Organized Slaughter

Falling carcasses and untreated injuries: Meatpackers at Dakota Premium Foods were driven to form a union. But not even that got the company's attention.

"There's a thousand ways to attack an employer," Pearson observes. "But the problem is that when you do that you can destroy the plant. And then when we lose the jobs, when we've put the workers out of work, that's no service to the people that we're there to supposedly represent. That's why this has been so frustrating. As angry as I get, I can't do the things that I should do to respond and attack. But we're at that point."

 

A century ago, the largest slaughterhouse in the country occupied the ground that surrounds Local 789's office. In 1879 Swift & Company opened its South St. Paul plant and employed 300. By 1918 there were 3,500 workers slaughtering and processing 306,334 cattle, 148,861 sheep, and 1,161,752 hogs a year. At its peak during World War II, the Swift plant had a workforce of 5,000 and occupied 28 acres along the Mississippi River. Along with meat, the factory produced lard, baby foods, fertilizer, and other animal byproducts.

In 1919, Swift's chief competitor, Armour & Company, opened its own behemoth packinghouse in South St. Paul. The facility cost $14,000,000 to construct, occupied a half-mile of land, and even housed a branch of the public library. At the height of production, the Armour plant slaughtered 700 hogs, 100 cattle, and 1,000 calves and sheep hourly.

Swift and Armour were joined in Dakota County by smaller packinghouses, such as Concord Meat Processing and the Cudahy plant in neighboring Newport. By the 1920s, South St. Paul, along with Omaha and Chicago, had emerged as a key hub of meat production in the country. And company resistance to organized labor was present from the beginning.

James Capeti was the original vice president of United Packinghouse Workers of America Local 4, chartered on February 16, 1939, in South St. Paul. Now 91 years old, Capeti says that the charter was preceded by a brutal three-year organizing battle. Anyone caught advocating for the union was immediately fired. "You couldn't talk union in the plant," recalls Capeti, who worked at Armour for 39 years and still lives in South St. Paul. "You had to do all your organizing in the saloons after work and in the streets." In the end, though, the long struggle for union recognition paid dividends for packinghouse workers. "Everything that they ever gained was from the union," Capeti attests.

In March 1948 the United Packinghouse Workers called a nationwide strike, demanding a 29-cent pay raise. One hundred thousand workers walked off the job. After two months on the picket lines, violence erupted in South St. Paul. When police attempted to disperse picketers blocking the entrance to the Swift plant, officers were beaten with fists and clubs. At the Cudahy plant, striking workers kidnapped employees who had crossed the picket line and destroyed machinery. Finally the National Guard was called in and the strike was broken. The struggle yielded a nine-cent raise.

"The packinghouse workers' union was as militant a group as there was out there and had built some really great contracts," says Pearson. "Workers in the Sixties and Seventies made wonderful money working in a packinghouse."

Joe Stoi started work at the Armour plant in 1952, when he was 18 years old. He stayed on as a machinist until the plant closed in 1979, when its payroll was down to 800 workers. "All my relatives worked in the plant," he recalls. Stoi, who now owns a sewer-cleaning business in St. Paul, says he was making a respectable $12 an hour when Armour closed its doors.

Labor historian Rachleff says that at a certain point larger companies decided it was no longer economically sound to maintain the packinghouses. The Swift plant closed a decade before the Armour factory. Dakota Premium and a few other small plants are now the only remnants of the meatpacking industry. "The place has gone to hell so badly that for sure you can't fix it up and then you start to build new plants," he says, noting that this phenomenon is not peculiar to the meatpacking industry. "You look for greener pastures to place them."

What's more, the advent of refrigerated trucks made it possible to open factories in rural areas that hadn't been reached by organized labor. The industry titans, Swift and Armour, were replaced by companies such as Iowa Beef Packers, ConAgra, and Cargill. Gradually the power of unions in the meatpacking industry diminished. The once-mighty United Packinghouse Workers merged with the Amalgamated Meat Cutters, which in turn merged with retail clerks to form the UFCW. Wages failed to keep pace with inflation and were often slashed dramatically.

A symbolic low point was reached in the mid-Eighties at the Hormel plant in Austin, Minnesota. After the company reduced hourly wages from $10.69 to $8.25, despite annual profits of $29.5 million, 1,750 workers went on strike. The national leadership of the UFCW failed to support the local union, believing their demands to be quixotic. Hormel refused to bargain. After a bitter year-long struggle the strike ended without the company budging an inch.

"That was the last stand of strong unions in meatpacking," says Mark Grey, a professor at the University of Northern Iowa who has written extensively about the industry. "Ever since then a union or nonunion plant pays essentially the same wages, the union has relatively little power, and strikes in the industry are virtually unheard-of."

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