Learning from the Source: Chicago Meatpackers & the Unions

The Chicago meatpacking industry began its rise to prominence in 1865 with the opening of the Union Stock Yard. Meatpacking unions had their ups and downs over the years and company antiunionism took two basic forms: repression and paternalism. Armour, for example, was a company that “provided individualized pay, insurance and promotion incentives (including stock ownership), company-dominated employee representation plans, and family-oriented recreation.” In the 1930s though, thanks to pro-labor New Deal policies, the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen of North America, an affiliate of the American Federation of Labor, gained strength in numbers and the Congress of Industrial Organizations, or CIO, launched a new packinghouse union.[1]

The oral histories below were gathered and transcribed by the staff of the Folklore Project of the Federal Writers’ Project for the U.S. Works Progress (later Work Projects) Administration (WPA) from 1936-1940. To help you analyze these oral histories, you might want to consult the previous PSN post–Analyzing Primary Sources: Learning from Oral Histories–which provides guiding questions and a link to an oral history analysis tool.

What more can you learn about the meatpacking industry, the experiences of the workers and their feelings about unions from the oral history excerpts listed below? What were the pros and cons to belonging to a meatpacking union? Click on the underlined names to access the full transcript of each interview from the American Memory collection: American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1940.

Informant: Anna Novak

Interviewer: Betty Burke

Interview Location: Home of informant

Date of interview: April 25-27 1939

Interviewer description of informant: “Medium blonde, bright blue eyes, big and healthy, absolutely overflowing with life.  Irrepressible and fearless in defense of her union, at work or wherever she goes.  Sociable and just generally a happy kid of person.”

Excerpt 1 (Armour): When the union came they made me steward of the girls in my department. Then they started laying me off, because we were getting somewhere with the union, see, and they thought they’d scare me, so they layed me off a couple of times and broke up my seniority that way. Then after I got through testifying at the National Labor Relations Board they layed me off for good. I used to come up to ‘Old Lady’ McCann, she hires all the women for Armour’s, and I used to ask her why I couldn’t get back. I’d say, ‘Haven’t I always done good work, haven’t I been a steady worker?’ And she’d say, ‘Yes, Anna, you’re a good worker, and an experienced girl, but you see now that your seniority is broken I can’t do anything for you.’ And all the time I’d be sitting there talking to her I’d know she was giving me the horse laugh. That dame got many a shiner from girls for her mean tricks. There was a time when she couldn’t step out of her office without an escort because girls and women she’d laid off would wait for her right outside. I mean hundreds of them. I’m tellin’ you, when McCann would come around and the girls at work got a load of her and her latest shiner, they would feel ten times better all day. It would be a picnic. Everybody has it in for her, because they all know what it’s like to go through her mill. But she’s God Almighty as far as Armour’s is concerned, when it comes to getting work. No woman gets in or out of Armour’s without her say so.

Here’s one thing the union changed while I was in Armour’s. Like the white girls in Armour’s if they work 15 years they have some kind of honor system and they usually get better work. A little easier job, you know. What do you think they give the colored girls who work that long? They give them a black star, pasted on their time cards! They hardly ever get a chance at anything but the dirtiest, wettest jobs, that even the white men can’t stand or just wouldn’t take. And then that star business is such an easy way for the bosses to spot the colored women so that they won’t accidentally give a good job to one, in some emergency. The union is putting the heat on that particular practice. The colored girls come into the union easy, and at union meetings you’d be surprised now they stand up and have their their say. The Polish girls and the [Lithuanians?] they’re the hardest to get in. You know how it is. There’ll be a bunch of Polish and a bunch of Liths working and the foreman will play them against each other and they’ll fall for that stuff. They’ll be so busy calling each other names, lousy Lugans or dumb Polacks, that when the time comes to get together, they can’t, they’re so used to fighting. The big reason though is that they’re ruled by the priests and the priests, lots of them, say, ‘The CIO is against religion and the church!’

Informant: Anna Novak

Interviewer: Betty Burke

Interview Location: Home of Informant

Date of interview: April 25-27

Interviewer description of informant: “Medium blonde, bright blue eyes, big and healthy, absolutely overflowing with life.  Irrepressible and fearless in defense of her union, at work or wherever she goes.  Sociable and just generally a happy kid of person.”

Excerpt 2 (Agar): I’ve been working at Agar’s for eight months now, since Armour’s put me on the blacklist. Our contract expires in July, our union contract and we’re negotiating for another one with them now. I was appointed steward by the union but when we get our contract we’ll elect our stewards by union membership vote. Agar’s isn’t so bad now. Half the plant was organized before I got my job there, but did we have to crawl to get the others in. Now what we want is a good contract, and if they won’t bargain, all we need to do is tie up the [killing?] floor and the order department and Agar’s will close up tighter than a [?] clam. They can’t afford that. And we’ve got the plant with us solid. . . . Another thing, in our department we have two toilets for 100 people, girls. You should see before we got the union, you could scrape the muck off the floor with a knife. We made them put in a new floor and they promised to give us some new lockers, so far there are 30 lockers for 100 girls. Well, we’re on their necks all the time, now. When we want to eat we’ve got to go over by the lockers and they’re right on top of these two stinking toilets. If you knew the smell! And girls have to eat there! I wouldn’t have lunch there if I had to walk four miles for a cup of coffee! You can’t imagine what the combination of toilets and disinfectant and cigarette smoke and sweat and stockyards smells like! When we kick about things like that and we talk about the union we make the boss mad. When he gets good and mad and he knows he can’t stop us from talking, he hollers, ‘Every dog gets his day and when I get mine!’ And we just laugh and say, ‘Oh, the ‘dogs’ have their day now, you had yours 10 years ago, before the union came.’ Does he get sore!

Informant: Jesse Perez

Interviewer: Betty Burke

Interview Location: 4817 Ashland Ave. – Informant’s Home

Date of interview: June 21, 1939, 7:30pm

Description of Informant by Interviewer: “Unusually tall for Mexican-6 feet at least-speaks English not so well, Spanish perfectly. Looks like a Spaniard, Extremely fond of his children.”

The bosses in the yards never treat Mexican worker same as rest. For ‘sample, they been treatin’ me, well, ever since I start wearin’ the button they start to pick an’ ‘scriminates. I was first to wear CIO button.

I start in as laborer. Get 62 1/2 cents hour. I get laid-off slip from fellow who has to leave town, that’s how I get in employment office. Now I work as beef lugger, carryin’t the beef on cuttin’ floor. Work is heavier than laborer, make 72¢ hour.

I can butcher, but they won’t give me job. They fired me on account of CIO union one time. I started organize the boys on the gang. I was acting as steward for CIO union. We had so much speed up and I was advisin’ the boys to cut the speed and so when I start tellin’ the boys we have a union for them they all join up. Almos’ all join right away. So we talk all the time what the union goin’ to do for us, goin’ raise wages, stop speed-up, an’ the bosses watch an’ they know it’s a union [comin’?].

So every day they start sayin’ we behin’ in the work. They start speedin’ up the boys more an’ more every day.

The boys ask me, what you gonna do? Can’t keep on speed-up like this. We made stoppage. Tol’ bosses we workin’ too fast, can’t keep up. The whole gang, thirteen men, they all stop. Bosses come an’ say, we ain’t standin’ for nothin’ like this. So 4 days later they fire the whole gang, except 2. So we took the case in the labor board and they call the boys for witness. Labor board say we got to get jobs back. Boss got to promise to put us back as soon as they can. That time was slack, but now all work who was fired. All got work.

Now the bosses try to provoke strike before CIO get ready, before the men know what to do. Foremen always try to get in argument about work, to make the boys mad so they quit work. We know what they do, we don’t talk back, got to watch out they don’t play trick like that.

Informant: Jim Cole

Interviewer: Betty Burke

Interview Location: not listed

Date of interview: May 18, 1939

Description of Informant by Interviewer: Negro

I’m working in the Beef Kill section.  Butcher on the chain. Been in the place twenty years, I believe. You got to have a certain amount of skill to do the job I’m doing.

Long ago, I wanted to join the AFL union, the Amalgamated Butchers and Meat Cutters, they called it and wouldn’t take me. Wouldn’t let me in the union. Never said it to my face, but reason of it was plain. Negro. That’s it. Just didn’t want a Negro man to have what he should. That’s wrong. You know that’s wrong.

Long about 1937 the CIO come. Well, I tell you, we Negroes was glad to see it come. Well, you know, sometimes the bosses, or either the company stooges try to keep the white boys from joining the union. They say, ‘you don’t want to belong to a black man’s organization. That’s all the CIO is.’ Don’t fool nobody, but they got to lie, spread lyin’ words around.

There’s a many different people, talkin’ different speech, can’t understand English very well, we have to have us union interpreters for lots of our members, but that don’t make no mind, they all friends in the union, even if they can’t say nothin’ except ‘Brother’, an’ shake hands.

Well, my own local, we elected our officers and it’s the same all over. We try to get every people represented. President of the local, he’s Negro. First V. President, he’s Polish. Second V. Presdient, he’s Irish. Other officers, Scotchman, Lithuanian, Negro, German.

Well, I mean the people in the yards waited a [long?] while for the CIO. When they began organizing in the Steel towns, you know, and out in South Chicago, everybody wanted to know when the CIO was coming out to the yards. Twelve, fourteen men started it, meeting in back of a saloon on Ashland, [talking?] over what to do, first part of 1937. Some of my friends are charter members, well I got in too late for that.

Union asked for 15 extra men on the killing floor, on the chain. Company had enough work for them, just tried to make us carry the load. After we had a stoppage, our union stewards went up to the offices of the company and talked turkey. We got the extra help.

I don’t care if the union don’t do another lick of work raisin’ our pay, or settling grievances about anything, I’ll always believe they done the greatest thing in the world gettin’ everybody who works in the yards together, and [breakin’?] up the hate and bad feelings that used to be held against the Negro. We all doing our work now, nothing but good to say about the CIO.

Informant: Elmer Thomas

Interviewer: Betty Burke

Interview Location: 5413 Calumet Ave. Home of Informant

Date of interview: May 10, 1939, 6:30pm

Description of Informant by Interviewer: “Very clean and neat, dresses rather expensively for wkr. Well built 6 footer, dark brown skinned, quietly intelligent, plain speaking. Likes to discuss problems and solutions to his race’s problems. Very race conscious. Thinks his people ought to concentrate more on business administration courses in their education, rather than the more specialized professions of lawyer, doctor, or any of the ‘arts’.”

Time ah went to the yards they put me on as a laborer on the Killing floor. That was in Beef Kill but they soon had me transferred to Sheep Kill. Ah used to try handling a knife, try to do some of the butcher jobs, you know, when the foreman wasn’t around. Well, that’s a trade and ah wanted to learn it so ah’d have a better chance to keep a job there. Time ah started there was lots of Negro workers there, you know, had been in the yards since they were brought from the South to help break the big strike, well, they’d let me pick up the trade, helping them on the job. Foreman, he come over once and see ah knew how to handle a knife so ah got a butchering job as soon as there was call for that. What ah do is cut off sheep’s head after it’s been dressed. Ah been doing that particular job more than 12 years now. Ah Know fellows, told me when they started in the yards, and tried to learn to butcher, white men on the floor didn’t like to see it. They’d do almost anything to keep them from learning, throw anything they could lay hands on at them, knives, sheep fat cups, punches, (that’s tools we work with) anything. The white butchers, they hated the Negros because they figured they would scab on them when trouble came and then get good paying, skilled jobs besides. Well, that was a long time back, with the CIO in, all that’s like a bad dream gone. Oh, we still have a hard now but this time the white men are with us and we’re with them.

Informant: Elmer Thomas

Interviewer: Betty Burke

Interview Location: 5413 Calumet Ave. Home of Informant

Date of interview: May 10, 1939, 6:30pm

Description of Informant by Interviewer: “Very clean and neat, dresses rather expensively for wkr. Well built 6 footer, dark brown skinned, quietly intelligent, plain speaking. Likes to discuss problems and solutions to his race’s problems. Very race conscious. Thinks his people ought to concentrate more on business administration courses in their education, rather than the more specialized professions of lawyer, doctor, or any of the ‘arts’.”

Excerpt 2 -They have a ‘credit union’ in Armour’s, keeps a lot of people out of the CIO. If you want a loan from them you have to have a ‘good’ record. Well, some fellow, colored fellow, he tried to get a loan. They knew he was a Union man, so they made it hard for him. Told him to get some worker with a bank account in the credit union to vouch for him. Fellow went and got Charlie. Charlie’d been in the yards a long time and he happened to have some money there. He walked into the office and signed them papers, and them in charge of the loans with their eyes popping like a fish’ out of water. Manager asked Charlie to step into his private office, he was so upset. He said to him, ‘You really mean you want to sign for that man, and he a colored man! I hate to think of a white man would want to take on that responsibility.’ Charlie, he’s Irish, and he looked at this manager and grinned. He said, ‘Well, sure now, I do appreciate that bit of advice, seein’ you ain’t chargin’ nuthin’ for it. But that black boy’s my friend. He works with me. He’s a union brother and I guess maybe you’re surprised to hear that I’m with the union, too! So just save that advice of yours for somebody don’t know no better.’ Walked out of there and slammed the door. You think that colored fellow didn’t get his loan? He got it. Manager couldn’t do a thing. He really spoke his piece out of turn that time. Got a union man mad, that time, and got himself told.

Informant: Gertrude D.

Interviewer: Betty Burke

Interview Location: 101 S. Ashland, West Side YWCA

Date of interview: May 15, 1939, 6:30pm

Description of Informant by Interviewer: “Pretty, strong, and stubborn. Well liked by the girls. Lots of pep and always wanting to be engaging in physical activity.”

I’ve worked in Reliable Packing CO. for the last 6 years, mostly in Sliced Bacon. I just wrap up the bacon as it comes out of the slicing machine, in those cellophane wrappers, and stack them. I have lots of fun at work, we kid around with the guys all the time. Sometimes we fry bacon on a little electric plate that we plug up to one of the machines. A bunch of us always eat together. We even make coffee. It’s against rules to cook anything, really. You’re supposed to use the cafeteria. But the boss don’t care, he comes around lunch time and we make him eat with us. He likes our gang. Some of the old Polish women get sore as heck because he treats us better than them. They don’t like to see young girls and fellows have a good time, but we don’t do anything. We just monkey around a little bit, that’s all. They’re just jealous ’cause they can’t.

I get paid by the hour. It’s pretty nice where I work. It gets cold, but I don’t mind. I got two weeks vacation with pay this winter, I took another week off without pay, the boss let me off, and I went to Florida. Did I have fun! I was flat broke when I came back.

We have a union in our place. It’s the Employees Mutual Benefit Association. We have dances and socials, [bunco?] parties, things like that. We have our Grievance committee, all that. Of course, the CIO had to come butting in where they weren’t wanted and lots of people joined but my gang didn’t and I’m glad. I’m satisfied with my job and I got no kick with the company. Why should I worry about somebody else’s troubles on the job? I pay my dues to the Employees Association and always will. They’re just jealous of anybody with a good job, and they join the CIO and try to get the company to give them all the easy work. Same of them in the CIO union won’t even talk to us anymore, can you imagine that! We get along at work better than any of them, so we don’t pay any attention to them.

Informant: Pat Christie

Interviewer: Betty Burke

Interview Location: Packing House, Union Headquarters Sikora Hall, 4750 S. Hermitage

Date of interview: June 14, 1939

Description of Informant by Interviewer: Irish American – 25 yrs.

First I was in pickled pigs feet, where they pack and prepare only pigs feet. I’d have to bone them, wash them, wash the jars the stuff came in, and set them up on a table. I’d handle five jars in one hand, a finger holding each one. Quart jars they were, and the girls on that job would rush past each other with ten quarts of glassware stuck on the ends of their fingers, looking like a Buck Rogers creation.

You know how the tops of glass jars are, sharp and jagged edges, and we’d cut ourselves all the time. Then besides that, after that we had to take these jars, filled with pigs feet over to the vinegar table where we put in the vinegar solution. And when that vinegar juice slops onto the cuts between a girl’s fingers, wowie! That really hurts!

We had to argue and talk and fight before they furnished us with rubber gloves on that job. And then they only furnish two pairs a week and the girls have to buy at least five pairs because they wear out a couple pairs a day when there’s a lot of work.

I got a skin rash working in that vinegar. It splashes in your face and your eyes no matter how careful you are. I got big red blotches all over my face and neck and arms from it. It took me six months to get rid of it and I had to quit that job. They usually put the colored girls on that vinegar job. Me and another girl used to [do?] a lot of talking and they knew we were in the CIO union so they stuck us on that job to get on our nerves and maybe make us quit. Well, it worked, but not until all the girls had union cards, so much good that one was. All the colored girls, they jump at the chance to be in the union as soon an they’re asked. It’s different with some of them. The Polish girls, some of them they’ll say, “Ah, let my husband join. Let my husband go to meetings. Let the men do it, it’s not for women to do.’ But once they get interested, boy, oh boy, they’ll get up and talk their hearts out and they’ll fight like troopers for the union. Once they really get the idea and the feel of the union, you can’t hold then down. Some of the most religious Polish women in the union are the most surprising. They really go to town when they get started with the Union.

And the Mexican women, they’re all fighters. They know their rights and they fight for all they can get, every time. A boss can’t say boo to them, they’ll come right book at him. You know sometimes the foremen try to push them around, and call them Negroes. There’s nothing makes them so angry and they won’t let anybody get away with that, if he’s the super himself. They’re very proud of being Mexican.

Informant: Stanley Kulenski

Interviewer: Betty Burke

Interview Location: Packing House, Union Headquarters Sikora Hall, 4750 S. Hermitage

Date of interview: June 3, 1939

Description of Informant by Interviewer: Polish 28 yrs.

What do I do at Armour’s? I’m a tractor man, miss. I run one of them tractors that haul out the finished products packed and ready for the freights and trucks. They used to have one man doin’ the checkin’ and drivin’ a tractor on one job. That’s what they had me doin’ a couple of years. Run me ragged. Now they got regular checkers on steady.

I ain’t got a steady job, see. I been working there longer than some of the guys they put on steady checking, guys that used to be tractor men alongside o’me. The company knew I was a union man so I wasn’t in on it when same of these other guys got promoted to checkers. I didn’t put up a squawk, see, because I didn’t want to be a checker at the time. I didn’t want the job anyway, for the reason, driving a tractor, they don’t expect so much from you, the job has less responsibility attached to it. If you’re a checker it’s easier for them to get something on you. They’re out to get a union guy any time, Armour’s is, and the way they do it is, a checker can only do so much work and then he’s bound to make mistakes because he won’t be able to handle the volume of orders and all, it’ll be comin’ in so fast. So they’ll keep swampin’ him with work until they pin enough mistakes on him to can him. I figure to keep on this job at Armour’s so I aint kickin’ just now. I got a job to do for a while yet. And wait’ll they find out I aint the only guy in the union. All them checkers are union guys. Will they burn! Most of the tractor men are union, too. It won’t be long till we get our contract out of Armour’s. That’s what we’re counting on when Lewis hits town.

Related resource

Analyzing Primary Sources: Learning from Oral Histories guiding questions for analyzing oral histories

[1] Information gathered from the Encyclopedia of Chicago entries on “Meatpacking” (http://encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/804.html) and “Antiunionism” (http://encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/55.html). Accessed 03/07/12.