixed. On the one hand, as Philip S. Foner describes it, the American labor movement throughout much of its history has practiced racism in its internal organizational policies, in its efforts to organize new workers under the banner of labor, and in regard to its advocacy of political positions. Writes Foner, “from the formation of the first trade unions in the 1790s to the mid-1930s, the policy and practice of organized labor so far as Black workers were concerned were largely those of outright exclusion or segregation.”[i]
As a prominent institution in American life, perhaps it is no surprise that organized labor has reflected the currents of racism that run deep throughout American history. However, a close reading of labor history will also uncover significant exceptions to the rule. That is, various trade union confederations, such as the Knights of Labor in the 1880s, and the Congress of Industrial Organization (CIO) of the 1930s and 40s, reflected through words, and sometimes in deeds, the position articulated by Robert Baker in 1902, that the organization of workers should encompass “the cause of all humanity, regardless of race, color, or sex.” Said Baker: "The more organized labor champions the cause of all labor, unorganized as well as organized, Black as well as White, the greater will be the victories; the more lasting, the more permanent, the more beneficial and the more far-reaching will be its successes.”[ii]
One of the most striking successes in the struggle against racism in the modern labor movement is a little studied labor union, the United Packinghouse Workers of America (UPWA), which formed as an organizing committee in 1937 and continued to represent packinghouse workers until its merger with the Amalgamated Meat Cutters in 1968. During its 30-years' existence UPWA struggled to organize and fairly represent workers in meat packing plants and collateral industries, fought to overcome racism within the union, and played a major role in building and supporting a burgeoning civil rights movement during the 1950s. In the words of Michael Goldfield: "The racial practices of the United Packinghouse Workers of America (UPWA) are especially inspiring."[iii]
On Labor History
The industrial revolution in the period following the Civil War planted the seeds for a transformation of the workforce in the USA, shifting workers from farm to factory. With the emergence of modern manufacturing came increasing patterns of control and exploitation of workers. While many workers were initially skilled crafts persons who enjoyed autonomy and expertise, owners and managers of capital sought to increase control over the processes of work, especially in an effort to speed up production. Profits could be enhanced further by extending the length of work days as much as physical survival would allow. Of course, as capitalism grew and grew, profits also would be increased if wages were reduced as much as possible. Increasing managerial control of the work process, speeding up the pace of work, extending the work day, and cutting wages all stimulated the creation of labor movements to challenge capital's prerogatives.
In the 1880s a confederation of unions that embraced the skilled and unskilled, men and women, Black and White, organized as the Knights of Labor. While its history was short–lived, it fought for the eight-hour day and introduced into USA labor history a principle of inclusiveness that would flower and grow in the 1930s and beyond. Also in the 1880s, a trade union confederation called the American Federation of Labor formed, bringing together unions representing primarily skilled workers. Under the leadership of its first president, Samuel Gompers, the AFL built an organization that, despite ups and downs, survives to this day. Whereas the Knights practiced inclusiveness, the AFL as it unfolded gave primary support to the organization of skilled workers, and over time tilted toward segregation among affiliated unions, so that Black workers would be represented in totally Black unions. The AFL also accepted unions into the federation that constitutionally prohibited Black workers from membership.
From 1905 until World War I, a militant union, the Industrial Workers of the World, or Wobblies, organized hard rock miners, textile workers, and others. The IWW rejected political action, championing a syndicalist vision of a new world order, organized around worker control of the economic life of the country. Since the IWW rejected electoral and other more conventional politics, it was not involved in struggles around de-segregation and voting rights. However, the IWW championed the inclusiveness of all workers and rejected racism. Given their brand of revolutionary activity, Wobblies were hounded by the state and by vigilantes until, by the 1920s, they were virtually crushed.
After an interregnum of state repression, company unions, and company welfare schemes to keep workers from organizing, the 1930s saw a huge wave of political mobilization and labor organizing that led to the formation of the CIO. Some union leaders, led by John L. Lewis of the miners, withdrew from the AFL to form the CIO, because the former group refused to organize industrial, or so-called non-skilled, workers. Between 1935, at its founding, until 1940, the CIO unionized four million workers. Unions emerged in such industries as automobile manufacturing, electronics, steel, rubber, and meat packing. The great flurry of working-class mobilization was stimulated by the exigencies of the Great Depression, the exclusiveness of the AFL, and the groundbreaking work of communists and other leftists on the shop floors, who had worked for years to plant the seeds of the idea of industrial unionization. By 1955, over thirty percent of the American workforce was in unions. The AFL and CIO, the two major trade-union confederations, had over 100 member unions in them. Then the two confederations united, the legacy of which survives today as the AFL-CIO. This constituted the melding of the old craft unions founded before the 20th century with the newer industrial unions of the 1930s.
The processing of meat was one of the earliest mass-production industries, developing a detailed division of labor that became a model for most subsequent manufacturing. The corralling, slaughtering, and dressing of meat products for shipment around the country became possible when the refrigerated railroad car was developed. By the turn of the century, meat was processed in huge centers in Chicago, Omaha, and Fort Worth, with smaller operations around Iowa and Minnesota. Meat packing plants were scattered throughout the South and Northeast as well. The meat processing center from the 1880s to the late 1950s was in Chicago. The stockyards, housing the ‘Big Four’ packers (Armour, Cudahy, Swift, and Wilson), employed thousands of workers. Because the work was so dangerous and unpleasant, it was largely carried out by the most marginalized sectors of the working class. First, this included primarily immigrants from eastern and southern Europe. During the great migrations from the South, both before and after World War I, Black workers gravitated to the packing plants, leaving behind their lives as sharecroppers.
Packinghouse workers, experiencing horrible working conditions and insufficient wages, sought to secure union recognition as the Amalgamated Meat Cutters. Two long and bloody strikes (1904 and 1921) were defeated by the companies. During both strikes, many African-American workers were temporarily employed to break the strikes. Since Black workers suffered from economic circumstances as desperate as those faced by the striking White workers, and since they were excluded generally from unions and consequently the benefits they would gain from unionization, these so-called ‘scab’ workers felt no loyalty to the strikers or the union. In the aftermath of the two defeats, hostility towards Black workers rose, and Black resentment of Whites increased as well. For years, remembrances of racism and scabbing impaired any effort to create a common front against the packers.
The atmosphere and historical circumstances changed in the 1930s. First, the depression hit working people very hard. Twenty-five percent of the work force was unemployed by 1933. Industries were working at 40 percent of capacity. In big cities, vibrant radical movements began to surface. Communists organized Unemployment Councils whose task it was to protect debtors from being evicted from their apartments. Also the Councils organized mass rallies and marches against unemployment and poverty and, on occasion, marched with throngs to city welfare departments demanding relief. Communists and other radicals were particularly active in Black communities. Also, the Communist Party mobilized mass campaigns to save the Scottsboro Boys who had been charged with raping two White women in Alabama, a charge that was clearly untrue. The mood of despair turned to militancy in cities and towns around the United States. Many Black citizens began to participate in the street militancy. These militants included those who were to work in the packinghouses. Inside the packing plants, Black workers had the most difficult and demeaning jobs and worked for lower wages. However, in terms of meat processing, Black workers were situated in strategic locations such as the killing floor. If they chose to stop working, the whole process of slaughtering and dressing meat would grind to a halt. Also in the major packing center, Chicago, the percentage of the work force that was Black was as much as 30 percent by the 1930s.
Both Black and White workers had come to the view that wages and working conditions would only improve when the work force became unionized. Also, Black and White workers both realized that successful unionization would not occur until and unless they combined to support unionization. This recognition, combined with the experience of working with radicals on community action, the clear role of communists in the effort to organize a packinghouse workers union, and the demonstrated work of the left in anti-racism campaigns nationally, all influenced the militant African Americans who assumed significant roles in organizing the union. White workers, often former union members from the days before World War I, and cognizant of the pragmatic necessity for solidarity, joined the struggle as well.
The first independent local of packinghouse workers was formed in Austin, Minnesota, by some old Wobblies in 1933. In 1934 there were general strikes of workers in various industries in San Francisco, Minneapolis, and Toledo, Ohio. In 1935, John L. Lewis, president of the United Mine Workers, walked out of the national convention of the AFL to form the CIO. Thus was launched the effort to organize unskilled industrial workers all across the industrial landscape. Also, in 1935, Congress passed the Wagner Act, which legalized the effort of workers to form unions. In this multidimensional context, Herb March, a communist organizer who had been working in Kansas City, arrived in Chicago to initiate the drive to organize the packing houses. In 1937, Black and White packinghouse workers with CIO approval formed the Packinghouse Workers Organizing Committee (PWOC) to begin the union building process.
The ‘Big Four’ meat-packing companies resisted the initial organizing efforts. Armour, the first target of the PWOC, resisted efforts to get a master agreement that would apply to all plants. Such a master agreement would institutionalize the union in the industry, an outcome that all the packing companies opposed. However, despite efforts of a discredited AFL union (the Amalgamated Meat Cutters) to counter PWOC presence in the Chicago Armour plant, and despite a pre-election visit to Chicago unions by the newly formed House Committee on Un-American Activities, the PWOC won majority support from workers for the new CIO union in 1939. Shortly thereafter, PWOC signed separate agreements for all Armour plants, a clear prelude to the master agreements the union sought. The initial accords, while not involving wage issues, did increase vacations, guaranteed at least 32 hours of work, and improved grievance procedures. Almost two years later, contract negotiations between Armour and the PWOC led to the signing of the industry's first master agreement in September, 1941. The accords included a ten-cent-an-hour wage increase. This was followed by agreements with Cudahy in November and Swift in April 1942. Finally, Wilson was forced to sign an agreement in March, 1943 by the National War Labor Board. Also in 1943, PWOC became the United Packinghouse Workers of America (UPWA). CIO militancy, the tidal wave of organizing throughout American industry, the particular role of White left activists and Black militants, and the emerging production needs brought by the onset of World War II all together stimulated the successes of unionization efforts in the meat packing industry.
While a wage-freeze agreement in support of the war effort was accepted by government, the corporate sector, and the leadership of the labor movement, PWOC was able to secure a variety of improvements in fringe benefits and working conditions during the war years. While labor, capital, and government all endorsed wage and price controls over the course of the war, government and capital did agree to not challenge the presence of unions in plants across the country (so-called ‘maintenance of membership’ agreements). However, as the war drew to a close, many unions in the CIO made demands for increases in wages. They claimed that prices in fact had increased by 45 percent during the war, while real wage increases were capped at 15 percent. While workers at the home front saved money, both because of much overtime and limits on commodities to purchase, their wages fell further and further behind prices and company profits. When corporations resisted pay hikes right after the war, unions in auto, steel, electronics, railroads, and meatpacking went on strike. The 1946 strike wave was the largest in U.S. history, affecting 4.6 million workers or 14.5 percent of the work force.
The strike in packing began on January 16, 1946. The next day, the Amalgamated Meat Cutters offered to settle in those plants in which they had locals with a 15-cents-an-hour raise. The packers refused, but a government fact-finding board was established to investigate the claims of the competing sides. Further, the Secretary of Labor ordered the meat-packing plants seized under provisions of the War Labor Disputes Act. After UPWA threatened not to return to work under the order, Secretary of Agriculture Clinton Anderson assured the union that he would urge adoption of any recommendations of the fact-finding board that were accepted by the packing companies’ unions. By March, a 16-cent hourly wage increase was recommended by the board and accepted by the packers and the unions. The Office of Price Administration granted the packers a raise in meat prices to compensate for the wage increases. Later in 1946, at its national convention, the UPWA elected Ralph Helstein as its new union president with the broad support of a ‘left-center’ coalition in the union. Over the course of the next several years, the UPWA leadership would tolerate Communist Party members and other radicals in the leadership and rank and file of the union, while walking a careful, straight line in support of mainstream CIO policies that became increasingly anti-communist.
The political stances of each of the ten UPWA districts varied, with radicals particularly popular in Chicago’s District One; District Three covering Iowa, Nebraska, and Colorado; and District Six in the Northeast. As the cold war and anti-communism heightened, some districts would pass resolutions supporting Henry Wallace or opposing USA foreign policy, while other districts would refrain from such positions or overtly oppose them. As packer-union struggles deepened in 1947 and 1948; as the coalition of manufacturers, Republicans, and Southern Democrats moved more actively against labor; and as the AMC sought to gain control of locals in packing plants, conflict between the left-center coalition and right-wingers known as the ‘CIO Caucus’ heated up dramatically in the UPWA. Many of the conflicts involved issues revolving around the cold war and anti-communism, and different conflicts emerged in the late 1940s around issues of racism in UPWA locals and how active UPWA should be in the struggle against racism in communities and the nation at large.
Anti-communism and racism
In 1948 UPWA again engaged in a general strike against the ‘Big Four’ resistance to wage increases. Because the USA cold war policy was developing, along with anti-communist zeal and the opposition to the campaign of progressive presidential candidate Henry Wallace, the level of support to strikers was not as strong. After nine weeks in which the meat packers held firm, injunctions were issued, police hounded strikers in various locales, and nonunion labor replaced striking workers, the UPWA called off the strike and returned to work. Six weeks after the strike, the UPWA met for the most contentious convention during the entire life of the organization.
In an intensely fought election for union leadership, president Helstein was reelected after a challenge from the CIO Caucus. The Caucus warmly endorsed the Truman presidential candidacy and his cold war foreign policy, favored purging the left from the union leadership, and generally took an anti-communist stance. Helstein's reelection allowed for the continuation of a left-center coalition that would more or less remain intact until the union merged with the AMC in 1968. This left-center leadership would remain critical of USA foreign policy, would endorse trade union militancy, would encourage rank-and-file political activity in communities, and would take a pro-active stance against racism in the union and the nation. Subsequent to the 1948 convention, and throughout the 1950s, UPWA would investigate racism in the union, establish Anti-Discrimination Committees at the national level of the union and in each local, would run workshops on racism in American life, and would fund and actively work for the burgeoning civil rights movement. UPWA would become a significant political force in those communities where it was strong (such as Chicago) and nationally.
To a considerable degree the transformation of the USA political economy was shaped by technological change. In the meatpacking industry, automation decreased the number of workers needed to produce the meat product and increased the possibility that production could be decentralized in hundreds of small-sized processing plants (where work forces are smaller, less organized, and more vulnerable). While UPWA was growing as a progressive political force in the USA in the 1950s, technological change was destroying the material base of the work force in the industry itself. Ultimately, with declining workers in the industry, declining UPWA membership, and continuing competition between UPWA and the old AMC, the leadership realized that it must consolidate to maintain any presence in the meatpacking industry. Consequently, in 1968 AMC and UPWA agreed to a merger. In 1978, the enlarged AMC merged with retail clerks into the current United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), a much larger union with a meat packing division.
The Herb March Story
Herb March grew up in a working class neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York. He was raised by parents who were sympathetic with socialism. His father voted for Eugene V. Debs for president, for example. Being around rent strikes and other street actions in the neighborhood, March was exposed to the public meetings of the predecessor to the Communist Party USA. He joined the Young Communist League (YCL). The visible presence of the left and the developing sentiment that “I didn’t think it was right for some people to be poor and some people to be so damn rich” shaped his consciousness and political life.
As the YCL expanded its organizational commitments to the struggle against racism, that became a focus of March’s attention, including working on anti-lynching campaigns, and campaigns to free African American males wrongly accused of rape: the most famous of which was the so-called “Scottsboro Boys” trial and conviction in Alabama. In the late 1920s, March was sent as an organizer for the YCL to Kansas City. He organized rallies and marches of the unemployed, suffered police beatings and jail, and organized a large unemployment movement. Reflecting on the YCL and organizing campaigns, March reported that “In many respects, you have a narrow, sectarian organization, and a lot of theoretical discussion operating in an atmosphere in which, in the United States, there was considerable unrest, exploitation, unemployment. And even as sectarian as they were, people were just looking for some way out to do anything.”
While the Communist Party supported organizing efforts, it was the Young Communist League, locally grounded, that took the lead in shop floor mobilizations at Armour and Swift plants. Many workers experienced or heard about the big strikes of 1921. March met with Croatian packinghouse workers who came out of left wing backgrounds.
In 1933, Herbert and Jane March moved to Chicago, and became major organizers of the incipient Packinghouse Workers Organizing Committee (PWOC) which would become the United Packinghouse Workers Union (CIO) in 1943. The combination of massive stockyards on Chicago’s south side, the history of class struggle in “the yards” in 1904 and 1921, the newly passed National Recovery Act that authorized trade unions, the presence of unemployment councils, and branches of the CP and YCL in the neighborhood provided a context for the massive organizing in Chicago over the next decade. Jane March, a YCL member, worked with the University of Chicago settlement House, not to far from the stockyards and young organizers such as Vicky Starr, discussed below, networked with radical students from the University of Chicago.
March identified racism, which went back to the failed organizing efforts earlier in the century in the stock yards, as the primary hurdle to union organizing that is racism:
“People were very afraid. Very much for unionism. Fearful that it would not be possible to achieve unionism because you had the split of black and white and too many nationalities…There was all this fear that they would play one nationality against the other…The idea that there should be a union was generally acceptable, but people were afraid. And the whole job was breaking down the fear.”
The history of the struggle for unionization after World War One led by the Stockyards Labor Council illustrates the desperate effort of union leaders of that period (portrayed in a PBS docudrama called The Killing Floor) to create an integrated union leadership and overcome the justified suspiciousness African American had concerning their white counterparts. After the failed strike in 1921, and throughout the 1920s meat packers sought to maintain the rifts between Black and white workers. Overcoming this long history was central to building the PWOC.
March played a leading role in the period from 1933 until the end of World War II building the PWOC and finally UPWA. He organized huge rallies in the Back of the Yards in 1937, recruited workers into the CIO and CPUSA, and engaged in efforts to remove CIO imposed leaders on the PWOC who had little connection to meat packing. Some of these leaders according to March and others were more interested in stabilizing the union, reducing conflicts with the Big Four meat packers, and eliminating Communist influence in the union, than expanding grassroots trade union militancy.
March reported that while he avoided engaging in the disputes in the Communist Party between William Z. Foster and Earl Browder in the 1930s, his public declaration that he was a member of the CPUSA contradicted party policy. But he said that many workers joined the party because he had demonstrated his effective trade union leadership. “Most of my time was spent on union work…. Just by functioning and playing a role as an effective leader and organizer, why, I was able to attract people into the party.”
After World War II, March, and comrade Jesse Prosten, played a leading role in the selection of staff attorney Ralph Helstein as president of the new UPWA. Helstein represented in the union the “left-center coalition” against insurgent campaigns by the “CIO-Caucus” to de-radicalize the union. Helstein served as UPWA president from 1946 until 1968 when the union folded into the Amalgamated Meat Cutters.
March characterized UPWA union politics in the period of the Cold War as, for the most part, progressive: fighting rising anti-communism in the labor movement, insisting that all UPWA locals and the international itself take the lead in fighting racism, and opposing escalating Cold War tensions with the Soviet Union (The Packinghouse Worker, April, 1953 in a special issue of the paper declared its opposition to the U.S./Korean war policy).
However, March claims that with increasing anti-communist attacks on the union from outside and inside the labor movement, growing demands from Black workers for more leadership positions in the union, and continuing tensions between him and the national leadership of the CP, he left the union and the party in the mid-1950s.
Defending the early tradition of shop-floor militancy and spontaneous work stoppages March critiqued the evolution of the US labor movement, including the UPWA after the great organizing CIO organizing drives of the 1930s: “When people develop the concept that what they do is have an organization that pays dues and is respectable, and that is the objective of the union, it’s business unionism. Unionism is a business. It’s no longer a labor movement.”
Reflecting on UPWA, March said that “all things considered, it was the closest thing to a decent union around in CIO. It didn’t develop, as far as the national leadership is concerned, the same sort of bureaucracy that existed in steel and other unions.” However, he added, “it grew more and more timid and hesitant.” Perhaps, he suggested, the merger of the CIO with the AFL had a lot to do with the diminution of the old labor militancy. While he fell prey to charges of white chauvinism in the party and the union in the 1950s, he praised UPWA for fighting against racism in the union. Blacks, he said, were always key leaders in the union and this was due to the policies of the union and their leadership skills.
Summing up March reflected” “We initiated the union, and developed the union, and carried it through as a union of Black and white workers from the inception. It wasn’t a question of white trying to bring forward Blacks, it was just an integral part of the union
and its thinking from the word go.”
And March concluded his 1986 interview with prophetic words: “I’m still convinced that what this world needs is socialism in some form….What’s going to happen is that the whole burden of declining economy in this country is going to be placed on, to the degree that it can be managed, on the shoulders of working people in this country…A new re-awakening of the labor movement is going to have to take place.”
The Vicky Starr Story
As a teenager, Vicky Starr left the family farm in Michigan and arrived on the Southside of Chicago in 1933. She stayed in the home of Herb and Jane March, Communist activists who had come to Chicago to organize the packing house workers in the huge Stockyards. Under March’s tutelage she sought employment in the Yards and almost immediately began to network to build a union of workers in the days leading up to the formation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).
The processing of meat from the 1880s until the late 1950s was centered in Chicago. The Stockyards, housing the Big Four packers (Armour, Cudahy, Swift, and Wilson), employed thousands of workers. Because the work was so dangerous and unpleasant, it was largely carried out by the most marginalized sectors of the working class.
In the era of Upton Sinclair’s, The Jungle, workers were primarily immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe. After World War 1 and the “the Great Migration,” African Americans secured the lowest paid and most dangerous jobs in the Yards. Historic union organizing drives in 1904, and 1921 faltered because of racism and ethnic conflict among workers. Communist and socialist organizers in the Yards, such as March, realized that combating racism was central to organizing industrial unionism in the meat packing industry.
And it was rank-and-file activists like Vicky Starr who tirelessly met with workers, helped write leaflets and newsletters, interacted with the radical students from the University of Chicago who had offered their assistance to union organizing drives, and communicated with sympathetic members of the influential Catholic Church.
As a member of the Young Communist League, Starr and her comrades would read classic Marxist and Leninist texts. Since Starr would be identified with organizing campaigns by her bosses she often lost her job in the yards. When that occurred she would apply for work at another packing house company using a different name.
She told Alice and Staughton Lynd (Rank and File, 1973) many years later: “When I look back now, I really think we had a lot of guts. But I didn’t even stop to think about it at the time. It was something that had to be done. We had a goal. That’s what we felt had to be done and we did it.”
In 1937, workers established the Packinghouse Workers Organizing Committee (PWOC). Despite resistance by the major meat packers, state violence, red-baiting against union organizers by the state and the American Federation of Labor’s Amalgamated Meat Cutters (AMC), the United Packinghouse Workers of America (UPWA-CIO) was constituted in 1943. Until its merger with other unions, it remained a militant trade union that fought racism and red-baiting and publicly opposed United States foreign policies such as participation in the Korean War. And during its formative years in the mid-1940s Vicky Starr served for a time as Education Director for District 1 of UPWA.
Central to Starr’s contribution to the working class from the time she was a member of the Young Communist League, to the budding labor movement, the formation of the UPWA, and later as an organizer of clerical workers at the University of Chicago was her constant struggle against racism and sexism. After the formation of UPWA Starr said “We tried to make sure that there were both Negroes and whites as officers, stewards…in all the locals.” She fought residential segregation and participated in building the Back of the Yards Council on Chicago’s south side, and worked to end the exclusion of African Americans from professional sports. And in the end she recalled that the most militant trade unionists on the shop floor, the beef kill, were African Americans.
As an organizer in the 30s and a UPWA staffer in the 40s she combated sexism as well. “Women had an awfully tough time in the union because the men brought their prejudices there.” Women often had the most demeaning jobs in the Yards, wage rates discriminated against them, their special needs, such as child care received no attention, and they often were fearful of demanding their rights on the shop floor and in the union. As a socialist, Starr reflected on those halcyon days of UPWA-CIO organizing. She said that there was a sense that workers were ready to come together. There was a growing feeling of working class solidarity. Union organizers would show up at the Stockyards with literature and speeches. And at the grassroots she and others were on the shop floor spreading the word informally about the union.
And socialism needed to be addressed in terms of the concrete benefits of people’s lives. “You had to talk about it in terms of what it would mean for that person. We learned that you can’t manipulate people but that you really had to be concerned with the interests and needs of the people. However, you also had to have a platform--a projection of where you were going.” Starr left the Yards in 1945, was forced underground for a time in the McCarthy period, raised four children and returned to work as a secretary at the prestigious University of Chicago. She still had “a platform” at the university, organizing all non-professional staff. Despite predictable resistance from the bastion of liberalism in higher education she applied the grassroots organizing skills she learned as a teenager in the stockyards to achieve victory for clerical workers. Teamsters Local 743 was recognized in 1978. Vicky Starr became the first shop steward of the new local.
But Starr’s contribution to the American working class, Black and White, male and female did not remain unnoticed beyond the shop/office. Alice and Staughton Lynd captured her remembrances of CIO organizing in the 1973 book Rank and File and the clerical workers struggle in the 2000 book New Rank and File. And especially, “Stella Nowicki” was one of three stars (the others were Sylvia Woods and Kate Hyndman) in the wonderful documentary (Union Maids, 1977) about women organizing in the CIO in the 1930s.
This last project made Vicky Starr a major celebrity. It brought to the attention of new generations of activists the fighting spirit of the 1930s, the central role Communists played in the battles, and the absolute centrality to organizing the working class of fighting racism and sexism.
Still relevant today, Union Maids (and the Lynds collections of interviews), can help inspire, educate, and inform activists about tactics, strategy, and basic principles of organizing.
Vicky Starr concluded her 1973 interview saying: “It was a privilege and a wonderful experience to participate in the excitement of those times.”
It is important to remember Vicky Starr for what she did for the working class, particularly industrial and clerical workers. And reflections on her life and work can still inform activists as they struggle for economic justice today.
There are several reasons for reviewing the history of the labor movement and UPWA in the twentieth century and highlighting the activism of two prominent organizers of this special union.
First, as Halpern suggests, meatpacking was an anchor for the industrialization of Chicago, “the hog butcher of the world.” The Stockyards, on the near south side of Chicago represented a focus of manufacturing in Chicago paralleling the great steel plants on the far south side and the Pullman plant producing railroad cars. Of course, this manufacturing triangle was paralleled with clothing and textile manufacturing further north and as well as electronics. The dramatic CIO organizing in the late 1930s hit each of these sectors, such that labor militancy in Chicago figured prominently in the massive mobilization of industrial workers to militant trade unionism.
Second, organizing in meatpacking from the late 19th century until the 1960s drew upon a number of heroes and heroines, mostly grassroots workers, committed socialists and communists, and militant trade unionists. Studying their union lives and their politics can give insight into what motivated them to be engaged, how their politics shaped and was shaped by their concrete struggles, and what if anything can be learned today by their role in the construction of militant trade unionism.
Third, with the use of rich detailed interviews and accounts of shop floor and community activism, a “methodology” linking the individual to the collective, the personal to the political, and in this case study the union and the political party is offered here for further refinement. This refinement could involve the selection of other key players in the meat packing industry for in-depth analysis as well. While March and Starr are for grounded here, any number of other leaders of PWOC and UPWA could be identified for further reflection.
Fourth, a number of “hypotheses” emerge from this study:
-Overcoming racism was the number one priority for any successful trade union organizing in the meat packing industry. This was so because of the history of racism in America, the racist elements of the labor movement since the formation of the AFL, and the particular efforts, usually successful, by the industrial giants in meat packing to divide workers by race, ethnicity, and gender.
-The leading political force in the construction of PWOC and UPWA was the minority but militant Communist Party USA. It is no accident that the CPUSA identified as a national priority, the struggle against racism in America. From campaigns in the 1920s to the Scottsboro case of the 1930s, the heretofore small party gained much visibility which attracted many of the growing numbers of African Americans in the meat packing industry to the labor movement, in which party members were active.
-The formation of the UPWA cannot be understood without taking account of the history of the industry, major packer/worker battles, the Great Depression, and the vision of a new American political economy governed by a partnership between politicians, workers, and corporate elites (a New Deal).
-Any reflection on the struggles, failures, and successes of organizing in the meat packing industry requires a theoretical lens that priorities class, race, and, gender. Women were marginalized on the shop floor, received wages significantly less then men, and had to fight for recognition as co-equal workers by their male counterparts.
-PWOC and UPWA were products of grassroots organizing, increasingly challenged by the leadership of the CIO and the CPUSA. The March and Starr stories are stories of activists who were guided by ideology and organizational affiliation and practical political work inspired by their views of the local context. To some degree, national leadership needed to be pressured to give support to local organizing efforts. When they did, grassroots work became more effective.
-Finally, this sketchy history (drawn from the work of others) and the stories told by March and Starr suggest that PWOC and UPWA organizing began at the base, what might be called “bottom up organizing.” But, ferment at the base, in packing plants around the Midwest, the West, the South, and the East, led national movements, the CPUSA and the CIO in the late 1930s, to join the struggles to support them. “Bottom up organizing” was conjoined with “top down organizing.” It may be that this is the lesson that still should resonate with activists today: organize where we can because of local history and context and network with national campaigns and organizations to make the local work more effective.
[i] Philip S. Foner, Organized Labor and the Black Worker, 1619-1973 (International Publishers, 1976).
[ii] Speech by Robert Baker, presented to the Central Labor Union of Brooklyn, January 1902.
[iii] Michael Goldfield, The Color of Politics: Race and the Mainsprings of American Politics (Ann Arbor; University of Michigan Press, 1997).
*This article draws upon prior publications on the Packinghouse Workers including :
Harry Targ “Class and Race in the USA Labor Movement: The Case of the Packinghouse Workers” in Greg Moses ed. Liberation between Selves, Sexualities, and War, Radical Philosophy Association, Vol 3. 2006, 33-45.
Harry Targ“Vicky Starr dies at 93: Socialist, labor organizer, feminist, film star,” in The Rag Blog, January 13, 2010 (an electronic blog).
In addition the article uses the excellent interviews conducted by Rick Halpern and Roger Horowitz of Packinghouse Workers in the 1980s and housed at the State of Wisconsin Historical Society, Madison, Wisconsin. Much of the history of UPWA comes from Rick Halpern, Down on the Killing Floor: Black and White Workers in Chicago’s Packinghouses, 1904-54, University of Illinois Press, 1997 and Roger Horowitz, “Negro and White United and Fight!” A Social History of Industrial Unionism in Meatpacking, 1930-90, University of Illinois Press, 1997.