This Month in Labor History March 2019

What we now know as the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 555 represents an amalgam of associations, unions and locals who, for more than one hundred years, have organized and reorganized to build worker power in Oregon. Today, UFCW Local 555 is made up of over 25,000 workers in Oregon and SW Washington. In order to appreciate the strength of our union, we must acknowledge the many generations of workers who have paved the way for us through their labor and activism. We believe that understanding our history makes us better able to meet future challenges, and tomorrow’s opportunities. We hope you do too!

1948: Meat Packers Strike

The main goals of labor unions in the U. S. have always been to improve wages, working conditions, and benefits for American workers. Following the end of World War II, a powerful wave of strikes swept across the United States. During wartime, unions had promised not to strike to keep defense production running smoothly because economic stability was one of the highest domestic priorities.

However, soon after the war ended, unions across the nation began demanding new contracts. As a result, 1946 saw a record number of strikes. Congress worried that labor unions were becoming too powerful, and in 1947 it passed the Taft-Hartley Act. This controversial legislation sought to limit workers’ ability to withhold labor for workplace improvements via organized strikes in order to limit the power of labor unions.

Despite the political climate at the time, the United Packinghouse Workers of America (UPWA) initiated a nationwide strike against the “Big Four” meatpacking companies (Swift, Armour, Cudahy, Wilson, Morrell, and others) at 12:01 a.m. on March 16, 1948. Packinghouse workers shut down a grand total of 140 plants around the country. Approximately 100,000 employees went out on strike, with the majority of workers staying out an astounding 67 days.

This strike was marked by a significant amount of violence, particularly in midwestern cities. Three people were killed, and the National Guard was called out in three states. Ultimately, UPWA settled for the 9-cent-an-hour raise which the meatpacking companies initially offered. While many considered this a loss, many more believe that UPWA’s greatest successes were achieved in the years following the 1948 setback, and many rank-and-file members considered this strike to be the action that paved the way for those later gains.

The Legacy of Labor Leader  César E. Chávez

César Estrada Chávez was a union leader and labor organizer who dedicated his life to improving treatment, pay and working conditions for farm workers. He founded the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) in 1962. Chávez, who was a farm laborer himself, grew up in a migrant farm-labour family of Mexican American descent. In September 1965, he began leading a strike by California grape pickers, and a nationwide boycott of California grapes that attracted liberal support from throughout the country. Chávez’s battle with the grape growers for improved compensation and labor conditions would last for years. At the end, Chávez and his union won several victories for the workers when many growers signed contracts with the union. Subsequent battles with other agribusinesses generally ended with the signing of bargaining agreements.

In 1966, the NFWA merged with an American Federation of Labor–Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) group to form the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee. In 1971 this organization became the United Farm Workers of America (UFW).

March 31st, his birthday, is federally proclaimed as César Chávez Day, a holiday to honor the life and work of the groundbreaking farm workers’ advocate, union activist, and civil rights leader.