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To Fight Racism, Organize With Your Coworkers

Too many anti-racist efforts today obsess over individual actions like microaggressions. We need to fight racism in a collective project rooted in shared material interests — as the United Packinghouse Workers of America did in its heyday.

United Packing House Workers go on strike at the Chicago Stockyards strike. (Bettmann/Getty)

“The heartbeat of racism is denial, the heartbeat of antiracism is confession.” Ibram X. Kendi, the anti-racist scholar and activist, says this is one of his favorite lines about fighting racism. It makes sense, because the quote is entirely consistent with the dominant frameworks used for discussing and combating racism today.

As the latest upsurge of Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 subsided, it left in its wake an increasingly individualistic conception of how to address racial inequality. Books like Kendi’s How to Be An Antiracist and Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility have flown off the shelves and dominated reading groups, giving white people a road map for the long path of confession, atonement, and self-improvement.

Though broader systemic inequalities are of course acknowledged in these works, the bulk of the action items center on how one can shape their thoughts and interpersonal relations in an anti-racist way. Ironically, these works tend to center the agency of the white individual. In White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo boldly claims that “white racism is ultimately a white problem and the burden for interrupting it belongs to white people.”

It wasn’t always this way. Collective struggle anchored in shared interests, not individual salvation and self-help, has historically been the most effective means of combating racial inequality. This framework needs to be revived on a broad scale if we are to achieve true racial justice beyond a Black Lives Matter collection on Netflix.

The methods of the United Packinghouse Workers of America (UPWA), perhaps one of the most effective organizations at combating both racist attitudes and outcomes, are instructive. Former NAACP labor director Herbert Hill, who was often critical of labor’s track record on race, sang high praise of the UPWA in Black Labor and the American Legal System: “The uniqueness of this union was that it perceived itself not merely as a collective bargaining agent that provided certain services to its members in return for dues but rather as a labor organization involved in social change.”

The meatpacking workforce during the UPWA’s heyday in the 1930s to ’50s was incredibly diverse, with many plants employing black workers, native-born whites, and a wide variety of white ethnic immigrants all under one roof. Despite the huge potential or even probability of intense racial conflict, the UPWA engineered a culture of solidarity by using the common interest in fighting the employer to break down racial barriers. The approach was a collective one, but these powerful experiences of solidarity would in turn significantly improve the individual racial attitudes of many white members.

UPWA locals in Chicago, Kansas City, and Waterloo (Iowa) had particularly robust antidiscrimination programs. These locals developed a strong and diverse rank-and-file infrastructure, then used it for dramatic displays of shop-floor power and tackling racial issues in the wider community. As a result, black workers exercised real power and saw the union as a central vehicle for advancing racial justice, as they articulated in an oral history project conducted by the UPWA throughout the 1980s. These interviews are featured in Roger Horowitz’s book “Negro and White, Unite and Fight!”: A Social History of Industrial Unionism in Meatpacking, 1930–90.

The effect of the UPWA is best summed up by Anna Mae Weems, a black member of UPWA Local 46 in Iowa. Referencing the union’s logo of a black and white hand clasped together, she said in a 1986 interview: “The only hope we had of getting our rights was when we saw that black hand with the white hand; that gave us the hope.”

Chicago

Chicago was the largest meatpacking hub in the country, with twenty-five thousand workers in the industry in the 1930s. Despite the large concentration of workers, unionizing the industry was fraught with complications.

The paternalistic rule of the meatpacking companies won the allegiance of many workers. Top companies like Swift and Armour financed the activities of many important black institutions like the Urban League and Wabash Avenue YMCA. And discrimination by labor unions in previous years allowed the companies to cynically use black workers as strikebreakers. As a Chicago packinghouse company president described in the late 1920s, “We took the negroes on as strikebreakers in 1921, and have kept them ever since in order to be prepared for any kind of outbreak.”

Chicago stockyards in Chicago, c. 1940. (R. Gates Archive via Getty Images)

Packinghouse jobs were some of the best available to working-class black people, making it even more of a risk for them to rock the boat by unionizing. Lowell Washington, the son of a longtime Swift employee, explained, “To be a top man at Swift’s or Armour’s meant that you could pay your bills, feed your family, have your kids in clothes and shoes, and have more than a little bit of respect from your neighbors.”

While blacks were 30 percent of the meatpacking workforce, Polish workers were the largest section. Many Polish workers had supported the failed union drives of the 1920s, but the defeats left workers bitterly divided on racial lines. Polish worker Elmer Benson explained, “The white butchers hated the Negroes because they figured they would scab on them.” Additionally, the challenges of forging unity were heightened by the physical separation of black and Polish neighborhoods.

Even during the workday, workers were segregated into different job categories by race and gender. Black workers were concentrated on the killing floor, where animals were slaughtered and prepared. This was the most dirty, dangerous, and labor-intensive work. East Europeans held most butchering positions, while older Western European immigrants dominated the highly paid mechanical trades. The sliced bacon department, known as a much cleaner and more desirable place to work, was reserved for white women.

The Great Depression opened cracks in the meatpacking companies’ stranglehold over Chicago’s working class. As management responded to the crisis with mass layoffs and increased pressure on productivity, the loyalty of many workers was diminished.

The Communist Party (CP) played a decisive role in laying the groundwork for the future organizing of packinghouse workers in Chicago. The organizing infrastructure they built in the early years of the Depression would presage the shop-floor networks eventually built in the union. Their unemployed councils were active in both black and white communities, and the CP was one of the few truly interracial organizations in the city. Many workers active in the unemployed councils eventually got jobs in the meatpacking plants in 1933.

Herb March was one of these workers. March was a Communist Party member and an incredibly skilled organizer in the union drive. He grew the packinghouse section of the CP from a dozen in 1933 to several hundred by 1939. He and other early union cadres were deliberate in making multiracial unity a core part of the union’s structure from the beginning.

“We initiated the union, and developed the union, and carried it through as a union of black and white workers from the inception,” March said. “It was an integral part of the union’s thinking from the word go.” The nucleus of many union committees started on the killing floors, which gave the union a structural advantage. Killing floor departments were already the most integrated, so the union started with multiracial buy-in from the beginning.

This thoughtfulness paid off, and the signs were everywhere that union activists had learned the lessons from previous defeats. As the organizing drives gathered steam, prominent black union activist Henry Johnson was brought in to convince skeptical elements in Chicago’s black communities.

In early 1937, killing-floor workers started sending racially integrated “flying squads” to other departments to spread the gospel of unionism. Two thousand workers attended the first public CIO rally later that year. Again, the union took deliberate steps to maximize racial unity. The rally was held at a Polish bar that allowed integration; from then on, black workers started patronizing establishments favored by their white coworkers more often.

Some of the first breakthroughs came in 1938 at several small meatpacking companies, known as the Little Six. Five of the presidents of the Little Six locals were black, sending a strong signal that the union welcomed black leadership. Important institutions in the black community began to change their tune about unions. The black newspaper Chicago Defender published an article celebrating the fact that over twenty black ministers had won positions as shop stewards.

Powerful, multiracial shop-floor actions consolidated this hard-won unity. In one instance, Polish butcher Walter Strabawa was fired for cooking scraps of meat for lunch, a common practice. A delegation of workers met with management and threatened to shut down production if he wasn’t reinstated, leading the superintendent to respond, “All right you bastards, we’ll put him back to work.” Black butchers were part of that delegation, and some attended Strabawa’s wedding a few months later in a Polish church. It was their first time both at a white person’s wedding and stepping foot in a Polish church.

That same year, the Armour laid off black hog-butcher Charles Perry, who had more seniority than other white workers who remained working. Both black and white killing-floor workers sat down and refused to work until the company agreed to rehire Perry.

Slowly but surely, even the most skeptical black workers were eventually won over to the cause of the union. Philip Weightman, a black butcher at Swift, had a bad experience with the Amalgamated Meat Cutters in 1918 when he was refused service at a union function. He claimed the incident “destroyed my desire for unionism.” He wanted nothing to do with the union drive in the 1930s — until his coworker was abruptly fired for no reason.

The next day, Weightman came to work sporting a CIO union button, and from then on became a union stalwart. Highly respected by other black workers, he alone brought hundreds more into the union.

Time and time again, black workers saw through direct experience the difference the union could make in their lives. Addie Wyatt got a job at the Armour plant in 1941, and the union used the seniority system to prevent the company from replacing her with a white woman. Then, when she got pregnant, the union won maternity leave.

The more she got involved in the union, the more she was inspired. Wyatt reflected, “I saw a picture that I have never been able to forget. Here were workers who were learning . . . how to band together to improve their lives through collective bargaining, political and social action. And I want to be a part of it.”

UPWA workers in Chicago make the picket line a family affair. (Bettmann/Getty)

The union was able to build a lasting structure that reproduced itself even as new people, without the formative experience of building the union from scratch, joined the workforce. This structure reinforced the values of rank-and-file participation and multiracial unity.

Herb March describes,

It was amazing how quickly they were able to absorb the whole concept from the other workers who were there. We had the experience of building our union up through the period of the war which involved this constant stoppage, slowdown, fight around issues, constant militancy around issues was at the heart of the functioning of the union. As a result, the rank and file was unusually militant, and had a strong feeling of the union being their organization.

The UPWA in Chicago was not satisfied with being at the vanguard of racial justice inside the workplace — they exported this activity to the broader community. In the 1950s, many white communities protested as more black families began moving into Trumbull Park Homes. Using their shop-steward system, the UPWA organized members to canvass white communities and convince them to accept black residents.

When more was needed, black and white members were brought together in a picket demanding the Chicago Housing Authority accept black tenants. This commitment to housing justice remained steady, as the UPWA was one of the only unions in Chicago to support Martin Luther King Jr’s open housing campaign in 1966.

Hundreds of UPWA members were recruited to join the NAACP, decisively changing the class composition of the organization from middle class to working class. This helped to shape the agenda of the organization to focus on more issues of concern to ordinary black workers.

Through painstaking organizing based around unity in pursuit of common interests, the UPWA became a model in Chicago for how a multiracial organization can make significant progress on racial justice.

Kansas City

In Kansas City, the relationship of black workers with the meatpacking industry mirrored that of Chicago. Shut out of virtually every other industry, black people started working in meatpacking as far back as 1879. Throughout the 1920s, meatpacking companies sponsored all-black local basketball teams and cultivated a benevolent image. A meatpacking strike in 1921 failed due to the lack of black support.

But just like in Chicago, members of the organized left played an important role in learning from these mistakes. This time, in Kansas City, it was a group of Socialist Party members that began to build a diverse nucleus of union militants in the 1930s.

Croatians were the most important section of white ethnics in the meatpacking labor force. Similarly to the black population, they depended heavily on packinghouse employment. Civic associations like the Croatian Fraternal Union had encouraged its members to get involved with unionization ever since the Depression. Union activists used the Croatian Fraternal Union social hall as a place to hold interracial gatherings, featuring performances from both black and white musicians.

Packinghouse union workers wearing grease-smeared raincoats picket in Kansas City, 1948. (Bettmann/Getty)

The bonds between workers were deepened by an extraordinarily militant event. On September 9, 1938, one thousand workers staged an occupation of the Armour meatpacking plant. It started over a seemingly trivial issue: five workers, four black and one Croatian, were fined a collective amount of $22.09 for a grievance hearing. A handful of workers on the killing floor began the occupation demanding the workers receive back pay without being disciplined.

Grievances and resentments from Armour workers had been piling up, and before long the occupation turned into a full-fledged show of solidarity. Charles R. Fischer, one of the founders of the UPWA in Kansas City, believed that the plant occupation “left a unity of friendship that couldn’t have been created in any other way.” During the occupation, multiracial performances by worker musicians were held. In the evening, a gospel choir of black workers performed.

In the end, the union won back pay for the five workers and recruited hundreds more to join. More importantly, the plant occupation consolidated and expanded the investment from black workers in the union. According to union records, black worker attendance at union meetings reached 40 percent, and the UPWA became by far the largest interracial organization in Kansas City at the time.

In a relatively short time, the UPWA again overcame daunting divisions by creating deep unity in pursuit of mutually held goals. In the words of Fischer, “There was, of course, the religious difference and that racial difference, which were obstacles at first but which were all overcome. All of them — simply by showing the people that we all had a common goal to make a decent living, to have a decent standard of living, and this was the way to go, and the only way to go, because without a union, we’re all lost. And it’s so. It’s just that simple. There’s nothing complicated about it at all.”

Waterloo

In Waterloo, Iowa, UPWA Local 48’s strong commitment to racial justice was demonstrated by its ability to navigate a potentially destructive incident. In 1948, the union launched a tough strike against the Rath Packing Company. A black strikebreaker tried to drive through a crowd of picketers at the Rath company gates. As his car was rocked by strikers, he got out and shot white union leader Chuck Farrell in the head, instantly killing him.

Especially in the 1940s, for most unions, this incident would have inevitably led to racial division and even violence. Charles Pearson, a black union Local 48 founder and shop steward, reflected, “If there was going to be a racial break, it would have been at that time — a black man killing a white man.”

But instead of becoming a divisive issue among themselves, workers turned their fire against the company. The workers broke through the company gates and let loose, smashing windows, overturning cars, and fighting company personnel. Three days later, black and white workers marched together in Chuck Farrell’s funeral procession.

Philip Weightman, vice president of the Packinghouse Workers Union, addresses a mass demonstration outside the Swift & Co. plant in Chicago’s stockyards, 1946. (Bettmann/Getty)

The UPWA used this incident to take their antidiscrimination work even further. Reluctant local unions were pressured by the national union to do their part. Local 46 activist Jimmy Porter recalled, “If you hadn’t something going on, they’d call the roll on your ass. This was mandated, it wasn’t something just passed, and your district director was going to account for what you’ve done.”

Educational programs on racism were carried out by the union on radio programs and in high schools. UPWA activists played an important role in desegregating Waterloo’s police department and YMCA Men’s Club. Shop stewards organized integrated delegations of union members to confront establishments that practiced discrimination. After initial success, the local set up caravans of members that integrated restaurants and bars throughout Waterloo.

As in other cities, the UPWA in Waterloo created a vehicle for racial justice exceeding even the established civil rights organizations. Local 46 member Anna Mae Weems explained, “When the union started implementing their mandates and putting black people in the packinghouses and demanding that companies do that, that gave us our first real feel and experience in equal opportunity, far superseding the NAACP and the Urban League.”

A Religion of Unity

There is little doubt that the UPWA was a trailblazer when it came to racial justice. UPWA International president Ralph Helstein told a race-relations institute in 1949, “The community of our union established folkways and mores and customs and methods of life that perhaps do not conform to the normal pattern existing in the country today.”

The union’s focus on the structural economic underpinnings of racial inequality helped facilitate individual transformations in some of their white members. Years of union activity changed white UPWA member Henry Giannini, who remarked, “I can’t see how anybody can work side by side in a plant and discriminate against somebody.” Betty Watson, a white union leader in Omaha, once asked in an interview, “We worked together, we did the same work. So why should they be treated any differently?”

Besides shop-floor organizing, these impressive outcomes were also the result of the union’s robust political-education program that put forward a clear analysis on the ways racism hurts all workers. Take this section, from a 1953 UPWA pamphlet titled Discrimination: A $20 Billion Business: “When we consider the differential between the average wages of workers in the North and their fellow workers in the South, it is clear how discrimination robs white workers. Discrimination lowers the wages, not only of all Negro and all women workers, but it robs all white men, too.”

Of course, there is nothing inevitable about this kind of transformative organizing taking place with unions. In many ways, the UPWA was an outlier that went above and beyond on racial justice. But unions, given how they are structurally required to unite a broad set of workers around common interests, offer some of the most promising opportunities for meaningful progress on racial inequality.

Whether in the context of a labor union or not, the broader framework through which the UPWA tackled the question of race should guide our present-day efforts. Today, we face a deluge of corporate reframing of racial inequality that shines the spotlight on individual factors like microaggressions or cultural tastes. Many on the Left, despite good intentions, reproduce this same dead-end approach.

We need to once again revive a vision of fighting for racial justice as a collective, multiracial project rooted in shared material interests. To borrow from a slogan coined by UPWA workers, we need a “religion of unity.”