Place of Protest: Chicago's Legacy of Dissent, Declaration, and Disruption

Stockyards, 1948

Defending the Picket Line

Meatpackers on Chicago's South Side test the power of unions in the wake of World War II.

LOCATED IN A MODEST BRICK BUILDING JUST SOUTH OF CHICAGO'S NOTORIOUS—AND NOXIOUS—STOCKYARDS, the district headquarters of the United Packinghouse Workers of America (UPWA) served as the hub of a nationwide strike in 1948. Like many unions, the UPWA had emerged from World War II with a more institutionalized structure. After all, the federal government worked closely with national labor and business interests to achieve production goals during the war. Yet unlike many labor organizations in 1948, the United Packinghouse Workers of America still relied heavily on the decisions and leadership of rank-and-file members who worked on the packinghouse floor, rather than depending on full-time union bureaucrats to drive negotiations. The UPWA's approach proved significant in mobilizing a diverse work force and securing better gains for its members. When other packinghouse unions accepted a seven-and-a-half cent raise from major meat producers in the spring of 1948, the UPWA instead went on strike to hold out for a 29-cent raise.

THE PACKINGHOUSE WORKERS WHO WENT ON STRIKE in postwar Chicago did not look the same as protesters fifty years earlier. In the early twentieth century, federal legislation restricted immigration from eastern Europe, in part due to fear of labor unrest. The shrinking workforce coincided with increased demand for labor to meet production goals during WWI and WWII. As a result, organized labor commanded more bargaining power. At the same time, jobs attracted thousands of African Americans from the South to northern cities like Chicago. Hiring black strikebreakers presented a way for companies to neutralize strikes and exploit racial antagonism. Indeed, most labor unions excluded and discriminated against African Americans, failing to represent the needs of the city's increasingly black workforce. The UPWA's reliance on its rank and file, however, meant that the organization reflected the needs of its black and white workers.
WORKERS ACROSS CHICAGO AND THE MIDWEST WALKED PICKET LINES despite constant police presence and, on occasion, police violence. South Side churches, fraternal organizations, and groups like the Back-of-the Yards Council and the Urban League lent material and moral support to the meatpackers. Although widely supported among the rank and file, the strike was ultimately crippled by lack of solidarity from other unions whose workers helped maintain company workflow. Additionally, the federal government recently passed the Taft-Hartley Act, which restricted union power. The UPWA nevertheless quickly rebuilt and developed stronger negotiating power because they proved less quick to compromise than other unions. Into the 1950s, black leadership and involvement in UPWA also helped the organization grow as an advocate for civil rights.

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