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Aristocrats and Outcasts: The Old and New Union Geographies of the Canadian Packinghouse Workers Ian MacLachlan. Structure of Lecture. Cattle butchers as aristocrats Cattle butchers as outcasts Organizing the kill floor from coast to coast

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Aristocrats and Outcasts: The Old and New Union Geographies of the Canadian Packinghouse Workers Ian MacLachlan

structure of lecture
Structure of Lecture
  • Cattle butchers as aristocrats
  • Cattle butchers as outcasts
  • Organizing the kill floor from coast to coast
  • Towards national standards
  • Structural change & transformation
  • New union geography of meat packing
cattle butchers as aristocrats
Cattle butchers as aristocrats
  • Among the most skilled and highest paid of all meat packing occupations
  • Intrinsically more difficult than other meat-cutting occupations due to difficulty of hide removal, size of carcass, and awkward position on killing beds
the carcass laid out like a map
The Carcass: Laid out like a map…

Cattle butchers: aristocrats of the packinghouse

Among the most skilled and highest paid of all meatpacking occupations

division of labour in meat packing
Division of Labour in Meat Packing
  • “It would be difficult to find another industry where the division of labor has been so ingeniously and microscopically worked out. The animal has been surveyed and laid off like a map; and the men have been classified in over thirty specialties... The 50 cent man is restricted to using the knife on the most delicate parts of the hide (floorman) or to use the axe in splitting the backbone (splitter); and, wherever a less skilled man can be slipped in at 18 cents... a place is made for him, and an occupation mapped out. ... Skill has been specialized to fit the anatomy.”

John Commons, 1904

meatpacking wages as a pct of mfg
Meatpacking wages as a pct. of mfg.

Inherently difficult, requiring strength and stamina

Knifework: Semi-skilled precision labour

Comparatively well paid!

meatpackers as outcasts
Meatpackers as outcasts
  • Ethnic segregation:
    • Burakumin
    • Metropolitan ethnic succession
  • Gendered work
    • “What kind of a woman would work in meat packing, anyway?” (Deborah Fink 1995)
    • Brutalizing influence on children and women
  • Dangerous work
    • Machinofacture, variable chain speed
    • swinging meat
    • muscle cutting, dismemberment, evisceration
    • slippery/chilly/steamy/smelly….turnover
immigrant workforce
Immigrant workforce
  • Latina workers on strike in 1948 in St Paul, Minnesota
  • UPWA was among first unions to act on behalf of minorities e.g. racially integrated locker rooms
organizing the kill floor i
Organizing the Kill Floor I
  • Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen – 1897
    • Craft union
    • all men who use a knife
  • Imagine all the crafts in industrial meat packing!
  • Cattle butchers, teamsters, coopers, oleo workers, sausage makers
  • AFL – Federation of craft unions
organizing the kill floor ii
Organizing the Kill Floor II
  • In the United States:
    • Depression and FDR’s “New Deal”
    • Wagner Act (NLRA) 1935/37
    • Industrial Unionism sweeps the U.S.
    • PWOC(1937)/UPWA (1943) & CIO leads way
  • The United States sets a precedent for meat packing unionization that has a powerful influence in Canada…
  • But it takes war to have full effect
organizing the kill floor iii
Organizing the Kill Floor III
  • Canada at war:
  • Full employment, buoyant economy
  • P.C. 1003 in 1944
  • National Wartime Labour Relations Board
    • Goal: To reduce labour turnover by “taking wages out of competition”
    • Industrial Disputes Inquiries
  • UPWA organizes rapidly from coast to coast
    • 42 locals representing 10,500 workers by 1945
    • Strike vote strategy and popular support
    • Aggressive committed leadership
union transformation
United Packinghouse Workers of America

(1937) CIO/TLC

Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen (1897)


Union Transformation

Canadian Food and Allied Workers CLC (1968)

Retail Clerks

United Food and Commercial Workers (1979) AFL-CIO, CLC

towards national standards
Towards National Standards
  • Master agreements by 1947 (After big strikes!)
  • National bargaining protocol
  • Pattern setting by industry leaders - Big Three
  • National standards for brackets by 1958.
  • Intraregional base rate convergence by 1969.
  • Elimination of interegional base rate differentials (except for west coast plants) by 1980.
working conditions improve

56 hour week

1.5 after 10 hours

2 week vacation for those with 5-20 years seniority

8 statutory holidays

No guaranteed benefits


40 hour week

1.5 after 8 hours

3-5 week vacation for those with 5-20 years seniority

11 statutory holidays

Life/sick/disability/pension/health benefits

Working conditions improve!
turning point
Turning Point
  • Recession & hyperinflation c. 1981
  • A Kondratief trough
  • Meat packing plants are hemorrhaging
  • Industrial plant closures are changing the urban fabric and economic base across the rust belt of the U.S.
structural change and transformation
Structural change and transformation
  • Corporate structural change
  • Union structural change
  • Firms demand wage concessions while plant closures are threatened
  • Transformation to lower cost structure in the U.S.
  • Declining beef consumption/cattle cycle bottom
  • Technological change = deskilling…
  • Locational change...
technological change deskilling
Technological change = deskilling

“Indeed, the division of labour had gone so far in the industry that it made the skilled workers no more indispensable than the unskilled; e.g., cattle butchers, who were thought to be the aristocrats of the trade, were the easiest men to replace. The second reason, following closely on the first, was that the technique of the industry allowed the use of hordes of unskilled negroes and non- English-speaking laborers offering themselves at the gates.” Rudolph Clemen 1923

locational changes
Locational changes
  • Large scale feedlot sector in Alberta
  • Structural shift in cattle production from east to west
  • Boxed beef by truck supplants carcass sides by rail
  • Plunging per capita beef consumption
  • Alberta becomes even less hospitable to organized labour
  • Beef packing and processing shifts from Ontario to Alberta
  • All are gradual, incremental changes
evisceration of the old union geography
Evisceration of the Old Union Geography
  • In 1984 Lakeside Packers breaks a UFCW strike with replacement workers, imposing concessions.
  • Concessions imposed at Canada Packers and Master Agreement split: East and West.
  • Burns ends national bargaining
  • In 1986 wage differentials and local bargaining re-established - reversion to pre 1947 structure!
  • Growing divergence between hog and cattle plants by 1988. Canada Packers closed all its western beef plants in 1991.
new union geographies of meatpacking
New Union Geographies of Meatpacking
  • Pork packers briefly become the new aristocrats of the packinghouse
  • Mix of union and non-union plants
  • New packinghouse workforce: seasonal, part time, migrant work force, young and feminized, finders’ fees, two tier wage structure
  • Pork packing is next to be transformed
  • Current wage pattern seems chaotic!
aristocrats and outcasts
Aristocrats and Outcasts
  • Complexity of industrial restructuring
  • Interplay of economic and social forces played out in space with sharply regionalized impacts
  • This is a case study, every industry is both different yet fundamentally similar
  • What have you learned?