While the history of the UFCW begins in 1979, the history of the various industries that make up our union is long and proud. The industries that UFCW members work in were involved in the earliest stages of trade unionism in North America, and many times these workers acted as a catalyst for early change within the labor community.
The progression the UFCW has experienced since its inception is due in large part to its extraordinary leaders. These men and women dedicated their lives to the Labor Movement, and pledged life-long service to UFCW members and all working people. As a result of their efforts, the workers of North America have initiated change and gained a strong voice on the job for themselves and for future generations.
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It’s been more than 100 years since Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel The Jungle exposed the terrible working conditions and unsanitary practices going on inside America’s meatpacking plants. The book shocked the nation and that year the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Federal Meat Inspection Act were passed to protect consumers from unsafe meat. Packinghouse workers, however, would have to protect themselves. Workers on the kill and processing floors of plants around the country began uniting in unions to raise their pay and working conditions.
A history of organizing for power
Over the years, packinghouse workers built a strong, powerful union that truly embodies the old adage, “There’s Power in Numbers.” The Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen of North America (AMC) was the first national organization dedicated to bringing up the working standards of the meat industry through unionization. At the turn of the century, AMC organizers united workers in the Chicago stockyards and packinghouses. They organized butchers of Irish and German heritage and central and eastern European immigrants who made up the majority of the workforce at growing companies like Amour and Swift.
During the 1920s, black workers began entering packinghouses and earning skilled positions as butchers on the killing floors. During the early 1930s—and thanks in part to the New Deal’s pro-labor policies—black, white, and immigrant workers of all backgrounds took the lead organizing packinghouse workers in Chicago. These workers overcame ethnic and racial tensions in meatpacking plants that had kept workers divided and unable unite at the bargaining table.
United Packinghouse Workers of America (UPWA) was formed in 1943. Because of their large, active, and committed membership, UPWA was able to wield real power at the bargaining table. Through their solidarity, the workers of the UPWA were able to successfully bargain for increased wages and better working conditions. And they were able to use their tremendous power to benefit our entire society. UPWA was deeply involved in Chicago’s community-based struggle for racial equality.
Not many people at that time believed that equal pay for black workers was possible—but unionized packinghouse workers had equality written into their contracts. And, talking about pay equity for women did not become politically correct until the 1970s, but packinghouse workers had it written in their contracts in the 1950s. It was a union ahead of its time—regardless of color; sex, or immigrant status, union meatpackers got equal pay for equal work. These meatpackers build a strong, powerful union that would defend their interests as workers and defend their civil rights as well—a tradition that the UFCW is proud to carry on today.
The union premium
The UPWA was able to continually improve pay, benefits and working conditions of meatpacking workers in the U.S. through the 1970s. The average wage earned by a meatpacking worker during the 1960s and 1970s was 14% to 18% higher than others in the manufacturing sector. The peak hourly wage of a meatpacking worker during this period was nearly $20 per hour when adjusted for inflation. This was because they were union, and because they bargained with the company for their wages. Unionized meatpacking and food processing jobs were jobs that brought a middle class life. Both native born and immigrant workers earned decent wages that paid the bills. These workers were able to buy homes, put money aside for retirement, and put their children through school, and build a future for their families. United together in their union, workers were powerful enough to win pensions, health care, and measures to improve the safety and health conditions in their plants, and they were able to live the American Dream.
A changing industry
The meatpacking industry changed rapidly through the 1980s. Business in the railroad stockyards and city packinghouses declined rapidly. Chicago’s Union Stock Yard closed in 1970. Instead, packing plants arose in rural areas near livestock feedlots. These new plants were equipped with power saws and mechanical knives for a more efficient “disassembly line”. New companies like Iowa Beef Processors (IBP) used financial, technical and engineering power to change the face of the industry. They competed with other companies by increasing worker speed and productivity while cutting labor costs. Other companies either followed suit, or lost out. Small, local and regional companies closed or were bought out by giants like Tyson and Smithfield—and these companies grew into industry leaders. Now, five mega-corporations control more than 80% of the market.
These big, powerful companies continued to increase production speed, increasing the hazards for workers. Companies moved closed union plants and moved operations to states with right-to-work laws that made it difficult for workers to organize themselves into unions and fight for safer line speeds or wage increases. Workers who did seek to organize were met with employer resistance in the form of intimidation.
Today, workers have lost power at the bargaining table. Giant meatpacking and food companies are more determined than ever to keep labor costs as low as possible and production as high as possible. This means hiring cheap labor, maintaining intolerably high line speeds, demanding cuts in wages and benefits from unionized facilities. Many companies actively discourage workers from forming unions. In fact, a recent study by American Rights at Work revealed that 25% of employers fire at least one pro-union worker during worker organizing campaigns.
Other companies actively exploit our broken immigration system, purposely recruiting and hiring undocumented immigrants to create a disposable workforce. These immigrants often don’t speak English and aren’t aware of labor laws or their rights on the job. It’s a vulnerable, easily-intimidated workforce too afraid to speak out when their paychecks aren’t right, when working conditions are not safe or even when there’s a potential problem with the food they’re producing.
This has resulted in an industry where workers have less bargaining power, where it’s becoming harder and harder to earn enough to support families, and where it’s becoming less safe to work. In early 2005, Human Rights Watch released a report entitled “Blood, Sweat, and Fear: Workers’ Rights in U.S. Meat and Poultry Plants,” which concluded that the working conditions in many of America’s meat packing plants violated basic human and worker rights. This was the first time the human rights organization had criticized a single a U.S. industry.
There’s still power in numbers
What the UPWA knew back in the 1930s still holds true today. Workers have the ability to influence their wages, benefits and working conditions when they’re unionized. There is real power in numbers and in solidarity. In fact, union meatpackers earn 15% higher wages than non-union meatpackers. 81% of union workers have job-related health coverage, while only 50% of non-union workers do—and union families pay 43% less for family coverage than nonunion families. It’s called the “union premium” And, when union workers raise the working and living standards in their community, other businesses follow suit. That’s why the more union members there are in this country, the better off everyone is. Throughout our history, when unions are strong, wages go up, health care coverage improves and pensions are strengthened. When unions are under attack, as they are today, we are all in danger – our jobs, our communities and our families.
We can build our union for power.
History shows that the more unionized meatpacking workers there are, and the more we stick together in solidarity—the more likely it is we can raise wages and conditions for ourselves—and across the packing, poultry, and food processing industries. Think about this—for those of us who work in a “Right to Work” state, our power at the bargaining table is measured by the number of union members in our plant. The fact is that workers in plants with more union members earn more money.
For those of us who work in a union shop state, our power at the bargaining table is determined by how many plants in our area is union vs. non-union. Each time we go to negotiate our contract, our company points to the non-union plant down the road—or across the state line—as competition.
If those plants were union, it would be a completely different story.
For example, Tyson workers have a union in 25 plants—but workers in another 45 plants don’t have union representation. Workers in those non-union plants don’t want to make less money, earn fewer benefits, or work in unsafe working conditions. But they do, because they don’t have a union. Sometimes, workers don’t have a union because their employer actively tries to keep the union out. Other workers haven’t tried to organize their plant because they simply don’t know the benefits.
If unionized meatpacking workers came together to organize those plants, we could really build power at the bargaining table. We could raise wages and working conditions for food workers across the whole industry.
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The Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen of North America (AMC & BW of NA) was chartered by the American Federation of Labor in 1897 with seven locals, five of them composed of mostly skilled retail workers. In most meat packing plants, unskilled workers were the majority. Of this majority, 60 percent earned less than $6 a week. Skilled workers were paid better, with their wages ranging from $3 – $3.50 a day.
In 1903, the union demanded that the wages of the skilled workers be raised by 10 percent. The following year, the union asked that the wage increase be extended to both skilled and unskilled workers. After this demand, the companies’ response was to reduce hourly rates for all workers.
In 1904, the union organized a nationwide strike with 50,000 members participating. The strike ended in defeat, with a severe decline in membership as well as a long list of strikers being permanently blacklisted.
In 1921, the union called for another strike, this time with the intention of reneging on wage increases which had been awarded under a war-time arbitration agreement. The strike was unsuccessful for the union, leaving five strikers dead at the hands of police. Strikebreakers once again enabled the packers to overwhelm the union. At this point, packinghouse membership was at an all-time low, and the majority of strikers were blacklisted for the rest of their lives.
An epic two-year strike against the Morrell Company, which ended in 1937 with a union victory, helped to reunite and strengthen the packinghouse workers. Later that year, the Congress of Industrial Organizations formed the Packinghouse Workers Organizing Committee (PWOC).
As a result of a series of mergers, the AMC & BW of NA experienced continued growth and further expanded its jurisdiction. In 1943, the PWOC was dissolved to form the United Packinghouse Workers of America (UPWA). By 1953, the two unions had agreed to coordinate collective bargaining with national meat packing companies. However, it wasn’t until 15 years later that the UPWA and the AMC & BW of NA merged, uniting two strong unions and almost half a million members. The union of the two created one of the most powerful and progressive worker organizations seen in the history of the labor movement. Eleven years later, a merger between the Retail Clerks International Union and the AMC & BW of NA formed the UFCW.
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The Retail Clerks International Union, then known as the Retail Clerks National Protective Union, was chartered by the American Federation of Labor in 1890. At the point that it was chartered, the union was made up only of workers from the Clothing and Gents Furnishings and Shoe Store in Muskegon, Michigan.
Two years later, the RCNPA chartered with seven locals, and its membership spread throughout the Midwest, including stores in Indiana, Minnesota, Colorado, Ohio and Illinois. By 1899, the union officially became an international when a local was chartered in British Columbia, Canada.
Early in the Retail Clerks’ history, they fought for better wages and shorter hours. Equal pay for equal work was also an issue early on, as women employees were strongly discriminated against.
Boycotting became the main tactic used by the union to force employers to enact better working conditions with fair hours, as well as better and equal pay for all employees. An early victory for the Retail Clerks took place in 1896 in Kansas City, Missouri. After calling for a series of boycotts against a particular retail store, the union’s newsletter the Advocate spoke on the success of the boycotts, “they found they could not do business in this city with the boycott on them, so they moved, and that is what all such firms should do. Let them move or sign the agreement with the others to close at a reasonable hour.”
Shortly after this success, the local unions began negotiating contracts, focusing their attention on shorter working hours. In focusing primarily on working hours , the Retail Clerks became the first to establish the principle of overtime pay. In 1906 in Lynn, Massachusetts, Retail Clerks Local 131 won a $0.30 increase in pay for all hours over the average 63 hours worked.
Despite many long, bitter strikes throughout its early history, the Retail Clerks continued to grow. At its onset, membership was at 3,000, growing dramatically to over 50,000 by 1904.
Although the Retail Clerks experienced strong growth early in the century, the Depression nearly wiped out the union, dropping membership down to 5,000. As a result of the severe financial times facing the U.S., employers began cutting pay and replacing older workers with younger workers who would accept lower wages. In addition, employers offered little job security, forcing many employees to work as only temporary employees, never knowing when they might be without a job.
As the result of aggressive organizing programs and strong, united and strategic communication with employers, membership in the Retail Clerks soared in post-Depression America. Along with its astounding growth, the union began to diversify its membership, with many health care, bank, and footwear workers joining the union.
In 1974, a Professional Employees Division was established within the union which caused a rapid growth in membership in health care fields and related professions. Three years later, the Boot and Shoe Workers Union merged with the union, forming the Footwear Division of the Retail Clerks. The merger of the Retail Clerks and the Amalgamated Meat Cutters Union in 1979 united two union powerhouses, both with a long history of justice, fighting for justice and economic security for working people. It was this merger that gave life to the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union.
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During the 18th and 19th centuries, footwear and leather workers were known as cordwainers, and it was under that name that they first organized. In 1794, the Federal Society of Journeymen Cordwainers was founded. The cordwainers organized the first labor strike in North America in 1804. In the years following the strike, six cases of criminal conspiracy were brought against the union. The nature of the conspiracy was recorded as a “combination to raise their wages.” The union was found guilty of these crimes by a Philadelphia jury in 1806.
The beginnings of mechanization in the U.S. threatened the craftsmen who worked primarily with their hands. In an effort to regulate machinery use, workers organized the Knights of St. Crispin. However, the speed and efficiency of new technology proved to be a very powerful adversary.
In 1895, the largest shoe unions along with a number of independent locals joined to form the Boot and Shoe Workers Union (BSWU), which went on to affiliate with the American Federation of Labor in 1895.
The BSWU continued to thrive until the late 1960s when an import wave of foreign-made footwear from low-earning countries began seriously affecting the union’s growth. The situation only worsened during the 1970s when more imports caused more than 200 companies to go out of business and cost the jobs of more than 70,000 workers. As union membership declined, the resources imperative for the union’s organizing campaigns also decreased, leaving the union with few choices. Although the BSWU’s decision to merge with the UFCW came out of necessity, that merger has helped lend strength and unity to protect workers who remained in the U.S. industry.
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The history of the Barbers and Beauticians Association can be traced back to the formation of the American Federation of Labor itself. The Association, then known as the Journeymen Barbers’ Protective Union, played an important role in the foundation of the AFL and was present at its founding meeting in 1886 in Columbus, Ohio.
A year later, barbers from New York, Michigan and Ohio met and formed the Journeymen Barbers’ International Union of America, which was later renamed the Barbers’, Beauticians and Allied Industries International Association.
By the beginning of the 20th century, the Association’s membership had grown to over 3,000, and established its headquarters in Indianapolis, Indiana. By 1930, the Association had over 50,000 members.
The economic standards as well as the working conditions for barbers and beauticians has dramatically improved since the union’s founding, and continued to improve after the union merged with the United Food and Commercial Workers in September 1980. In 1987, after strong pressure from the UFCW, the U.S. Department of Occupational Safety and Health expanded hazard communication standards to provide information and training for hair care workers, further bettering the working environment for barbers and beauticians.