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.