Our Contribution to KC@150—
A Chapter in Working Class History

There's been the fireworks, the concerts, Walter Cronkite. Timelines and historical nuggets in the Star. There were jazz landmark tours, great homes tours, even a gangsters tour. And, of course, the commemorative merchandise. But the celebration of Kansas City's 150th Anniversary has been pretty light on any mention of the contributions of the working class.

Kansas City, of course, wasn't built just by the Armours and Gillhams, the Troosts and the Halls, the Swopes and Kempers. We also deserve to know about the railroad and meat packing workers who transformed a village to a major city; the auto workers who, at one time, built the most cars of any town outside Detroit; the garment workers who, at one point, clothed one out of seven American women; the workers at Sheffield Steel, Allis-Chalmers, Standard Oil and Phillips Petroleum, Vendo, Loose-Wild, Western Electric and many others.We think they're part of the story too.

In 1992 a group of scholars, and workers interested in local labor history, researched and produced a Labor History Bus Tour. The tour went out four times in '92 and '93. We will reprint presentations from the tour and hope to collect them together soon on the kclabor.org labor history page.  This month we take a look at the packinghouses.

Packinghouse Unionism in Kansas City

by Bill Onasch

Meat-packing was the biggest employer in the Kansas City area for nearly six decades. Kansas City was second only to Chicago in this industry from 1890 until the 1950s. The stockyards and packinghouses covered over 200 acres in the West Bottoms.

Henry Ford is often credited with being the pioneer of mass-production methods in American industry; however, these techniques were being perfected in the packinghouse decades before the introduction of the Model T. Instead of an assembly line the packers developed a "dis-assembly" line. Live animals went in one end, out the other end came meat and numerous profitable byproducts.

The entire operation was kept moving on a line. Few skilled butchers were required. Each job was based on a few simple motions, quickly learned. While workers became quite proficient at their specific tasks they remained unskilled, their talents unmarketable anywhere else.

The work itself was not only unpleasant—it was highly dangerous. In a three-year period—from 1907-10—13 men were killed on the job just at the Swift plant. Rheumatism was widespread and tuberculosis and pneumonia were the most common causes of death among packinghouse workers in the early days.

Because of the low pay and poor conditions, the employers sometimes had difficulty finding workers. In Chicago they relied mainly on recent immigrants from Europe, struggling to find their first jobs. But in Kansas City, in the early days, the pool of available immigrants was much smaller. Here the packers hired large numbers of Black and Chicano workers from the very beginning.

The development of the Kansas City packing industry coincided with the first big wave of immigration of ex-slaves from the south—the "exodusters"—which focused on Kansas during the 1870s. More than 50,000 southern Blacks came to the state during that decade and the majority, not finding the land that they sought, eventually wound up in Kansas City. The original Black community in Kansas City, Kansas was on the edge of what was to become the packing district. By 1893, Blacks made up 24% of the population of the city. By comparison, Chicago's Black population at the time was only about 2%. In 1905 the ethnic breakdown of the Kansas City packinghouse workforce was 35% native-born whites; 35% European immigrants; 25% Black; and about 5% Chicanos.

Attempts were made to unionize the packinghouses almost from the beginning. The Knights of Labor, and the AF of L Amalgamated Meat Cutters & Butcher Workmen, each enjoyed organizing successes at various times. But their victories proved to be temporary, eventually crushed by the packing bosses. Stable unionism was not established until the entry of the CIO into the industry in the late 1930s.

The Amalgamated had a case of split-personality. On the one hand it sought to organize skilled meat-cutters in butcher shops, grocery store meat departments, and wholesale specialty houses. But, at the same time, the Amalgamated leadership thought they ought to do something to organize the packinghouses that were increasingly undermining the demand for and the value of, skilled meat cutting.

The mainstream of the AF of L, under the leadership of Samuel Gompers, rejected the idea of unionizing workers by industry in favor of organizing them on the basis of craft. Despite the growth in mechanization, and mass production industries, they continued to believe the union movement must be based on the skilled worker. They sought to control the training and placement of tradesmen in order to regulate the supply, and thus the value, of skilled labor. They were suspicious of the unskilled and doubted that they could ever be effectively organized. The skilled trades were predominantly composed of native-born white male workers and they aimed to replicate themselves through their control of apprenticeships and hiring halls. Most crafts were contemptuous of foreign-born workers, favoring strict immigration controls, and many maintained an outright ban on teaching their trades to nonwhites.

This approach seemed to suit the Amalgamated in the retail butcher shops but it did not lend itself to packinghouse organizing. Even though the Amalgamated leaders recognized that craft distinctions had all but been eliminated in the assembly line process, they nevertheless dutifully tried to apply the principles of craft organization. Separate local unions were organized for every department. For example, hog-splitters might be in the same local union with fellow hog-splitters from other plants in a city but wouldn't meet with union members working next to them in the same plant. Each departmental local negotiated its own wage structure and work rules independently.

The Amalgamated also had to turn over many workers they organized to other craft unions. For example, the stationary engineer's and firemen and oiler's unions, claimed the skilled workers who maintained the boilers and refrigeration systems—obviously a very strategic group of workers. When the Amalgamated was forced into strikes in 1904, and 1921, these other unions continued to work, playing a key role in the defeat of those strikes.

A primary source of strikebreakers in these two strikes were  impoverished Black workers from the south. So terrible were conditions in the south even dirty, dangerous, and low-paid jobs in meat packing looked attractive to many. Often the strikebreakers didn't know how they were being used until they got to the struck plants. By that time it was difficult to get out of their obligation to the packers even if they wanted to.

This tactic not only served the packers by securing labor to operate the struck plants—it also drove a deep wedge into the solidarity of the strikers. The racial prejudice of the white workers was inflamed by the Black strikebreakers and, in cities such as Chicago, often degenerated into race riots and random attacks on anyone with a Black skin.

This didn't happen in Kansas City in the 1904 strike, however. It was avoided not because people in Kansas City were in general more enlightened on racial matters—far from it. It didn't happen primarily because Blacks had been, for coincidental reasons, a big part of the packinghouse workforce from the beginning and a big part of the union from the beginning. Black strikebreakers coming to Kansas City were as likely to be replacing a Black striker as a white one.

Black packinghouse workers strongly supported the union and the strike and this support was echoed by the Kansas City, Kansas Black community as a whole. Clergy and community leaders sent appeals to the south urging that Blacks be careful not to be trapped into taking other Black person's jobs. They also appealed to the strikebreakers when they got to town and if reason didn't work they sometimes tried other means of persuasion. The majority of strike-related incidents reported to the Kansas City, Kansas police  department in 1904 concerned Black-on-Black confrontations.

The AF of L not only failed to establish stable unionism in meatpacking—it was unable to make gains in any of the mass-production industries. In the 1930s big debates opened up again in the AF of L over basic union principles. Out of that debate came a split and the formation of a new labor federation—the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). The CIO established new unions to organize the mass-production industries, including the United Packinghouse Workers union.

The CIO sought to organize all workers in an industry into one union. It rejected—at least in its formative period—the pleading for labor management cooperation, promoted by most AF of L unions, in favor of a more adversarial approach. It also understood much more clearly than the AF of L the need to try to counteract the divisions of the workers along race, ethnic, and gender lines.

In many respects the CIO in its first decade of existence was more than just a union—it was a broad social movement, championing issues concerning the working class as a whole. By doing so it won wide sympathy, and even active support, from millions who were not even eligible to join its affiliates. That's why it was able to carry out successful strikes even in the midst of the worst unemployment ever seen in this country. They were not only effective in persuading unemployed workers not to scab—the unemployed often joined the union's picket lines in massive numbers to help keep scabs out.

The Armour plant—the biggest and oldest—led the way in CIO organizing here in Kansas City. There were four groups of workers who came together in the mid-30s to form the central leadership:

* a small group of high-seniority, native-born white socialists who were in contact with a Trotskyist current in the Socialist Party that was having big success in organizing the major Minnesota packing centers in Austin, Albert Lea, and South St Paul.

* a layer of Black workers, led by Spurgeon Edgerton, who had been an activist in the Marcus Garvey movement.

* some first and second generation Croatian socialists who were active in Croatian fraternal organizations on Strawberry Hill and were able to gain access for the union to these group's meeting halls and printing facilities.

* a group of former coal miners, displaced from the coalfields of souteastern Kansas and southwestern Missouri, who identified with John L Lewis's initiatives with the CIO.

This collective leadership was able to largely overcome the divisions among the workers that had been carefully cultivated by Armour management. With some help from the United Auto Workers local at the Leeds Chevrolet plant, the new CIO organization at Armour grew rapidly. They held their first open union meeting in March, 1937. By August they were able to win an NLRB election. Over the next four years they carried out a series of impressive actions in the plant including a five-day sitdown strike in September, 1938. Among their successes during this period was the elimination of special women's pay scales and establishment of equal pay for equal work.

The success at Armour quickly attracted workers from other plants to the CIO. In 1939 and 1940, the CIO won collective bargaining elections in every major packing operation in Kansas City except Swift, displanting the company unions that had been established after the defeat of the 1921 strike.

Pressure was then put on the packers for contracts. For two years there was almost constant guerilla warfare in the plants with numerous slow-downs, demonstrations. In the summer of 1941 there were wildcat strikes at Armour and Cudahay to demonstrate the growing impatience with the packer's stalling at the level of national negotiations. Finally, in September of 1941, nationally-negotiated contracts were won with the Big Four.

The CIO union's victories prompted the Amalgamated to once again seriously try to organize the packinghouses. Belatedly adopting industrial structure they had some success in some of the smaller Big Four plants and among independent packers though not much in the Kansas City area. A fierce rivalry developed between the Amalgamated and the United Packinghouse Workers on the national level.

At the end of World War II, employers generally tested the unions to see if they could roll them back as they had done after the First World War. The response, including in the packinghouse industry, was a massive strike wave that not only succeeded in maintaining the unions but winning some real gains for the union membership. In the 1946 strike there was cooperation between the rival packing unions.

In 1948, the packers again tested the unions. The Amalgamated settled in its plants for a token wage increase recommended by a government fact-finding board. The CIO union called a strike in pursuit of more. With their AF of L plants still working, the employers went after the CIO aggressively. In Minnesota the national guard was called out and tanks rolled down the streets of South St Paul. Here in Kansas City the KCK police invaded the main strike headquarters, smashed up a soup kitchen, and injured 110 people—a number of them striker's wives working in the kitchen.

The packers were not able to break the union but after a ten-week strike the CIO workers gave into the same terms the AF of L had settled for. Still the packers didn't reconcile themselves to the unions. Beginning in the 1950s they started dismantling the traditional packing centers in Chicago, St Louis, South St Paul, and Kansas City. They restructured the industry, scattering smaller plants throughout the midwest. By the end of the 60s Kansas City was no longer a major packing center and today virtually nothing of that industry exists here.

Packinghouse Industry Chronology

1869──Opening of Hannibal Bridge establishes Kansas City as a major rail center, including the shipment of western livestock.

──Invention of the refrigerated rail car makes the shipment of fresh meat, rather than livestock, to the big population centers of the East both possible and profitble.

1870──Philip Armour opens his first packinghouse outside Chicago in Kansas City, Kansas.

1870s──The Exoduster migration. 50,000 southern Blacks come to Kansas, hoping to get land. Few get land and many wind up in Kansas City, concentrated in the vicinity of what will become the packing district. Kansas City becomes the first packing center to employ substantial numbers of Blacks. By 1905 African-Americans comprise nearly a quarter of the packinghouse workforce.

1871──To attract more packing business, railroads establish the Kansas City Stockyards Company.

1880-1900──Growth of packing industry becomes main factor in transformation of Kansas City from frontier village to major city. From a population of a few thousand in 1860, Greater Kansas City grew to 60,000 by 1880 and reached 215,000 by the turn of the century.

1885──Large scale immigration of Croatians to Kansas City, Kansas begins. Living in the Strawberry Hill district, first and second generation Croatians came to make up 15% of the packing labor force and their fraternal organizations would later play a big role in union organizing.

1886──Kansas City packinghouse workers participate in nationally-coordinated strikes and demonstrations on May Day, called by the Knights of Labor. The eight-hour day is briefly established. A few months later the bosses renege on their agreement. When the leadership opposes any action the Knights organization collapses. Three Kansas City Knights assemblies continue as independent local unions. In 1889 they affiliate with the Industrial Council, the first AF of L central labor body in the area.

1893──Strikes over wage-cuts and employment of nonunion butchers at Armour's. Industrial Council adopts tactic of organizing boycotts in support of disputes with packers.

1895──Women meat-trimmers at Swift win a strike against wage-cuts and receive a $20 bonus to return to work.

1896──Stationary Firemen's Local 6406 strikes Armour seeking an eight-hour day. Union butchers honor picket lines and Industrial Council organizes a boycott of Armour products. Armour fires 1100 workers and obtains a court injunction against the boycott. The strike is broken.

1897──The AF of L charters the Amalgamated Meat Cutters & Butcher Workmen of North America. George Byer, of the Kansas City Sheep Butcher's Union, becomes the Amalgamated's first president.

1900──Eight Kansas City packinghouses, employing over 10,000 workers, slaughter three million hogs, a million cattle, and 600,000 sheep. Meat-packing employs 42% of Greater Kansas City's manufacturing-sector workforce and accounts for 12% of national packing labor──second only to Chicago.

1900-1903──Amalgamated signs up 56,000 packinghouse workers nationally, about 7,000 in the Kansas City area. Wage agreements and grievance structures are negotiated on a departmental level. Many workers organized by the Amalgamated are claimed by other craft unions.

1904──In the midst of a deep recession, packing bosses provoke the Amalgamated into a national strike. Other craft unions, such as the stationary engineer's, firemen's, and teamsters, continue to work. Strike is quickly crushed and the Amalgamated loses 90% of its packinghouse membership.

1918──Taking advantage of boom conditions created by the First World War, the Amalgamated again signs up a majority of packinghouse workers nationally. Represented by Jim Walsh, the union wins an arbitration award establishing the eight-hour day and substantial wage increases.

──Stockyards and Armour plant shutdown for two days during general strike, called in support of striking laundry workers.

1921──Employers refuse to renew agreement with the Amalgamated after the expiration of the arbitration award. After months of indecision and inaction by the Amalgamated leadership the packing bosses force a strike in December. As in 1904, other AF of L craft unions scab on the Amalgamated. Black strike-breakers are widely used, exacerbating racial tensions within the union. The Amalgamated is once again smashed. The employers establish company-unions.

1930s──Depression hits Kansas City packing industry hard. Employment dropped from 8,000 in 1930 to 6,000 in 1935, bottoming out at 5,000 in 1938.

1932──A demonstration of 5,000 organized by the Rosedale Unemployed Council, including many laid-off packinghouse workers, is broken up by KCK police. There are many injuries and arrests.

March, 1937──First meeting of Armour Local Industrial Union 232 is held. UAW Local at Leed's Chevrolet plant votes to assign two organizers to assist CIO efforts at Armour.

August, 1937──Local 232 wins an NLRB election and becomes the bargaining agent for Armour workers.

September, 1938──Armour workers stage a successful five-day sit-down strike over grievances.

May, 1939──Local 232 wins grievance forcing Armour to pay women workers equal pay for equal work.

July, 1939──After a number of successful departmental job actions, Industrial Union Local 194 shuts down the Cudahy plant in support of equal pay for eight Black women performing traditionally "men's" work. The grievance is quickly resolved.

May, 1940──Now renamed Local 10 of the Packinghouse Workers Organizing Committee (PWOC──later to become the United Packinghouse Workers Union,) the CIO easily defeats the Amalgamated to become NLRB certified at Cudahy.

September, 1941──The PWOC settles national contracts with the Big Four packers.

──PWOC Local 15 strikes Wilson for four days to protest the firing of Dorothy Ward, a Black union activist.

January, 1942──Local 15 wins NLRB election at Wilson.

1946──As part of a general explosion of strikes after the war (nearly three million workers were on strike at the same time), the CIO and AF of L collaborate in a national packinghouse strike that wins significant gains in wages and new fringe benefits.

1948──National packinghouse labor unity collapses. AF of L settles for a token wage increase. When CIO strikes for more, employer resistance is fierce. KCK police invade main strike headquarters, smashing up soup kitchen and beating dozens of strikers and striker's wives. CIO eventually returns to work on same terms accepted by the AF of L.

1950s──In large part to get away from militant unions, packing industry begins to decentralize, dismantling traditional centers such as Chicago, South St Paul──and Kansas City. By the end of the 1960s the Kansas City packinghouse industry, along with its unions, had been completely eliminated.