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[Review of the Book 'Meatpackers: An Oral History of Black Packinghouse Workers and Their Struggle for Racial and Economic Equality']

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[Excerpt] The Halpern and Horowitz volume, Meatpackers, follows creditably in this oral history tradition, even if it does not approach the power and complexity of Rosengarten's work. Instead of focusing on one individual, the book presents selections culled from a massive collection of oral interviews conducted by the authors with more than 125 former members of the United Packinghouse Workers of America (UPWA). The interviewees are black, white, and Hispanic, male and female, with records of activism in the union as far back as the 1930s and as recent as the 1980s. The events they recount occurred in five cities, four of them in the Midwest, that were important centers in the meatpacking industry (Chicago; Kansas City; Omaha; Waterloo, Iowa; and Fort Worth, Texas). Organizing the interviews by city, and thus largely by UPWA local as well, allows for multiple perspectives that draw out the subtle and complex aspects of these working people's lives. A number of themes stand out. In these interviews, the harshness of the work is vivid in memory, as are the racial distinctions that gave black workers the worst jobs (before the union gained the strength to reverse such policies). Yet the underlying irony, recognized by many of those interviewed, is that those very same jobs provided a modicum of security and the possibility of intergenerational mobility for the relatively few black Americans who possessed them. Even more, the racist personnel policies that funneled black workers to the onerous and dangerous jobs on the "killing floor" actually made black workers indispensable to production, since without them the whole process would have stalled. A second theme, evident in comparing the accounts of the different locals, is the contrast between the initial organizing campaigns of fifty or more years ago and the more somber impact of plant closings and restructurings on workers' lives in recent decades.

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meatpacking; labor movement; United Packinghouse Workers of America; UPWA; worker rights; union organizing


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