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kc labor history





Packinghouse District
West Bottoms Livestock Exchange
(all the packinghouses have been torn down)

KC Stockyard
Kansas City Stockyards in the 1920s.
Note cattle chute leading to Swift & Co.

Kansas City played a prominent role in the development of a national meat-packing industry. For six decades Kansas City was second only to Chicago as a packing center, and the stockyards and packinghouses were the biggest employer in the area. The industry played an especially important role in the Black and Hispanic communities.

Conditions in this industry begged for unionization. It was in meatpacking in the late 19th century that the assembly (or disassembly) line was invented causing intense speedups and scandalous injury rates. Unsanitary plant conditions, lack of respect for seniority, and the pitting of one ethnic or racial group against another made life in the packinghouses agony.

Sausage workers
Sausage workers proudly display their wares and tools

Kansas City was a center of Packinghouse unionism from the start. The first international president of the Amalgamated Meat Cutters & Butcher Workmen was from the Kansas City Sheep Butcher's Union. The history of the unionization of this industry is full of false starts and some big defeats until the consolidation of the CIO United Packinghouse Workers during World War II. There are many rich lessons in these struggles including: the problems of attempting to organize along craft lines in a mass production industry; the challenges of overcoming divisions among the workers along race, ethnic and gender lines; and the dissipation of resources in fights between rival unions. Eventually most of these problems were at least partially overcome. But stable unionization was short-lived. Beginning in the 1950s, the packers began a major restructuring of the industry, decentralizing and shifting work from big plants to numerous small ones scattered across the Midwest. By the 1960s little remained in Kansas City of this once dominant industry.


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