One of the most well-known aspects of Back of the Yards history is the Union Stockyards. They earned Chicago the nickname “hog butcher for the world” in Carl Sandburg’s poetry, and they provided the grotesque backdrop for Upton Sinclair’s infamous novel “The Jungle.” While they revolutionized the way food was processed in America, working conditions were horrific. Many of the employees were immigrants or migrants with low socioeconomic status, so exploitation was common. Eventually these struggles gave birth to a significant and necessary labor movement.
It’s impossible to summarize such rich labor history in a brief blog post. There are many novels dedicated to the subject. But what I want to focus on in particular is the importance of racially integrated organizing in Back of the Yards.
In the early 1900s, Back of the Yards was not only segregated by race, but by ethnicity as well. The European immigrants that dominated the community largely kept to their own enclaves. Polish here, Lithuanians there, Germans over there, etc. Racial segregation was even worse. In 1919, there were race riots that led to the homes of over 1,000 African American families being torched nearby. The atmosphere was fraught and tense.
It began with Chicago’s African American population blooming due to the Great Migration from the south. African American workers began to get work at the packinghouses. Meanwhile, workers of all backgrounds were treated poorly. The Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen of North America (AMC) had organized primarily white workers and gone on strike twice (once in 1904 and once in 1917), only to be defeated because the packers relied on their African American workers who were not invited to join the union. This led to increased racial resentment and helped fuel the aforementioned riots.
A major shift occurred when a new group, the Packinghouse Workers Organizing Committee (PWOC), was formed in the 1930s. The PWOC knew that the only way to obtain rights for workers was to serve all of them, not just workers of a particular race. Several decades prior to the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, workers of all races were seen marching together, demanding fair wages and treatment. When one considers the intensity of racial segregation during this time, this is quite uplifting. Despite all of its challenges, workers in Back of the Yards were able to set an astounding precedent for unity against greater adversity.
Eventually the PWOC transitioned into the United Packinghouse Workers of America (UPWA) in 1943. A strike over wages was won in 1946. Later, the UPWA was instrumental in the efforts of the newly formed Southern Christian Leadership Conference led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. As a result, they brought their dedication to racial equality to a national platform and actively contributed to the 1960s Civil Rights Movement.
During the mid 1900s, however, the manufacturing industry suffered numerous blows. Machines were replacing manual labor. Jobs started being outsourced. The majority of the packinghouses in Chicago started closing down. In order to survive, the UPWA merged with the AMC, the union they originally rivaled against, in 1968. What remained was eventually merged with the Retail Clerks union in order to form the United Food and Commercial Workers union in 1979.
Today, the Stockyards Industrial Park now occupies the area where the Union Stockyards used to be. Very few packinghouses with kill floors remain. Packaging and shipping centers now dominate the local job market, and vacant warehouses dot the landscape. But, even though the PWOC/UPWA and the jobs they covered no long exist, the history of their efforts still reverberates today. They set the model for fair, integrated workplaces and labor organizing across the country. This is but one example of local Back of the Yards history having a broader impact.
Please let me know your thoughts, and if there are any other aspects of local history you’d like me to research and write about in the future. Special shout-out to local historian Dominic Pacyga and the late Leslie Orear of the Illinois Labor History Society, both of whom I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing in 2010-2011, regarding this topic.