Class and Race in the US Labor Movement: The Case of the Packinghouse Workers

Published on Diary of a Heartland Radical, by Harry Targ, June 2, 2010.

The Connection Between Class Struggle and Peace:

Foreign policy has long been used to divide workers. During the Cold War “anti-Communism” linked an external enemy with so-called domestic enemies in the labor and civil rights movements. The external enemy and its domestic collaborators justified the construction of a permanent war economy, worker sacrifices through taxes, loss of shop floor rights, and the “need” to limit labor organizing. Paradoxically, the weaknesses of the labor movement today have their roots in the mobilization of the American people to respond to the “threat of international communism.” In the post-Cold War international system cheap labor overseas and the threat of international terrorism have been used to manipulate workers and limit their ability to organize. But even during the height of the Cold War, sectors of the labor movement resisted the simplistic claims such as that declared by one CEO that the threat to America came from “the Soviet Union abroad and the labor movement at home.”

The United Packinghouse Workers of America (UPWA-CIO) successfully organized most of the large meat-packing plants in the United States by 1943 when it was fully chartered as a union in the new Congress of Industrial Organizations. Unfortunately after World War II ended, the CIO slowly but steadily embraced the anti-Communist policies of the day. In 1949 eleven unions were purged from the CIO for their alleged Communist sympathies and affiliations. Even though the UPWA was not one of the eleven it increasingly opposed the militarization of the Cold War, avoided some of the worst internal manifestations of “red-baiting” of union members, and, in 1953 took a stance against the U.S. Cold War record and the Korean War. It published in The Packinghouse Worker, the union newspaper, a condemnation of U.S. Korean War policy in a four-page essay entitled “The Road Ahead.”

McCarthyism, the Korean War, and “The Road Ahead” … //

… Class Struggle, Peace, and Justice

Sometimes stories such as that of the UPWA in the 1940s and 1950s capture our attention because they are interesting or inspiring. Also, sometimes these stories provide insights that still bear relevance to political struggles today.

In the case of the UPWA, its effectiveness as a workers’ organization was affected by its willingness to resist the power of big capital. This effectiveness was hindered by the Cold War foreign policy of the 1940s to the 1960s, competition between it and other unions, the mass mobilization of cultural and educational institutions to promote the fear of Communism, state repression, and efforts to incite racism among the membership of the union.

In the face of exploitation, repression, anti-Communism, and racism the union staked out an independent politics in the depths of the Cold War. Central to this politics were two principles: first, that the humanity of all workers is determined by their common struggles and solidarity; and second that the character of the foreign policy of the United States is intimately connected to the well-being of the working class. (full long text).

(This essay was taken from Harry Targ, “Foreign Policy and Class Struggle in the United Packinghouse Workers of America: 1945-1953,” Nature, Society and Thought, Vol.4, no.1/2 1991).

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