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January 26: Organizing the Meat Cutters

January 26, 2013

The American Federation of Labor chartered the Amalgamated Meat Cutters Union, consolidating seven unions, in Chicago on this date in 1897. Originally a craft union with more than fifty divisions of labor, by World War I the Amalgamated was forced to open its ranks to immigrants, migrating Southern Blacks, and women, in the face of the meat industry's industrialization. (In 1904, a major strike in the stockyards of Chicago — described in Upton Sinclair's muckraking classic, The Jungle — was defeated by the use of thousands of unemployed African-Americans as scabs.) In Cleveland, Jewish butchers were the first to organize into the Amalgamated, and Sam Pollock, who had led two radical strikes (auto-parts workers and onion pickers) during the middle years of the Depression, became a militant organizer, and president of of its politically active District 427 in 1952. By the time of his death in 1983, Pollack had accumulated one of the largest private collections of books and materials related to labor and political radicalism in the country. The Amalgamated absorbed several major unions before merging with the Retail Clerks International Union to form the United Food and Commercial Workers in 1979.

"History is a great teacher. Now everyone knows that the labor movement did not diminish the strength of the nation but enlarged it. By raising the living standards of millions, labor miraculously created a market for industry and lifted the whole nation to undreamed of levels of production. those who attack labor forget these simple truths, but history remembers them." —Martin Luther King, Jr.