Significant numbers of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans from Texas began arriving in Minnesota in the 1920s, lured by employment opportunities in the sugar beet industry. They worked in the fields in the Red River Valley and in the processing end of the industry just west of Minneapolis. While many came originally as migrant laborers, planning to work only temporarily in Minnesota, as time went on, increasing numbers began to stay here during the off season, rather than return to Texas or Mexico.
The Great Depression brought hard times to these workers and their families. Their employers discontinued their traditionally paternalistic policies of providing housing and credit, then cut wages and laid off workers. They replaced Latino workers with whites who were desperate for employment. Things got even worse. In 1934, St. Paul became one of the first U.S. cities to deport Mexican immigrants, rounding up 324 Latinos, some of whom were actually U.S. citizens, for shipment to Mexico. Fear of more deportations ran throughout Minnesota.
Despite the hardships of the Depression period, it was also during these years that the Latino community in St. Paul was established. Some were drawn by job opportunities in the nearby packinghouses in South St. Paul, some by access to relief, and many by the growing community and its own internal vitality. By 1939, about 4,000 Mexicans and Mexican-Americans lived on St. Paul’s West Side. With World War II, the demand for labor exploded, and more and more Latinos made the transition from farm to factory, from a rural migratory life to an urban, industrial one.
It was during the war that Mexican/Mexican-American women — Latinas — made their first entrance into the packinghouses. They came to work alongside white and African-American women who were also becoming versions of the “Rosie the Riveter” who was so popular in American culture during the war years. Most of these women worked in the processing departments, making sausage, hot dogs, bacon and canned meats. One Latina who worked at Armour’s recalls that foremen urged them to work harder since their output was “going to feed the boys overseas.” Indeed, she added, many of these “boys” were Latino. Some 690 men from St. Paul’s lower West Side served during WW II.
Few options available
It was more than patriotism, however, which drove Latinas into the packinghouses. They faced discrimination in many female occupations, such as retail, clerical, and even domestic work. They also found that the recently unionized packinghouses paid decent wages for the difficult work performed there. One Latina worker recalled: “At Armour’s in the sliced bacon department, there were production quotas. The harder we worked, the more bacon we cut and got packed into those boxes at the end of the line, the more we made. If you were willing to work hard enough, you could make good ‘B’ (bonus) money.”
When the war ended, many of the women sought to stay on the job. The industry grew and the jobs in many of these processing departments became typed as “women’s work.” Even though veterans returned to the packinghouses with seniority, many of the women were able to hang on. With the addition of their wages to family incomes, some Latino families became homeowners while many sank ever deeper roots into the West Side.
Despite the fact that they were often stuck in the lowest paying and least respected jobs in the packinghouses, Latina meat packers took a great deal of pride in their work and stayed in the plants for long careers. One woman, who worked at Armour’s for more than 30 years, told an interviewer: “It was a long, hard life, but I enjoyed every bit of it. Because I worked very hard at the packinghouse, I was able to earn the money to buy a car and to put my children into private Catholic schools.”
The increasing permanence achieved by working-class Latino families in the 1940s was reflected in the growth of community organizations such as the Neighborhood House, the Anhuac Society, and Our Lady of Guadelupe Church. Members of the community came together in these organizations to celebrate their Mexican traditions and to learn American customs. They also helped new arrivals secure housing and employment. A Latina resident told an interviewer in 1946: “We come from Texas. My husband, he works for packing company. Neighborhood House get him job. Neighborhood House teach he and I to speak American. Neighborhood House make us citizens of the United States, help us to get start here. At Neighborhood House I learn to sew and cook American way . . . Neighborhood House my first real friend here.”
Perhaps the most important organization for Latino and Latina packinghouse workers was the union. The packinghouses had been non-union since the Amalgamated Meat Cutters & Butcher Workmen of America had been broken, with the intervention of the National Guard, in a lengthy, bitter strike in the winter of 1921-1922.
Workers began to organize anew in the 1930s, and they linked up with the emergent Packinghouse Workers Organizing Committee which was part of the new Congress of Industrial Organizations or CIO. Aggressive organizing drives resulted in union contracts at Armour, Swift and Cudahy, and, during the war, the Packinghouse Workers Organizing Committee received an official charter as a CIO union, the United Packinghouse Workers of America (UPWA).
Union support for equal rights
The UPWA was among the country’s best unions when it came to representing the rights of women workers and workers of color. It fought for plant-wide seniority, enabling workers to transfer out of the departments into which they had originally been hired, and it pushed for racially integrated locker rooms. In the late 1940s it urged locals to set up their own civil rights committees to address issues from hiring and promotion to access to lunch counters and taverns around the plants. Its official symbol was a pair of clasped white and black hands.
There were problems, to be sure. Jake Cooper, who had been a shop steward at Swift’s after the war, recalled heated arguments in the sausage department over allowing a Latino worker to transfer in from the hide cellar. Jake hastened to add, however, that he did win the argument, and, as time went by, the new worker became accepted by the rest of the department. Latina workers recall problems which were grounded in both race and gender. One said that “it was usually the men that the union defended,” and that even the Latino union activists paid little heed to women’s issues.
But others expressed their loyalty to the union years after retirement, years after the plants had closed. One Latina, who “hardly ever missed a union meeting,” although she had to get her sister to watch her two children, recalled: “We really trusted the unions. If it wouldn’t have been for the unions, we never would have gotten raises . . . When I began working for Armour, when I was 16, I made 50 cents an hour. Then there was a union meeting and all of a sudden I was making 75 cents an hour. Some time after that I was making a dollar . . . I thought they did a lot of work for us.”
Landmark 1948 strike
The 1948 strike, which involved 10,000 workers in South St. Paul and Newport, put the loyalties of the Latino and Latina workers to the test. Despite the pressure of a back-to-work movement and the calling out of the National Guard, Mexican-American workers stood solid with the union. Many picketed regularly for the three-month strike. Some of the women helped make signs for picket duty. Some prepared food and coffee to serve on the picket line and at union headquarters. They provided first aid and medical care for injured pickets. They also organized their families and neighbors to help in the strike.
One Latina remembers her mother working the “graveyard shift” in the union office, serving soup, bread and coffee to picketers through the night. The same woman recalls that at key confrontations, such as when a car was rolled over in order to block railroad tracks, “women were right there, too.”
Latina packinghouse workers were an important part of St. Paul’s labor history, contributing to their families, their community, and their union. It is way past due that they receive the recognition they deserve.
Kate Ecklund graduated from Macalester College in 1997 with a double major in History and Women’s & Gender Studies. This article is excerpted from a longer paper she wrote entitled “Latina Labor Participation in the Meat Packing Industry in South St. Paul, Minnesota, 1930-1950: The Congruence of Gender, Ethnic and Working Class Identity.” This paper won the Katherine Rock Hauser Prize as the outstanding women’s history paper produced by a Macalester senior in 1996-1997. Kate has worked at Casa Esperanza, a battered women’s shelter, and the St. Paul Tenants’ Union.
Illustration by Richard Levins Morales, Northland Poster Collective