For more than 20 years Ralph Helstein led the United Packinghouse Workers of America (UPWA), a union Martin Luther King called a “pioneer” of the civil rights movement (King, 21 May 1962). In 1964, Helstein became one of King’s closest advisers, meeting with him frequently to discuss the direction of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and to help draft his public statements. King had great respect for Helstein’s “dedication to the peaceful achievement of human dignity” and described his union’s support of SCLC as “a mighty fortress protecting us” (King, 24 April 1962; King, 21 May 1962).
Helstein was born in Duluth, Minnesota, in 1908. He received both his undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Minnesota and took a position as the labor compliance officer of the state’s National Recovery Administration in 1934. He began working with the Minnesota affiliate of the Congress of Industrial Organizations in 1939, and in 1942 was named general counsel for the Packinghouse Workers Organizing Committee, renamed the UPWA in 1943. Three years later, Helstein was elected international president of UPWA.
Helstein’s first move as UPWA president was to lead the union in an 82-day strike against the top U.S. meatpacking companies. Although the strike failed to achieve the pay raise Helstein sought, it consolidated the union’s grassroots strength and proved its radicalism in relation to the other major unions at the time. Under Helstein’s leadership, the union focused on equal rights for minorities, creating an Anti-Discrimination Department whose leaders worked with King during the Montgomery bus boycott and donated money to support the protest.
In October 1957 King was the keynote speaker at the union’s Third National Anti-Discrimination Conference. The union had raised $11,000 in workplace collections, which they donated to SCLC. King recalled that the meatpackers’ “generous gift was really the means by which our then infant organization was able to begin its work across the south” (King, 17 May 1961). When the UPWA came under attack by the House Un-American Activities Committee for its alleged Communist sympathies, Helstein asked King to serve on an advisory commission to oversee the implementation of an explicitly anti-Communist ethical code. King returned the compliment in 1962 when he asked Helstein to become a member of the board of directors of the new Gandhi Society for Human Rights.
In June 1964 Helstein joined a small group of King’s closest advisors known as “the research committee.” Harry Wachtel, one of King’s lawyers and advisors, coordinated the committee, and for the next few years Helstein joined conference calls or traveled to New York to meet with King and the committee in Wachtel’s office. When the UPWA merged with the Amalgamated Meat Cutters union in 1968, Helstein became vice president and special counsel. He worked with the union until 1972 and died in Chicago in 1985.
Halpern, Down on the Killing Floor, 1997.
Halpern and Horowitz, Meatpackers, 1996.
Horowitz, “Negro and White, Unite and Fight!” 1997.
King, Address at the Thirteenth Constitutional Convention of the United Packinghouse Workers of America, 21 May 1962, UPWR-WHi.
King to Helstein, 24 April 1962, UPWR-WHi.
King to Members of United Packinghouse Workers of America, 17 May 1961, UPWR-WHi.