“Oh, you had to have Union label on it if you brought it home. You damn right. My father wouldn't buy it if it didn't have Union label. . .They stuck together like thieves .”
Amy Eaton Huyett (1918-1990)
“The workers don't organize unions. It's the companies that organize unions. When working conditions are good, no one's gonna bother to belong to a union.”
Chuck Huyett (1909-2001
An Oral History of the Wildcat Strike and the Organization of a Producer Handlers Union in Kansas City
By Pat Huyett
In the spring of 1980, I took Stan Parsons' American History II class at UMKC. We were required to write a social history of our families going back three generations. It just so happened that my paternal grandfather was born in 1861, the year the Civil War began. But I was especially interested in my father's and my maternal grandfather's involvement in early labor union organization. As a child, we never crossed picket lines. When I lived in Fresno, California in the early 70's, I had been a member of the Teamsters Local there as production line seamstress on an assembly line in a seat belt factory.
I interviewed my parents at their home in Miami, Missouri, sitting at the kitchen table with its gingham tablecloth. My father, Chuck Huyett was 71 years old at the time, and my mother was 62.
Growing up, I recalled both my parents using the expletive “Oh, boozh-wah,” which I had assumed meant “oh nonsense.” Years later, after hearing the great blues singer Hudie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter sing “Boozhwah Blues” I realized this was their pronunciation of “bourgeois.”
My father told me management created unions because if working conditions are good, no one wanted to go out on strike. Working conditions at the City Market in 1938 were not good. My father, though college educated, drove a truck hauling produce. The following is a transcription I had with my father in March 1980. My father was a quiet and modest man, given to understatement
Dad: ‘Long about '38, '39, I'd been working for $15.00 a week for six days a week. There was a group at the Produce market trying to organize it.
PH: What group was that?
Dad: Teamsters—well, actually the Produce Handlers went to the Teamsters and asked them to help organize. Anyhow, in about a year we finally organized Teamsters Local No. 7 and it was the Produce Handlers Local.
PH: Did you have trouble getting it together?
Dad: Yes. (Pause). Quite a bit.
PH: Who was against you?
Dad: Every employer.
PH: Management, in other words.
Dad: Yes. The base wage was $2.50 a day and the day started when you got there and it was done when you got done. Twelve hours a day was about the minimum day that anyone worked.
PH: What were you trying to get? A ten-hour day? An eight-hour day?
Dad: An eight-hour day. We went from a twelve hour week at $15.00 a week to an eight-hour day at $22.50 a week for a six-day week—which was a considerable improvement. A 48-hour week as opposed to a 72-hour week.
PH: So you went on strike?
PH: It would be what they call a wildcat strike?
Dad: Yes, because the place wasn't organized.
PH: Did they hire scabs?
Dad: No, the strike didn't last that long. I'd say at least half the men stayed in [on the job] where I worked. But once we got organized we didn't retaliate against anybody. There wasn't any retaliation that I know of, anyhow. The place where I worked had fourteen trucks, and I'd say forty people worked there.
PH: How many of you went on strike?
Dad: Eight or ten. The others—they were just plain afraid to.
PH: Afraid to?
PH: You were single at the time.
Dad: Yeah, I was single. But a lot of ‘em that wanted to [go on strike] they had families and they said they simply couldn't do it.
PH: Not that they weren't with you—
Dad: That's right.
PH: What help did the Teamsters give you?
Dad: Advice. Leaders.
PH: What did they tell you to do?
Dad: (Long pause). Picket. There was just the least little bit of violence, but not much.
PH: What do you mean by violence? Bombing?
Dad: Oh, no, no, no. Nothing like that. Some of the guys on the picket line would stop a truck and tell ‘em to go back. Some of the trucks got sugar put in the crankcase. That spoils the motor.
PH: It was a fairly peaceful strike then?
Dad: Oh yes. There was very little violence. Very little.
PH: Then why did they give in?
Dad: (chuckling) They really didn't have too much of a choice, because the company I worked for, Reich's, was the biggest one, but practically all of the others on the City Market were just plain shut down. They didn't have enough employees to operate. And the other employers says to Reich's “Now let's get this over with so we can back to business.”
PH: It was a city-wide strike?
Dad: Yes. Most of the produce handlers, besides Reich's, any of them that had ten employees were big. And the smaller places—enough of them were shut down they just couldn't operate at all. So the other employers brought Reich's in.
PH: Did the national Teamsters come to you from Chicago?
Dad: No. There were local. At the time there were several Teamsters Locals actually in operation. There was a Local No. 41—over-the-road drivers and Local No. 9—heavy equipment operators and they'd both been organized quite awhile. There were four or five Teamsters locals actually operating. General Motors had been organized by that time.
PH: But they were Auto Workers.
Dad: Yes, but my point is the Union Movement was pretty strong by that time. It was under Roosevelt—the Fair Labor law or something like that had come in and said that you couldn't fire a man for belonging to a union—‘course a lot of ‘em got fired anyway, but they were more willing to take chances.
PH: Were the Teamsters part of the AFL?
Dad: Yes they were. The mining man—John L. Lewis had the CIO—the Committee for Industrial Organization.
PH: Did you ever go on strike again?
Dad: Yes, in 1949 when I worked for Rodney Milling Company down on Southwest Boulevard. I belonged to the Grain Millers' Union at the time. We were on strike a week.
[By that time my father had become a Master Electrician. He also belonged to the Electrical Workers Union].
PH: Did you get strike pay?
Dad: No. The only time you get strike pay is when you put funds in—and then when you get a strike fund the Union gets corrupt. Anytime a union—now this is my opinion—anytime a union has more than one year's salary for the officials, it's got too much money.
PH: Would you say that at the time you struck at the City Market the Teamsters were not as corrupt as they are now?
Dad: I really don't know. I don't think so. They hadn't had time to get as corrupt as they are now. They hadn't been in it long enough.
PH: Were they idealistic people do you think?
Dad: No. They just wanted more money. And besides that—the workers don't organize unions. It's the companies that organize unions. When working conditions are good, no one's gonna bother to belong to a union.
PH: When you tried to organize the City Market, working conditions weren't good.
Dad: That's what I said. Who sets the working conditions? The bosses—they're the ones that organize unions.
PH: (laughing) Well yes, I guess indirectly they do.
Dad: If the working conditions are good, no one's going to spend their time going to union meetings or anything like that.
(At this point my mother joined the conversation).
Mom: My father was on strike for I don't know how long [in the 1920's]. He helped organize the first Electrical Workers Union in Kansas City.
PH: You bought union-made goods?
Mom: Oh, you had to have Union label on it if you brought it home. You damn right. My father wouldn't buy it if it didn't have Union label. We weren't to have anything in that house that didn't have a Union label. They stuck together like thieves .
Pat Huyett is a Kansas City writer and teaches writing at UMKC. Her mother Amy Eaton Huyett (1918-1990) grew up in Kansas City, Kansas. Amy's father's name was Harry Eaton and he worked in the big grain elevators on Southwest blvd. He and his son-in-law were both involved in a lot of early labor union organization. Chuck also worked at Rodney Milling Co. Both were electricians, members of Electrical workers and Millwrights unions.