Workers Vanguard No. 1040
21 February 2014
Lessons of the Unionization of Meatpacking
Fast Food Workers Need a Fighting Labor Movement
Protests in the past year by fast-food workers demanding a pay increase have highlighted the poverty-level wages and contemptuous abuse dealt out by the corporate bosses to this growing segment of the working class. The roughly four million men and women who run the grills and front the counters at McDonald’s, Burger King and other giant chains make barely $9 per hour and average about 26 working hours a week, putting them well below the poverty line if they have a family to support. In the wake of the 2007-08 financial crisis, such poverty-level work accounts for three out of every five new jobs. These are also often the only employment that black and immigrant youth—and, increasingly, laid-off older workers—can get.
The workers who have joined in the fast-food protests, in some cases walking off the job to do so, understand that it is necessary to fight. Yet the hundreds of thousands of small fast-food outlets are the point in the restaurant industry where workers are the weakest. To unionize fast-food workers and win significant gains in wages and benefits poses the need to mobilize the power of workers who are strategically positioned along the supply chain that provides the frozen hamburger patties, French fries and so on to the retail outlets. And that means a struggle against the meatpacking and trucking bosses to again make those industries bastions of union power.
But this is far removed from what the labor traitors at the head of the unions have in mind. Instead, they are pursuing a strategy, announced with great fanfare at the AFL-CIO convention last September, that is a substitute for the direct organization of workers into unions. The new strategy consists of alliances with “alt-labor” organizations—community groups that organize workers outside collective bargaining—as well as recruitment to the Working America lobbying organization. Mobilizing community groups to exert pressure on the bosses can be a useful tactic, but only if it is an auxiliary to hard class struggle—a perspective that is anathema to the pro-capitalist labor tops.
The bureaucrats’ strategy is epitomized by their current campaign on behalf of fast-food workers, as well as by protests against Wal-Mart centered on the Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart). The United Food and Commercial Workers union (UFCW), which sponsors OUR Walmart, has repeatedly declared that it has “no intent to have Wal-mart recognize or bargain with UFCW or OUR Walmart.” This is part of what has come to be called “minority unionism.” Instead of seeking to win union recognition by signing up a majority of workers at particular work sites, the bureaucrats aim to win over isolated individuals at many sites. These small groups of workers bravely risk company retaliation by walking off the job to join protests like the November Wal-Mart Black Friday events that aim to shame the company. What such “strikes” do not seek to do is to shut down the bosses’ operations until they are forced to come to terms with the workers.
The premise adopted by the union officialdom is that existing anti-labor legislation is so restrictive that ways must be found to work around the laws without directly confronting them. Yet everything of value the workers movement has won has been achieved by mobilizing the ranks of labor in hard-fought struggle against the capitalists and their whole body of anti-labor legislation. The labor bureaucracy is a relatively privileged layer that long ago separated from its base, the union membership. The labor misleaders long ago renounced the class-struggle methods that built the unions, from picket lines that mean business to secondary boycotts and plant occupations. Through their support to the capitalist system and the Democratic Party, the labor bureaucrats serve to tie the unions to the class enemy and its state, which from the White House on down is not a neutral body “of the people” but an organ of capitalist rule.
Though union power in the food industry has been significantly weakened since the high point of unionization, the UFCW and SEIU service employees union, along with the Teamsters, retain footholds in the slaughterhouses and processing plants. From there to the warehouses and on to the fast-food outlets, there is a critical “cold chain” that must be maintained to prevent spoilage. Fleets of refrigerated (reefer) trucks carry the lion’s share of this produce.
Shutting down the slaughterhouses and processing plants and tying up the cold chain would quickly stop the flow of billions of dollars of profits. Mobilizing the social power of that industrial workforce could lay the basis for a drive to re-unionize trucking and the meatpacking industry and, based on those strongholds, back up struggles by fast-food workers. The history of unionization of the meatpacking industry provides a graphic example of the kind of hard class struggle that is needed to organize the unorganized and revitalize the labor movement.
Class Struggle and
The meatpacking industry was historically centered in Chicago, with major slaughterhouses in other rail centers like Kansas City and St. Louis, and was dominated by the Beef Trust with its Big Four: Armour, Swift, Wilson and Cudahy. Beginning in the late 1800s, the Beef Trust defeated attempts to unionize the massive Chicago stockyards by promoting divisions among the workers. While East European immigrants were set against Irish, German and native-born workers, what proved fatal to unionizing efforts was the racial division between white and black workers. That division was fostered by the craft unionism of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) leaders, with their hostility to unskilled labor and racist animosity toward blacks, many of whom were hired by the bosses to break strikes. As recounted in the 1985 film The Killing Floor, a key stockyard organizing drive was destroyed by the anti-black Chicago riots of 1919, which were encouraged by the packing bosses. Two years later, a strike by the AFL’s Amalgamated Meat Cutters union (AMC) was quickly crushed.
The road to a militant, integrated industrial union of meatpacking workers was paved by the Unemployed Councils organized in the depths of the Great Depression by the Communist Party (CP). The CP had been formed as a revolutionary organization inspired by the October 1917 workers revolution in Russia led by the Bolshevik Party. However, the CP politically degenerated in parallel with the consolidation of the Stalinist bureaucracy in the Soviet Union beginning in 1923-24. Nevertheless, American Communists retained in distorted form the beneficial influence of the Bolshevik-led Communist International’s insistence that the party actively take up defense of the oppressed black population.
In the early 1930s, the CP’s energetic defense of the Scottsboro Boys against legal lynching in Alabama won it widespread respect among black people North and South. The Unemployed Councils fought evictions of jobless workers by mobilizing flying squads to move them back in and organized mass demonstrations demanding increased relief for the unemployed. Uniting black and white, immigrant and native-born workers in common struggle, these actions brought the party authority in Chicago’s Black Belt and undercut the racist backwardness of the whites. Thus the CP acquired a base among black packinghouse workers that proved critical to later union organizing efforts, in which the CP played a prominent role.
When an uptick in the Depression economy enabled workers to raise their heads again, strikes began to break out. A successful 1933 sit-down strike by Hormel meatpacking workers in Austin, Minnesota, galvanized the stockyards and presaged the great explosion of working-class struggle in 1934 that saw victorious citywide strikes in San Francisco, Toledo and Minneapolis. Those strikes, all led by reds, laid the basis for organizing millions of workers into the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in the following years.
These victories were won not by relying on government labor boards and mediators, whose job it was to get strikers back to work by pretending to be neutral arbiters, but by doing whatever was necessary to keep the bosses’ struck operations shut down. In Minneapolis, truckers led by Trotskyists, who had been driven out of the CP for upholding its founding revolutionary program, instituted flying pickets to stop scab trucks in a series of strikes that won union recognition. Organizing the unemployed to join mass picket lines, the truckers defeated scabherding police in pitched battles and defied a National Guard occupation. The Trotskyists then spearheaded a successful campaign to organize over-the-road truck drivers across the Midwest. Key to that victory was a hard-fought, five-month 1938-39 strike in the open shop stronghold of Omaha, Nebraska. Those battles opened the way for the organization of over-the-road drivers nationwide.
The struggles that forged what was to become the United Packinghouse Workers of America (UPWA) were directly inspired by the mass pickets and factory occupations in 1936-37 that brought auto, rubber and steel workers into the CIO. The CIO’s Packinghouse Workers Organizing Committee won unionization through such militant actions as work stoppages on the killing floors, preventing freshly slaughtered meat from being moved, as well as a sit-down strike at Armour in Kansas City. Officially founded in 1943, the UPWA was perhaps the most integrated union in the U.S., with a history of fighting for the rights of black people. That history holds crucial lessons for organizing the open shop South, where deep, vicious racist discrimination has always served to divide workers and keep unions out.
With the onset of the anti-Soviet Cold War following World War II, the capitalist rulers enlisted the tops of the trade unions in the witchhunt that drove leftists and other militants out of the unions. At the same time, the bourgeoisie instituted a series of ever more restrictive anti-labor laws that banned secondary boycotts, labor solidarity action like refusing to touch scab goods, sympathy strikes and effective picketing. But as the union battles of the 1930s showed, a determined use of these weapons of class struggle can render such anti-labor laws moot.
The Great Retreat
As part of the bosses’ postwar anti-labor offensive, the considerable gains represented by unionization of the meatpacking and trucking industries came under attack. By the early 1960s, the new Interstate Highway system enabled meatpacking companies, no longer reliant on rail transport, to move their slaughterhouses out of the urban centers into rural areas where unions were weaker. New plants were built that further broke down the butchering process to simple, repetitive “dis-assembly line” cutting steps, greatly reducing the need for skilled labor. As the old stockyards closed down, the UPWA sought refuge by merging with the AMC.
In the same period, the ruling class set its gun sights on the Teamsters, then the most powerful union in the country. In 1964, the Teamsters’ National Master Freight contract covered some 450,000 truckers. Today, in the aftermath of the union-busting offensive unleashed by Democratic president Jimmy Carter and liberal icon Senator Ted Kennedy’s deregulation of the trucking industry in 1980, it covers only about 30,000, most of them in one company, YRC Worldwide.
In 1969, Iowa Beef Packers (later known as IBP, Inc.), one of the first of a new breed of union-busting outfits that later came to include agribusiness giants like ConAgra and Cargill, provoked a strike at its new, low-wage flagship facility in Dakota City, Nebraska, by AMC Local 222, which had recently won a certification election at the plant. After a bitter battle, the AMC tops instructed the Dakota City local to accept a contract that preserved the union but allowed the company to pay far less than the pay rate in the union’s master agreement with the Big Four. Over the next 25 years, only two contracts at the plant were settled without a strike or a lockout.
During a 1982 strike, the governor called in the National Guard to protect scabs, and a court order banned the combative picket lines set up by the union, by then part of the UFCW. We wrote at the time:
“Unions throughout the region must mobilize their ranks in mass picketing at the plant. Damn the injunction; picket lines mean don’t cross! Elementary labor solidarity demands that not one truck, Teamster-driven or otherwise, must move in or out of the Dakota City plant. Not one unionist must touch Iowa Beef products—Hot cargo scab goods!”
—WV No. 311, 6 August 1982
The UFCW tops, however, relied on an impotent petition to the governor to call off his dogs. In the end, the workers were forced to accept a 12 percent pay cut.
A subsequent UFCW organizing drive targeting more than ten IBP plants failed. IBP subsequently recognized the union only at a Joslin, Illinois, plant in 1988, where the contract was based on the drastically worsened conditions brought about by the defeat in Dakota City. IBP has since been absorbed into the Tyson Foods empire, and the Dakota City and Joslin facilities are the only Tyson beef plants organized by the UFCW.
Spearheaded by IBP’s union-busting success, the rest of the industry followed suit. In what then-UFCW International president William Wynn called a “controlled retreat,” the union bureaucrats made concession after concession. Master agreements virtually disappeared from the industry, and “by the mid-1980s, most of the gains achieved by meatpacking unions over the previous fifty years had disappeared” (Aaron Brenner, Benjamin Day, Immanuel Ness, The Encyclopedia of Strikes in American History, 2009). By the time UFCW Local P-9 walked out of Hormel’s pork processing plant in Austin, Minnesota, in August 1985 to fight against demands for more crippling concessions, the UFCW tops had already allowed wages in the industry to be cut by half and speedup was brutal.
The ranks of P-9 fought with courage and determination, reviving militant tactics like roving pickets to shut down other Hormel plants. They did so in the face of an anti-union offensive launched under the Reagan administration with the smashing of the PATCO air controllers strike in 1981. But the UFCW members were betrayed by the policies of both the local and international union leaderships.
The top UFCW leadership withheld money raised for the strikers, publicly denounced the strike as “mass suicide” and actively herded scabs across P-9’s picket lines. In March 1986, Wynn ordered the union to end the strike and cut off strike benefits. The UFCW International then put P-9 into receivership. In September 1986, a contract on the company’s terms was signed by UFCW Regional Director Joe Hansen, now the union’s International president. Meanwhile, the local union leaders relied on a campaign of demonstrations seeking to pressure stockholders, consumer boycotts and the like. Their “corporate campaign” was counterposed to mobilizing trade unionists and others who had shown their support for P-9 in the kind of hard class struggle needed to beat the union-busters. A quarter of a century later, the union bureaucrats continue their strategy of surrender, most recently repackaged for Wal-Mart and the fast-food industry.
Today packinghouse and processing plant workers are driven to fight against hellish conditions harking back to the Chicago stockyards exposed by Upton Sinclair in his 1906 novel, The Jungle. Following the defeat of the Hormel strike, the company built a wall right through the factory separating the lower-skill, front-end killing floor from the processing side and “contracted” with its own shell company to run it at even lower wages with a heavily Latino immigrant workforce. With the line sped up from 750 to 1,300 hogs an hour by 2006, carpal tunnel, cuts and other injuries became routine. One part of the process caused an autoimmune disease that crippled many workers with neurological damage.
Since the late 1960s, the agribusiness bosses have consciously hired immigrants, particularly from Mexico and Central America, many of them undocumented workers. Such workers who try to organize face deportation raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (I.C.E.). In December 2006, I.C.E. carried out one of the largest immigration raids in its history, rounding up nearly 1,300 immigrant workers in six Swift plants, five of which were organized by the UFCW.
The previous month, black and white workers at Smithfield Foods’ pork processing plant in Tar Heel, North Carolina, struck in defense of Latino fellow workers fired by the company in its war against a UFCW organizing drive. Despite I.C.E. raids, the union gained recognition at Tar Heel in 2008. This underscores the crucial need for the labor movement to champion the defense of immigrant workers and demand full citizenship rights for all who have made it to the U.S.
Industries like fast-food have become emblematic of the grinding poverty into which vast numbers of workers have been driven. What is desperately needed is to revitalize the labor movement as a fighting force. Above all, the class-collaborationist labor tops must be swept out and replaced by a class-struggle leadership. This is a necessary part of the fight to build a workers party committed to leading all the exploited and oppressed in sweeping away the capitalist order.