An early supporter of the Montgomery bus boycott, the United Packinghouse Workers of America (UPWA) raised funds for civil rights groups and participated in civil rights campaigns throughout the country during the 1950s and 1960s. At the 1962 UPWA Annual Convention, King told union members, “If labor as a whole, if the administration in Washington matched your concern and your deeds, the civil rights problem would not be a burning national issue, but a problem long solved, and in its solution a luminous accomplishment in the best tradition of American principles” (King, 21 May 1962).
The UPWA was created in 1943 from the Congress of Industrial Organizations’ Packinghouse Workers Organizing Committee. In contrast to its rival union, the more conservative Amalgamated Meat Cutters, the UPWA was aligned with the radical Left and committed to interracial cooperation. In 1949 the union began pursuing anti-discrimination activities. The following year it created an Anti-Discrimination Department, dedicated to ending racial discrimination in meat packing plants and working against segregation in local communities.
In February 1956, two months after the start of the Montgomery bus boycott, the UPWA arranged a meeting in Chicago for King to address supporters of the boycott. UPWA local and district conventions passed resolutions in support of the boycott, arguing that “the enemies of Negroes are also the enemies of organized labor” (Russell Bull, 13 March 1956). The head of the Anti-Discrimination Department, UPWA Vice President Russell Lasley, attended the founding meeting of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in January 1957, calling it “an extreme honor and privilege to represent UPWA in a conference of leaders who have dedicated their lives to the cause of freedom and the establishment of a society free of racial injustice and second class citizenship” (Lasley, 11 January 1957).
SCLC members promised to help the UPWA organize in southern plants, and the union launched a Fund for Democracy in the South, which raised $11,000 in local union contributions to SCLC. Presenting King with the check at the Anti-Discrimination Department’s annual convention in October 1957, UPWA president Ralph Helstein told King that the union had joined the “battle for civil rights” because its members “have felt that freedom, like peace, is indivisible” (Helstein, 2 October 1957).
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the U.S. Congress accused the UPWA of being a Communist-dominated organization. The union set up a Public Advisory Review Commission to oversee the UPWA’s compliance with the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations’ Ethical Practices Code, which banned Communists from holding union offices and prohibited the union from adopting communist doctrine. King sat on the commission.
The union’s contribution to the movement went beyond financial donations to SCLC. The UPWA donated scholarship funds to support students involved in civil rights, and became a key benefactor of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. The union also wrote telegrams and letters of support during SCLC’s various campaigns, and UPWA members participated directly in civil rights actions, including the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and the 1966 Chicago Campaign. Even after his controversial statements about the Vietnam War in 1967, the UPWA continued to support King.
In 1968, suffering from massive job cuts in the packinghouse industry due to technological changes, the UPWA was forced to merge with its old rival, Amalgamated Meat Cutters, forcing the organization to tone down its radical activism. During King’s life, however, the union served as a role model for organized labor and a pioneer in the civil rights movement.
Russell Bull to Richard Durham, 13 March 1956, UPWR-WHi.
Halpern, Down on the Killing Floor, 1997.
Halpern and Horowitz, Meatpackers, 1996.
Helstein, Remarks at the UPWA conference, 2 October 1957, UPWR-WHi.
Horowitz, “Negro and White, Unite and Fight!”, 1997.
King, Address at the Thirteenth Constitutional Convention of the UPWA, 21 May 1962, UPWR-WHi.
Lasley, “Report on the Southern Leaders Conference on Transportation and Non-violent Integration,” 11 January 1957, UPWR-WHi.