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No Unions, No Cry

April 29, 2010

Last night, I wasn’t able to present my research paper in my American Labor History class, so I thought I would post a quick summary on the next best thing, my blog.

The study involved the rise of meatpacking unions in Kansas City, and what led to its high deunionization rate.

For the better part of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, Chicago and Kansas City were the two main hubs for meatpacking due to their central location in the U.S. Refrigerated railroads were the fastest method of transporting the meat, which is the reason why meatpacking was so heavily concentrated in these two cities.

Between 1940-1960 meatpacking workers who wanted to “make a decent living” and “to have a standard of living” began organizing labor. Their efforts were successful despite many obstacles. They gained better wages, propelling them from lower-class status to middle-class status. Remember, even though meatpacking has been tremendously deskilled, it was and still is a very dangerous job that takes a toll on the workers’ bodies.

Beginning in the 1970s, Iowa Beef Packers (IBP) decided that meatpackers were being paid too much, so they decided to move operations from urban areas such as Chicago and Kansas City to rural areas such as Western Kansas, in addition to right-to-work states.

Two packinghouse executives put it best by asking, “Why should meat companies remain wage-locked in heavily unionized cities when unorganized workers could be hired at far lower wages out in the country?” (Whittaker, p.3)

What were the advantages of moving to rural areas? The economic gains included cheaper land, tax breaks, access to national markets because of the interstate highway system, and of course lower wages. (Whitaker, p3)

The desired gain was to “close and sell unionized plants, then open non-union plants in order to undercut union sources.” (Vidal, Kusnet, p2) Why was this strategy so effective at deunionizing meatpacking workers? Moving to rural areas meant that plants could “escape from unionized urban markets with collective bargaining, high wages and existing work rules.” (Whittaker, p32)

The rural areas also gave meatpacking companies access to a large supply of immigrants coming from countries that didn’t address labor rights, and of course it would be harder for them to learn about their labor rights; certainly the meatpacking companies weren’t going to tell them about it.

The outcome of deunionizing meatpacking workers resulted in speedup of work, hazardous working conditions, higher output with no gains passed to workers, lower wages, higher risk of injury and movement back to lower-class status.

If you would like to read the paper, please contact me.

Note: The title for the entry is a reference to the Bob Marley song No Woman, No Cry. What I meant by the title is “No Unions, No Cry” (for meatpacking companies); i.e. the meatpacking companies aren’t crying about not having any unions.

References:
Vidal and Kusnet (2009), “Organizing Prosperity: Union Effects on Job Quality, Community Betterment, and Industrial Standards,” Economic Policy Institute, pp1-69.

Whittaker (2006), “Labor Practices in the Meat Packing and Poultry Processing Industry: An Overview,” Congressional Research Service, pp1-53

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