Kansas City in the Jazz Age & Great Depression

Making Meat: Race, Labor, and the Kansas City Stockyards

Author: 
John Herron
University of Missouri - Kansas City

There are world records for nearly everything, including cattle processing. And in September 1918, Kansas City broke them all. As World War I entered its final fateful months, the Kansas City stockyards handled more than 55,000 cattle in a single day and 475,000 for the month.  That fall, during a remarkable three-month span, more than 1.3 million cattle passed through the city’s yards. The Kansas City cattle business was impressive, but add to these figures hundreds of thousands of sheep, hogs, and horses, and more than 3.3 million animals were yarded in the city. First seven, then 12, then 34 railroads brought these animals into the city and out again to distant markets.

Overview of the Kansas City Stockyards, ca. 1930s
Overview of the Kansas City Stockyards, 1930s. Courtesy of the Missouri Valley Special Collections.

Stockyard managers rattled off these statistics easily and frequently. Livestock was, after all, a numbers game—the higher the tally, the greater the profit. From its ability to efficiently weigh, kill, and process thousands of animals, the Kansas City stockyards became the city’s first million-dollar-a-year industry. Steady growth meant that livestock also became the first million-dollar-a-month, then million-dollar-a-day, business. Only Chicago could claim to put more meat on America’s dinner tables. Civic boosters pointed to the city’s paved streets, distinctive architecture, and public parks as evidence of their community’s maturation and development, but in Kansas City, it was livestock that made the city hum.

Another set of numbers, this time measured in human capital, are required to complete this introduction to the Kansas City stockyards. At the end of World War I, the yards sprawled over 230 acres, where several major packinghouses and a handful of smaller related operations employed more than 20,000 workers—double the number from 1900 and more than 70 percent of the city’s manufacturing labor force. In the Kansas City yards, this contingent of industrial laborers systematically deconstructed animals for the American market and, in the process, transformed work routines and labor politics in the city.

The size and shape of this laboring community challenges the stereotype of Kansas City as a western “cowtown.” Cattle grazing on wide-open spaces is part of the iconography of the mythic American frontier, and for much of its early history, Kansas City traded heavily on this imagery, sharing more with Dodge City and Abilene than Pittsburgh or Detroit. A more complete picture of the city, however, includes the long line of low-paid wage workers required to mechanically transform meat on the hoof. Stockyard workers in Kansas City labored in an industry that was just as mechanized as steel and just as dangerous as coal. More than any other enterprise, it was the stockyards and their laboring thousands that propelled Kansas City into the modern age. Far from a quaint frontier effort, the stockyards represented a new industrial order that used modern corporate structures, new technologies, and an endless supply of workers to transform the nation’s relationship with food.

More significant from a labor perspective was the composition of the stockyard labor pool. Drawing white workers from midwestern hinterlands, immigrants from eastern and southern Europe, and African -Americans from the agricultural South, the stockyards built a multi-ethnic labor force. In an era of divisive labor politics and race-based unionization efforts, the diverse working class in the Kansas City stockyards altered the history of labor activism in the Midwest.

Building the Yards

At the moment of this 1918 peak, the Kansas City stockyards were already nearly 50 years old. In 1867, an Illinois merchant, Joseph McCoy, purchased 250 acres of open range near a newly constructed rail depot in Abilene, Kansas, and established a small stockyard. The Civil War had prevented southern beef from reaching northern markets, but now, he hoped, the railroad offered a corrective. In mid-summer of that year, cattle driven north on the Chisholm Trail arrived at his midwestern outpost, and by early September, the first shipment of beef was on its way by rail to urban America.

men looking into livestock pens filled with cattle.
Unidentified men looking into livestock pens filled with cattle. Courtesy of the Missouri Valley Special Collections.

The first cattle out of McCoy’s Abilene stockyards headed for Chicago, but Kansas City was not far behind. In 1870, a group of local railroad executives fenced off five acres in the city’s West Bottoms neighborhood and built a series of small stock pens. Growth was immediate, and in 1871 an additional 13 acres on the banks of the Kansas River were added to handle the 100,000 animals then coming into the city. In 1874, an infusion of eastern capital transformed the operation. Charles Adams Jr., the Harvard-educated grandson of American Presidents purchased land in the bottoms and immediately made plans to expand. With near unlimited access to Boston financial networks, Adams joined with Philip Armour, a noted Chicago meat packer, to build one of the most modern livestock processing facilities in the country. Armour’s factory employed 3,000 laborers, working across an eight-building campus.

In their first year of operation, Armour processed 45,000 animals, a 10-fold increase in the city’s production. With equal parts qualification and enthusiasm, a local newspaper described the plant’s opening as “probably the greatest event in the history of Kansas City.” Gustavus Swift, another Chicago packer, arrived in 1887 and built an even larger 13-acre facility. Other major players soon joined the Kansas City market and elevated meatpacking into the city’s main economic engine. In 1893, one newspaper crowed that the city would soon “strip from Chicago the proud plumage of first place in the live stock world.” A second outlet was even more bullish: “With the greatest cattle and livestock market in the world  . . . the greatest packing industry in the world . . . there is nothing that stands in the way of [Kansas City] becoming the greatest city in the world.”

Stockyards worker with hogs
Stockyards laborer in a hog pen. Courtesy of the Missouri Valley Special Collections.

The local press was often filled with such breathless hyperbole, but in truth, the Kansas City stockyards were impressive, capable of processing nearly five million animals a year by 1900. In the first year of the new century, meatpacking represented an amazing 91 percent of the city’s industrial output. Kansas City packing plants were constructed with the latest technology, but even with an abundance of advanced machinery, livestock processing remained a labor-intensive industry. And thanks to labor journals and muckraking exposés, the workflow in the Kansas City packing industry is well known.

The process began with livestock driven into the factory where a “knocker” hit the animals with a heavy sledge, rendering them unconscious. Another worker attached the animal’s hind legs to a mechanical hoist and then onto overhead rails. A “sticker” moved in and, in one quick motion, sliced the throat, causing the animal to bleed out. A team of knifemen, with sharp tools in each hand, then removed the animal’s valuable hide. A “header” followed and detached the skull, a “gut-snatcher” took the intestines, and a “kidney puller” removed the animal’s other internal organs. “Splitters,” armed with heavy cleavers, sliced down the backbone cutting the animals in two and, as the carcass moved across the killing floor, the animal was met by “rumpers,” “backers,” “grinders,” “trimmers,” “cheekers,” “boners,” “pullers,” and “luggers” who processed the remaining meat. A small army of entry-level laborers helped the process along by moving carcasses, cutting off tails and horns, and cleaning up blood.

Stockyards workers prodding cattle with broom handles.
Stockyard worker prodding cattle with a broom handle. Courtesy of the Missouri Valley Special Collections.

The stockyards’ industrial practices were celebrated as efficient, but by reducing jobs to the lowest skill level, Kansas City packers were also able to replace experienced craftsmen with general laborers. This transition reduced wage levels in the packing industry, and with the repetition of basic operations, management could control the pace of production. No longer reliant on trade knowledge, factory foreman could, whenever possible, turn to what was called “continuous-flow methods” to speed up conveyor lines and increase work output.

One of the chief complaints of this dynamic was the pace of work, a common reason for injury. For many laborers in the packing plants, they had but a few seconds to perform their routinized task and little time between animals. After a visit to one Kansas City plant, a national reporter noted that workers had a “full 2 seconds” to “debristle a hog carcass” and less than 10 seconds “to de-head” a cow. The speed and dexterity displayed by packinghouse laborers often impressed visitors, but as one labor activist remarked, such achievement is better understood as “simply inhumane hard work.” Cuts and scrapes were a daily occurrence but so too were swollen joints and knuckles as well as back and neck pain earned from long hours hunched over a carcass. Factory seniority often led to a life of arthritis and other muscular disabilities. Worse still was the frequency that workers suffered disabling injuries from the minor, like trips and falls, to the more serious like burns and lost limbs.

The distressed nature of life inside the meatpacking plants continued to plague workers after they left the workplace. When investors built the stockyards, they also designed new neighborhoods for their workers. One of the best known was christened Armourdale, Kansas. Platted on 600 acres, Armourdale was built to resemble a small New England town. Home lots were wide and spacious, streets were straight and clean, and a nearly 10-acre public park was set aside in the village square. In 1885, less than 2,000 people lived in the small riverside community, but just three years later, the population swelled to nearly 5,000, stretching social services. In the first decades of the next century, the population continued to expand on a marked pace so that by 1920, Armourdale, following a pattern recognizable in more established eastern urban centers, was overcrowded, economically depressed, and lacking in proper sanitation. A federal official from the Immigration Commission toured the community’s muddy streets and closely spaced residences and described it as a “labyrinth of narrow, dirty passageways, flanked by the most non-descript sort of shacks.”

It is no surprise, then, that in 1920 worker surveys often placed meatpacking among the worst industries to find employment.

Making a Working Class

As a result of the challenges inherent in stockyard labor, the factories relied heavily on a malleable working class. Census data reveals that recent arrivals from Ireland, France, and Germany worked alongside Dutch, Scandinavian, and Italian laborers. The British Empire was well represented with Australian, Canadian, Indian, Scot, and Welsh workers filling many different roles throughout the industry. After plant managers sent recruiters to eastern Europe, the trickle of workers from Russia, Bulgaria, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Slovenia, and especially Croatia became a steady flow.

Armour Meatpacking Company sketch
Sketch of the Armour Packing Plant. Courtesy of the Missouri Valley Special Collections.

Even as Kansas City meatpackers publicly proclaimed that “nationality makes very little difference” in their labor force, they maintained a labor hierarchy. Germans and Swedes were considered “superior” and, of the more recent immigrants, “the Russians are regarded as much more efficient than the Poles, and the Greeks are considered more efficient than the Italians, but not as good as the Croatians, Slovaks, and Lithuanians.” Most employers approved of the Japanese “on account of their quickness and quietness while at work,” and everyone agreed that the Greeks and the ever-troublesome Italians were “unsatisfactory.”

But in many ways the most significant minority cohort of Kansas City meatpacking laborers were was African Americans. Blacks began arriving in the city in large numbers in the 1870s and were immediately drawn into livestock processing, a stark contrast to the later entrance of black labor into other meatpacking centers. In the early decades of the 20th century, the packinghouses were the single largest employer of African American laborers in Kansas City. Nearly 25 percent of meatpacking workers were black.

For management, one popular narrative about the abundance of black workers in meatpacking was their supposed kind treatment of African American labor. “[There is no] large employer of Negroes in Kansas City which treats colored workmen with more consideration than does the Armour Packing Company,” one contemporary labor survey noted. The Kansas City Sun, an African American weekly, similarly reported that Armour “has always given the black man a square deal.” “Many a Negro who has spent years in the service of this house,” the paper concluded, “is now drawing a pension and living the reminder of his days out of want.” “Honesty and fidelity are the only tests applied to applicants for employment in the Armour Packing Co.,” reported the American Citizen, a short-lived African American newspaper. The company employs “representatives of every civilized race” and “does not discriminate against any nationality or creed.”

Stories of management benevolence toward African Americans were, of course, overblown. In Kansas City, the black press—often funded by large corporations or political parties—was not always an independent voice for the community.  Tales of financial aid to black city residents were more often part of a savvy marketing and recruitment campaign by major packers. Figuring out why black workers were drawn to meatpacking leads to a more obvious answer. In the segregated labor market that was Kansas City, meatpacking provided black residents with one of the few available options for industrial employment. A 1929 study produced by the Kansas City Urban League revealed that only 30 percent of city businesses employed African Americans, and of that percentage, nearly half were porters. African Americans were frequently excluded from the skilled trades, and their average weekly wage was about half that of white workers. For meatpackers, then, black workers in Kansas City were cheap and exploitable.

Stockyards postcard
Postcard showing the stockyards in the West Bottoms of Kansas City. Courtesy of the Missouri Valley Special Collections.

Reflecting the stereotypes of the day, plant managers remarked that African Americans were well suited to “the most disagreeable” elements of meatpacking labor. A spokesman for one large packing interest explained that company policy directed black workers to the most unpleasant jobs on the killing floor, where “the heat is intense and the smell uncongenial to men of more sensitive disposition.” In a congressional employment investigation, one manager reported, “Negro laborers seem to take quite naturally to packing-house work, especially in the occupations where the hours are irregular.” Perhaps just as important, packers also maintained that a sizable percentage of black workers on the killing floor would inhibit worker solidarity. Owners counted on the barriers of language, custom, and especially, race, to keep labor interests divided and weak. Many black workers held the opposite view, however, and black meatpacking workers who were confined to the lowest paid and least pleasant jobs would frequently join with their white coworkers to improve working conditions in the city.

Meatpacking emerged as one of the main sites of labor agitation in the city. First in 1893, then again in 1894 and 1895, workers in the factories pushed back against owner attempts to reduce wages and speed up production. These collective actions were small in scale and did not lead to the unionization of meatpacking labor in Kansas City, but unions were coming to the yards. First under the Knights of Labor, then later the American Federation of Labor, attempts to band together were more successful as the 19th century ended. Even as organizing remained difficult in the city, by 1897 the nation’s largest meatpacking union, Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen of North America, was drawing Kansas City workers to their banner. After several years of consolidation, in 1904 Amalgamated called a nationwide strike of packinghouse laborers that impacted racial solidarity in the city. In response to wage cuts and the continued use of immigrant labor to replace union workers, more than 7,000 Amalgamated members, black and white, walked off the job in July.

Meatpackers tried to keep their plants open by recruiting new workers from the city and the surrounding rural communities. They also began importing non-union labor from other midwestern packing cities. In response, the union assigned members to watch the main railway stops, including Union Depot, in an effort to keep strikebreakers from entering the city. The strikers did their best to disrupt operations and created special patrols to keep strikebreakers away from the plants. Owners, in turn, began housing strikebreakers inside the factories and, in an example of the extreme divisiveness of the strike, stepped up their efforts to recruit African American scabs and provide them with weapons. As historian Sherry Schirmer dryly noted, “In a strike-torn city with a southern heritage, arming black workers was an unusual tactic.” But as the strike wore on, packinghouse managers proved “willing to risk a race riot” to alienate strikers and scabs.

Violence would come to the city that summer as a series of small confrontations between workers and strikebreakers marred the West Bottoms, but unlike what occurred in other meatpacking cities such as Chicago and Omaha, racial conflict did not escalate in Kansas City. Despite labor’s pronouncement to “stay out until Christmas,” the 1904 strike did not last, and workers returned to the factories without the wage guarantees and union protection they desired. The blow to the Amalgamated Meat Cutters Union was total, and Michael Donnelly, an Omaha sheep butcher and union president, was more than willing to blame African Americans. Donnelly portrayed black workers as barriers to human progress whose only interest was to drive white workers from the meatpacking industry. One result was that racial tension in the early 20th century, especially in larger packing cities like Chicago, escalated dramatically. In Kansas City, however, the local press was largely silent on race matters, and labor leaders rarely introduced race into labor politics.

Race was downplayed in the local media because African Americans were present on both sides of the picket line. Black strikers and black scabs were involved in confrontations with police, white laborers, and importantly, each other. Indiscriminate and black-on-black violence hardly seems evidence of racial harmony, but a larger point remains. Throughout industrial America, black workers were frequently imported as strikebreakers, including, of course, into Kansas City. But just as they held a variety of positions in packinghouse factories, African Americans had also long participated in industry politics. Meatpackers often assumed that their black employees were docile—uninterested in unions or even the idea of strikes—and the events in Kansas City offered a powerful corrective to that mistaken notion as African Americans demanded a stake in the economic expansion of the city.

Man washing pens in the stockyards
Man washing pens in the stockyards. Courtesy of the Missouri Valley Special Collections.

With a deep history in the stockyards, African American labor remained a key constituency for union leaders. “Solidly entrenched in meatpacking occupations…[and] with sufficient numbers to decide the outcome of an organizing drive,” African Americans in Kansas City, labor historian Roger Horowitz explained, “were courted by both the nascent unions and packinghouse management.” The defeat of the first major strike in the meatpacking industry calmed, but did not end, labor agitation in the city, and at nearly the same moment that the stockyards broke production records, African American workers would once again seek common cause.

On September 4, 1917, more than 50 canners, black and white and mostly women, left the line at the city’s Cudahy plant. With factories in several midwestern cities and an international distribution network, Cudahy was one of the largest meatpackers in the country. Common labor demands—a wage increase and an eight-hour day—precipitated the walkout, and by the late afternoon, more than 300 workers joined the campaign. These strikers paraded from plant to plant in the packinghouse district, calling for other laborers to support the walkout. The Kansas City Journal described the racial composition of the march, noting, “many in the procession were women, and nearly half the number were negroes.”

Two days after the walkout, more than 2,000 laborers, once again both black and white, lined the streets of Armourdale. Less than a week after the initial protest, sympathetic strikes spread to city railroad workers, freight handlers, and soap producers. A federal arbitrator ended the short strike by forcing Cudahy to rehire the strikers and agree to a pay increase for all laborers. A strike under similar circumstances less than a year later, in 1918, led to even more gains for black stockyard workers in Kansas City, including an eight-hour day and equitable rules for overtime.

These were important victories for stockyard labor, and Kansas City’s African American packing workers were in an unusually strong position. World War I restricted immigration, limiting an important source of labor, while at the same moment, European demand for American meat reached record levels. With few options, the city’s packinghouse owners tried to keep labor peace with frequent concessions to workers. But if the war created a unique moment of political leverage, black workers must also be given credit for maximizing their opportunities. African American laborers created a working-class movement for shop control that altered the conventional narrative of racial politics in the city. And there is little question that a key element of this strategy was to engage black workers with organized labor. As an editor from the Kansas City Sun reminded readers, “Don’t be a scab…we advise you to belong to the working class.” If the “unions offer to be fair with you, join hands with them in struggle, capital against labor.”

These successful protests bracket the opening of Kansas City’s important period of growth, and it would be a strike two decades later that would serve as a capstone to this era of change and tumult. The events of 1917 and 1918 occurred within the context of the First World War. Soon after, however, the federal labor apparatus designed to support worker rights was dismantled. Immigration returned to pre-war levels, and new arrivals, often less interested in old traditions and workplace politics, proved difficult to organize in the Kansas City yards. Further, the political constriction of the First Red Scare targeted unionists as unpatriotic communists, and the devastating race riots that rocked several midwestern packing cities eroded worker solidarity.

Stockyards workers at rest
Stockyards workers at rest. Courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

Strikes in 1921 and 1922 ended poorly for the union, and throughout the rest of the decade, labor struggled in Kansas City. Sensing a moment to consolidate worker loyalty, packers introduced pension plans, stock benefits, and incentive wage programs that further hampered efforts to unify labor against meatpacking interests. Of these recent developments, a pleased Chamber of Commerce announced, “Kansas City labor is settled and contented.” There “have been only seven strikes since 1898 and none since 1921.” Here, all “industries operate on an open shop basis.”

That the Chamber of Commerce would make such claims should not surprise anyone, but the city’s celebrated stability was short-lived. The Depression hit the Kansas City industrial market especially hard, as more than 300 companies went bankrupt between 1929 and 1933, and meatpacking employment declined by 25 percent. Packers responded with expected wage cuts, a shortened work week, and a reduction in welfare capitalism. Workers across the city’s meatpacking plants, faced with a deteriorating situation, turned once again to collective action, and in the 1930s the idea of industrial unionism—a single union that championed working class issues—came to Kansas City meatpacking.

In late August 1938, Kansas City’s largest packing plant, Armour, raised the “kill,” the quota for daily beef processing. The move was announced without worker consultation, and six hide cellar workers—five African Americans and one Croatian—complained to their stewards on the killing floor. The following morning, the men left the line to attend a grievance hearing with company managers. Jobs in the hide cellar were among the most menial and least desirable in the packing factories. After skinners removed the cow’s valuable hide, it traveled down a chute to the hide cellar below, where workers, most often African American, processed the leather. They shook, stretched, brushed, and salted the hides, allowing them to cure for several months. The stench in this part of the house was particularly oppressive, and chronic health problems plagued hide cellar workers.

From 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., the workers met with plant officials and then returned to their positions in the factory. The following day, Armour officials not only rejected worker appeals to reduce the kill, but also docked the pay of the workers who attended the grievance meeting. The United Packing House Workers of America, Local Number 15 asked for $22.09, payment for the workers and their “6½ hours away from the line.” Armour refused.

At 10 a.m. on Saturday, September 10, after the chain was fully loaded with cattle, nearly 2,000 Armour workers left the killing line and occupied the plant. Under a headline banner that announced Hitler’s takeover of Czechoslovakia, the Kansas City Star broke the news of “An Armour Sit Down.” Reflecting the new emphasis on a single labor movement, the paper quoted a strike organizer who declared, “A grievance of one worker is a grievance of the entire union.” Over the next four days, nearly 1,000 workers, including 400 African American laborers, remained in control of the plant. Inside the factory, workers reported a lively, even festive, atmosphere.

Local newspapers ran front-page stories of the sit down, complete with pictures of smiling workers perched atop locked factory gates pulling up buckets of food and coffee delivered by their families. Armour asked the Kansas City police department to remove the strikers, but the police refused as community support rested with the workers. With the growing possibility of a nation-wide sympathy strike, city leaders pressured Armour into mediation.

Meatpacking workers
Meatpackers. Courtesy of the Missouri Valley Special Collections.

In the final compromise, the company and the union agreed to split the cost of the beef that workers left to rot on the line, but Armour agreed to accept the strikers back without punishment and award back pay to the hide cellar workers. The strike was costly to both management and the union. Armour lost nearly $100,000 in revenue, and the union share of the spoiled beef was almost $15,000, but it was the recovered $22 for six low-skilled ethnic and African American workers that was the most significant. The union stood firm behind them and, with the back pay concession, solidified control of the floor.

The events of 1938 built on the efforts of union leaders to create racial cohesion in Kansas City’s packinghouse neighborhoods. The industrial union movement occurred not only in the factory but also in the community. The union sponsored concerts and picnics intended for both black and white workers, with the goal of building a common tradition. As scholar Roger Horowitz noted, in a divided community, these social events were easily the “largest unsegregated cultural gatherings” in the city.

The most important legacy of the strike, and the grass-roots community involvement that supported it, remembered one labor leader, was “a friendship there that couldn’t have been created in any other way. It forged a bond between all of the races…it did the job that we couldn’t have done otherwise.” Racial division continued to plague Kansas City in the 1930s, including in the packinghouses, but an industrial workforce that had experienced the cleavages of race since the 1870s proved that cooperation was possible. Perhaps a more significant legacy is that many of the black packinghouse leaders of this era would remain active in labor advocacy through the 1950s, providing the African American community with experienced leadership in the Civil Rights struggle to come.

Acknowledgement: 
A longer, footnoted version of this article will appear in a book, Wide Open Town: Kansas City Between the Wars (under contract with the University Press of Kansas, anticipated fall 2018).