Each year around the world, May Day (also known as International Workers Day) or May 1st, is celebrated as a day to honor workers and spring. During his lifetime (1917-1984), Richard Durham surely made time to herald the day. He was committed to and involved in labor unions that championed the rights of working men and women.
During the 1950s, one of Durham’s most significant associations was with the Chicago-based United Packinghouse Workers of America (UPWA). Considered to be one of city’s more progressive unions, the UPWA fought to protect the rights of the thousands of people who toiled in the industries that produced meat and its byproducts.
And there was plenty to fight about regarding working conditions in meatpacking plants. The plants’ slaughter assembly lines, for example, were dangerous, blood-soaked environments. Some meatpacking companies didn’t provide insurance to protect injured employees, and workers on some fast-moving assembly lines were treated like prisoners.
In 1952, Durham landed a contract with the union. The organization needed a writer who could translate studies, conducted by Fisk University scholars, about the UPWA’s antidiscrimination activities into a digestible brochure for the rank and file.
Durham eventually produced a twenty-one-page brochure titled Action against Jim Crow: UPWA’s Fight for Equal Rights. The brochure married photos of union members with Durham’s attention-grabbing writing:
At daybreak on November 30, 1950, a young Negro mother left her three children with their grandmother and hurried out into the cold Chicago dawn to catch a street-car.
She was Mrs. Pauline Wilson and she needed a job.
She was an experienced packinghouse worker and she knew they were hiring at Swift and Company.
Swift—like the Wilson, Armour, and Cudahy companies—operated America’s largest meat processing plants. Durham went on to write:
At 7 a.m. [Mrs. Wilson] was rushing unnoticed down the crowded, cobblestone streets of the world’s biggest packing center, and at 7:30 a.m. she was inside the employment office of the biggest packer.
It was the third anxious morning she had raced to be among the first to apply.
“Oh-h-h-h you’re just a little bit too late,” one of the clerks shook a sad head. “We’re not hiring anymore women. Just men.”
Durham then introduced Ruth Merson, a white job seeker who rushed down the same cobblestone streets to the same company on that same November morning. Yet Merson was directed to a back office and hired with every other white woman who applied that day.
Swift foreman Bill Cummings encouraged Merson to send her friends because he thought she “looked like a good worker.” Durham conceded, “He was right. She was even better than he thought. He had hired a field representative of UPWA on assignment for its Anti-Discrimination Department, a symbol of the Negro and white unity which has made the UPWA-CIO, the most important packinghouse union in the world.”
An arbitrator eventually ruled that Mrs. Wilson and twelve other black women “were entitled to reach into Mr. Swift’s pockets for $2,600 in back pay,” Durham wrote. Additionally, Swift had to hire those women with a year’s worth of seniority.
Richard Durham continued working with the UPWA, helping the union organize its workers to support various civil rights struggles – including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
Hope that you had a great May Day – and whatever work you are passionate about, have a productive month!
Follow me on