Union organizing efforts won significant benefits for meatpacking workers during the first half of the 20th century. In 1960, before a wave of automation and rapid restructuring would decimate jobs in the industry, meatpacking wages were 15 percent above the average wage for manufacturing workers in the United States. But one area where change was slow to come was in the poultry industry. Unlike other jobs in meatpacking, a much higher percentage of poultry workers were African American women in the anti-union South.
A reasonable request
In 1953, Clara Holder, an East Texas poultry worker, wrote to Patrick Gorman, Secretary Treasurer of the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workman of America (a union that would later merge with the Retail Clerks Union to become the UFCW in 1979). She and her coworkers were fed up with the exploitation and unhealthy practices they witnessed on the job and had decided to form a union to better conditions at the plant.
“I was told to contact your office to secure help in organizing a much needed plant,” Miss Holder wrote. “The majority of the workers are eager to organize, if only they had some advice from a bonafide labor union. Would you kindly inform me if your organization can help us.” Clara Holder’s brief and innocently worded letter sparked a tortuous organizing campaign — in Center, Texas — that stirred racial and class tensions, triggered a national boycott, and persuaded the union to launch a successful drive to reform the entire American poultry industry. – The Texas “Sick Chicken” Strike, 1950s by George N. Green
Demands for better conditions spark violence and ignite racial tensions
What started out as a politely worded letter, boiled over into open violence as the strike touched off racial tensions that had been simmering beneath the surface of the small town:
As in most East Texas towns. the white citizens of Center were angered by the desegregation decision of the U.S. Supreme Court (on May I, 1954). Coming on the heels of a strike by blacks, this decision stirred endemic hatreds. Thus, while white strikers seem to have been regarded as curiosities. black picketers were resented. Just after the Eastex strike began, [Meat Cutters’ District Vice-President Sam Twedell] claimed that he was summoned to the county district attorney’s office. There, in the presence of the sheriff, Twedell said he was ordered to “get those goddamn N*****s off the picket line or some of them are gonna get killed.” Twedell refused. On May 20 he sent telegrams to the FBI and the FCC concerning a broadcast on KDET radio, a strongly anti-union station, which “openly advocated violence, as a result of Supreme Court decision … and other racial problems, if Negro pickets were not removed from the picket lines.” Station manager Tom Foster explained that his announcer merely had stated that “Twedell himself was advocating trouble by ordering Negro and white pickets to walk the picket line together. Hancock [the announcer} said that may be common practice in Chicago [location of the union’s international headquarters], but we are not ready for that here.” Foster, according to one of his friends, was extremely anti-union and simply looking for an angle of attack. Twedell began walking the line with the black picketers.
On May 9 organizer Allen Williams prophetically reported that “We are sitting on a keg of dynamite … I honestly think our lives are in danger … These bastards will stop at nothing, including murder, if they think there is half a chance to get away with it.” On the night of July 23 a time bomb explosion destroyed Williams’ Ford. A fire which resulted as an after-effect of the detonation completely leveled two cabins of the tourist court where Williams was residing and did extensive damage to two other buildings. Fortunately, Williams had stayed out later than usual on the night of the bombing and thus escaped injury. The would-be assassins were never apprehended and, according to his reports in the next few weeks, Williams held some doubts that law enforcement officers seriously sought to find them. Remarking on the openly anti-union sentiments of a majority of the members of a grand jury investigating the bombing, Williams jokingly explained that he felt some fear of being indicted for the crime himself. A second bombing occurred near the black “quarters” in Center on August 12. Though the August bombing scared the black strikers, Williams observed that they weren’t showing it openly.
Neither of the two banks, whose presidents were directors of the Center Development Foundation, extended credit to their fellow townfolk on strike. But the Meat Cutters paid regular benefits through the duration of the conflict and also conducted a highly successful nationwide clothing drive for the strikers. So much clothing was received from the locals that it actually became necessary for President Jimerson to request members to halt the donations.”– The Texas “Sick Chicken” Strike, 1950s by George N. Green
Resulting wins and establishment of poultry inspections
Donald D.Stull and Michael J. Broadway wrote about the struggle to organize and how it led to the inspection of poultry and better health and safety standards for the industry in the book From Slaughterhouse Blues: The Meat and Poultry Industry in North America:
Organizing efforts in the poultry industry lagged behind those in meatpacking: it is a newer industry; its plants were located in the rural South, long known for anti-union sentiment; and it drew heavily on African American women to work its lines. In Jun 1953, poultry workers in the East Texas town of Center asked the Amalgamated Meat Cutters to help them organize. At the time, poultry workers were paid the minimum wage of 75 cents an hour; they worked 10 or 11 hours a day in filthy conditions without overtime pay, and their employers denied them grievance procedures, seniority, and paid holidays. Center’s two poultry plants — one staffed by black workers, the other by whites — voted to join the union. When the companies refused to negotiate in good faith, the Amalgamated Meat Cutters organized a national boycott of plant products, and the workers staged wildcat strikes.
At the time, less than a quarter of the poultry sold in the United States was federally inspected, and neither of the Center plants employed inspectors. With the support of its 500 locals and the endorsement of the AFL-CIO, the Amalgamated Meat Cutters organized a national campaign to mandate federal inspection of poultry. Subsequent
congressional hearings revealed that one-third of known cases of food poisoning could be traced to poultry. Despite opposition from the poultry industry and the U.S.Department of Agriculture, which oversees meat inspection, a poultry inspection bill eventually passed Congress. In August 1957, President Dwight Eisenhower signed the Poultry Products Inspection Act, which requires compulsory inspection of all poultry that crosses state lines of is sold overseas.
And what of the striking workers? Eastex, the plant that employed only black workers, settled after 11 months, agreeing to wage increases, time-and-a-half overtime pay, three paid holidays and vacations, a grievance procedure, and reinstatement of strikers. Eastex subsequently sold out to Holly Farms, which later sold out to Tyson.