Wednesday, February 10, 2016
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Chicago as an industrial center with a diverse work force but ready to embrace industrial unionism when the Congress of Industrial Organizations brought the message.

stockyad-gateWritten by Leslie F. Orear

It was not an exaggeration when the poet, Carl Sandburg, described Chicago as the "City of the Big Shoulders," and "Hog Butcher to the World." For the first half of the 20th Century, it was a city where things were made by the millions, where industries were busy producing for the American people and for the world. Chicago was the place where the world's first, and biggest, mail-order catalogue companies were located. It was the printing center of the country. It was a city of steel mills. It was a maker of men's clothing, machine tools, telephones, farm equipment. It was home to the nation's biggest meat packers.

People were able to find good-paying work in Chicago. Countless immigrants came to fill those jobs, fleeing from oppression and the lack of opportunity in Europe. Black workers had come to Chicago in large numbers to escape the the misery of jim-crow and the share cropper's life in the southern states. A stream of Mexican workers were settling in the city, attracted at first by the 1914 war-time surge of employment, especially in the meat packing and steel industries.

The newcomers built tight ethnic communities close to the industrial plants where they had found work. Ethnic neighborhoods became central to immigrant life, for in the neighborhood they found the warmth and security of familiar language, food, customs, and religious life. But that very isolation sometimes made for friction, even hostility between the people of different communities.

On the South Side of Chicago, from 39th Street to 47th Street, and from Halsted to Ashland Ave., was the largest livestock market and meat processing center in the world Approximately one mile square, it served the nation's great meat packing companies and many smaller ones located in the surrounding area. The "stockyards smell," which the breezes spread for many miles into residential areas, near and far, could be obnoxious; but people said the smell meant work.

Approximately 50,000 people worked in the area. The headquarters offices of the big packing companies, with hundreds of white collar jobs, were right in the midst of the slaughter and processing buildings. The plants, themselves, were an intricate network of hundreds of inter-connected buildings in which the hogs, cattle, and sheep were slaughtered and "disassembled" into cuts of meat. Hundreds of by-products, from animal feeds to tennis racquet strings, and pharmaceuticals were made by the many thousands of men and women who worked in the "Yards," as people called the area.

Working conditions were hard, and often unpleasant. There was the blood and steam of the slaughtering departments. In the "coolers" it was damp and cold. On the loading docks it was fast paced and hectic. Everywhere was the possibility, even the likelihood of injury as sharp knives slipped, or moving machinery caught and crushed bones.

The hog kill in the Armour & Company plant (biggest in the world) had the capacity to slaughter 1,200 hogs every hour. In the winter time peak season, the moving chains might run for 16 hours (two shifts) six days a week. From a normal five thousand workers, the employment rolls at the plant could nearly double in the rush season.

The meat packing industry was a technological marvel, and a great tourist attraction for the city. The public was invited to witness the speedy, in-line processing of live animals into meat cuts and by-products. Visitors from all the world by the hundreds of thousands were guided through the killing floors and selected departments by trained guides who followed official routes. Continuously moving chains and conveyor belts carried the product past one work station to the next. Each worker was expected to perform his task in the few seconds before the product moved on.

Where possible, product moved from one processing level to a lower one by chute, using gravity as a power source. Electric tractors pulled little truck-loads of product like miniature trains from one building to another for further processing, or for shipment.

Hot water, or refrigeration for rooms and buildings where it was required, came by pipelines from a central powerhouse that served all of each packing company's buildings. Refrigerated freight cars waited at loading docks to be filled with perishable meats and sent on its way to another city by fast train.

Chicago's stockyards and meat packing plant employees included several large immigrant nationality groups of various generations. The first such groups were mostly German, Bohemian and Irish. To those were added in the 1890s and later, a large component of Polish and Lithuanian newcomers. Next came the African-Americans, up from the cotton fields of Mississippi, Texas, and Arkansas. There was also a smaller Mexican community which had recently arrived in response to the need for World War I wartime workers. butchers union

Concentrations of certain ethnic groups tended to be found in particular departments and occupations. Polish and Lithuanians might be dominant on a killing floor with a large representation of black workers. The livestock handlers in the stockyards were mostly Irish. There were seldom any African-Americans within the mechanical trades. Mexicans were frequently to be found in the freezers or the hide cellars.

The Irish lived just east of the Yards in what was known as Canaryville. The Polish lived to the west in Back of the Yards. The Lithuanians were mostly to the north in Bridgeport. Black workers were farther to the east, beyond Canaryville and Wentworth Avenue, known as Bronzeville, or the Black Belt.


About 20 percent of the typical plant workforce were women. They were hired exclusively for certain jobs, which were designated by company policy to be for women only. Usually those jobs required dexterity, such as packaging sliced bacon, preparing casings and linking sausage, packaging lard and smoked meats, or cleaning the guts of the slaughtered animals. Hourly pay rates for women's jobs were ten cents an hour less than men's rates, but many women's operations were on piece rates, so they could earn more by working faster.

Living conditions for the packinghouse workers were not easy. A great many houses and apartments in which the packinghouse workers lived depended on coal or kerosene stoves in the living quarters for heating. Hot water came from the tea kettle that warmed on the heating stove.

The Jungle Movie Poster

Ethnic tensions could be a serious factor in the best of circumstances; but the Chicago race riot of 1919 was especially violent around the Yards. Black workers could not to pass through the Irish neighborhood which lay between their community and the packing plants, until the National Guard arrived.

That bloody riot weighed heavily on the unity and trust which a union would need, if one ever were to succeed.

Many times the packinghouse workers had organized labor unions, which were soon crushed by the packing companies. It had happened in 1886 under the Knights of Labor. Again, the "Yards" was organized, this time by the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen; only to be lost once more in a 1904 strike.

In 1917, during the World War I era, the Stock Yards Labor Council, created by the Chicago Federation of Labor, met with much success. In view of the war-time need for a supply of meat uninterrupted by labor disputes, the government appointed an arbitrator who awarded wage increases and other improvements in working conditions demanded by the unions. After the war, however, the meat packers no longer agreed to accept the authority of the arbitrator. They created their own "employee representation plans," and forced the Meat Cutters to defend itself in the bitter strike of 1921.

Again, the union was destroyed by a combination of starvation and racial antagonism. Mindful of the terrors they had suffered in the riots of 1919, blacks generally ignored the strike call. Hundreds more were recruited in the South and housed in Pullman cars inside the Yards.


Ten years later, the country was in the grip of the Great Depression. Although the meat packing industry was not subject to the mass layoffs which characterized most industries, the packinghouse workers suffered in their own way. The common labor rate in 1931 was just 32 1/2 cents an hour.

There were no seniority rights. Accordingly, the seasonal layoffs which always afflicted the industry, placed each employee in danger of the "pink slip," no matter what the years of service. Worse, there was no assurance of reemployment when work might pick up. Workers knew that the foreman held all power, a situation that invited abuse. Grievances festered. There was plenty of fear, but little love for the company.

In 1935 Congress passed the Wagner Act, which declares that it is the national policy to encourage collective bargaining. The law provided that an employer must bargain in good faith with labor organizations, if authorized by a majority of employees. Employers were, and are, forbidden to intimidate or punish any employee for engaging in union activity.

The Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) was created in 1936 by several member organizations of the American Federation of Labor. Led by the United Mine Workers under John L. Lewis, their objective was to undertake a nation-wide organizing campaign among workers in the mass production industries such as auto, steel, and meat packing.

The stage was set, and a new cast of players stepped forward.

Resource List:

  • Meat and Man, Lewis Corey
  • Chicago's Pride, Louise Wade
  • Black Chicago, Allan H. Spear
  • Work and Community in the Jungle, James R. Barrett
  • Making a New Deal, Lizabeth Cohen
  • Back of the Yards, Robert A. Slayton
  • The Butcher Workmen, David Brody
  • Visit the Chicago Historical Society's web site on the history of immigration in Chicago.

For follow-up reading on the story of the CIO union that succeeded in organizing the packinghouse workers in Chicago and elsewhere there are three excellent books MEATPACKERS, by Horowitz and Halpern is oral history drawn from extensive interviews with black packinghouse workers in Chicago, Kansas City and other midwestern centers, in which they describe their personal experiences in the industry and in the union.

More comprehensive treatment on the CIO organizing era in the meat packing industry, particularly in Chicago, read Rick Halpern's book, Down on the Killing Floor; and for an industry-wide focus, read Roger Horowitz' Negro and White: Unite and Fight. Both books are available from the Illinois Labor History Society by mail order.

The Old Stone Gate
Packinghouse Gate

The Old Stone Gate to the Chicago Stockyards became a National Historical Landmark in 1981. It was accuired by the City when the Stockyards officially closed in 1971, after which all of the faculites of the “live stock hotel,” and the meat packing industry buildings were razed. The area is now devoted to “light” industry. The Old Stone Gate was erected in 1879, replacing the original wooden gate erected at the founding of the Union Stock Yard and Transit Company (USY&T) facilities in 1865. The USY&T occupied one square mile at the Southern boudaries of the City, extending from 39th St to 47th St and from Halsted to Ashland. Ave.

Access from Halsted.St on the East is on Exchange.Ave (aproximatly 42nd. St). From the South enter at 47th and Racine proceeding North to Exchange.Ave and then East. From the West enter at 43rd. St proceed to 43rd and Racine, and then turn right at Exchange. Ave. The area adjacent to the Gate now includes a monument erected by the fire fighters union local 2 in 2004, and is dedicated to its members fallen in the line of duty. There names are listed on the base of the sculpture. This area is at Exchange.Ave and Peroria.Ave.

"And I long to see the day when Labor will have the destiny of the nation in her own hands and she will stand as a united force and show the world what the workers can do." --- Mary Harris "Mother" Jones, 1830-1930

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