Addie Wyatt 1924-2012: A Life of Christian Faith & Labor Solidarity

Addie Wyatt
How does a person of faith live a purposeful life in a world gone wrong?  Where does a moral vision come from, a vision that can thrive despite the inevitable blows that fall upon it?

I’ve been thinking about that a lot since Addie Wyatt, the celebrated South Side Chicago labor leader died in March of this year. I read several of the obituaries about her, but none of them really explained the road she traveled to become an associate of Dr. Martin Luther King, a founder of the Coalition of Labor Union Women, an international vice-president of the United Food and Commercial Workers(UFCW) and a Time Magazine Person of the Year (1975).  

She was a very unique and talented person, but throughout her life, she had the solidarity of others to draw strength from. Great leaders need great people to work with them if they are to accomplish their goals. The obituaries I read in the mainstream media left out that she not only shaped social justice movements, but that she was shaped by them as well.  After reviewing her life and accomplishments, I don’t think Addie Wyatt would want to be remembered as a one woman show.

Faith and solidarity were her tools for greatness. The young Addie Wyatt found these tools within her family, at her church and in the harsh realities of the Chicago meatpacking industry. Born in Mississippi, she first lived on a quiet residential street near gardens, fields, chickens, hogs, and  fruit trees. Her dad was a tailor and her mom a teacher.  

The Depression hit when Wyatt was still a small child and her parents heard that there were more opportunities in the North. It was a rumor that proved to be illusionary for the Wyatt family. When the family moved to  Chicago they found that work was scarce and and pay was rock-bottom. Housing and food were expensive so they had to rely on the solidarity of their extended family: staying with relatives and moving frequently. Her father would work for 50-60 hours a week when jobs were available, but still could not support his spouse and their 8 children.  He turned to alcohol in his anger and frustration, further complicating the family’s already perilous existence. Addie Wyatt grew closer to her mother and grandmother: 

“They were loving women, they prayed together and they shared together and they raised us together. We had very little economic security. There were times when there was no money in the house. At the age of eight I started making little paper flowers and fiber glass flowers and sold them. I also made candy and wrapped it in little papers and sold it. I sometimes brought fifty cents or a dollar into the house. I know now this was like ten, twenty, or twenty five dollars, but I didn't realize it then.”–Interview with Elizabeth Balanoff

As a member of the Church of God, Wyatt came to know the importance of both faith and solidarity. Like many black churches then and now, faith in God also meant faith in the people around you, faith that as God’s children, they would come together in what Dr. King later called “a beloved community.” In practical terms, this meant pooling both material and spiritual resources to survive the ongoing economic calamity that was compounded by the entrenched racism of American society. Her particular church practiced an equality among men and women. Women were encouraged to be leaders in all aspects of church organization. Based on her family and church experience, Wyatt came to know the power of women’s leadership and solidarity. These experiences would later form a basis for her work in the labor and feminist movements. 

After attending high school, getting married and having children, Addie Wyatt applied for a job at the Armour meat packing company as a typist. What she didn’t know at the time was that Armour did not hire black women for their front office. She was hired, but when she went to work on Monday, she was given a uniform and a cap and sent to the canning department. She joined the United Packinghouse Workers of America (UPWA) union after learning it was responsible for her benefits and grievance protection.  

She stayed at Armour 3 years, was fired from a job at a hatpin factory for union organizing and then found a job at Illinois Meat in 1947. She was once again a member of  the UPWA, but reluctant to become deeply involved because of her church work and her community activism in her Altgeld Gardens neighborhood. But the UPWA was very unique and its leaders would soon recognize Wyatt’s strong character and leadership potential.

The meatpacking industry is not for the faint of heart. The work of slaughtering and dismembering large animals takes a toll on the human workers too. Upton Sinclair’s famous book The Jungle, written in 1905, exposed the brutal dangers of the work, the unsanitary conditions and the contempt that meatpacking owners had for their own workers. A strike for better wages was crushed in 1904 and  another was crushed in 1921. The big meatpackers used ethnic differences to divide workers. At first it was by nationality and language, but especially after 1921, when a large number of black strikebreakers were hired, the division came by color.  

Slaughter house
Typical early slaughterhouse 
Packing house kids
Children of meatpackers search for food scraps

When the UPWA was born in the 1930’s during the depths of the Depression packinghouse organizers confronted the problem of ethnic and racial division head on. The communists, socialists, IWW members, independent labor militants, New Deal visionaries and class war hardened CIO evangelists had learned a hard lesson. 

“The first accomplishment was the bonding together of different nationalities. They didn’t even speak to one another. At Squires we had the Irish, Italian, Greeks, Portuguese and others. It was through the organizing committee that they were approached They were hesitant at first, because the one didn’t trust the other…There was fear of being discharged to make room for one of the other group.” –William Hosford (UPWA member)

In Chicago, the situation was even more complicated. Ethnic and racial conflict in 1919 had led to a deadly race riot, a civil war instigated by whites between the black and white working class on Chicago’s South Side. Distrust ran deep after the blood that had flowed. During the 1930’s Black Chicago developed a well deserved reputation for social and political militancy in the struggle against white supremacy in the city. The communists were probably the best organized group pushing for multi-racial working class unity. When the UPWA established itself in the Chicago stockyards and huge meatpacking plants, black workers immediately became a dynamic and powerful force within the union. The slogan of the UPWA was “Negro and White, Unite and Fight,” showing how the rivalries among European ethnic groups were fading as they came to see themselves as “white people.” 

Stockyards revolt
Depression Era Chicago stockyards revolt

Much of the pressure on the meatpacking companies came from actions within the workplace using slowdowns, sit-ins and mass rallies. This culture of direct shop floor democracy was carried into the the organization of the union itself, and the UPWA became one of the most democratic unions within the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and the labor movement as a whole. Their democratic tradition was put to the test during the Red Scare of the Cold War that followed World War II. The CIO was torn apart through government repression and internal power struggles about the presence of  communists in the labor movement. The UPWA had communists among its leadership but emerged  with its militant democratic traditions largely intact. 

UPWA mass meeting
UPWA mass meeting

 The leadership of the UPWA knew that freedom is a constant struggle and undertook a unique strategy of encouraging leadership to come from the rank and file workers through labor education classes and regional conferences. Union leaders like the socialist Ralph Helstein and the communist Jesse Prosten were especially concerned about promoting people of color and women within the union. Racial and gender job discrimination in the industry was still a major problem and the owners liked it that way because of the bitterness and strife that it sowed. Discrimination meant division and divisions among the working class could be fatal to the union’s success. 

Addie Wyatt attended one of the conferences in the early 1950’s and described it this way: 

"At this conference we were told that our talents and skills were needed, and the leaders urged women and blacks and Spanish speaking people to become involved. Well this was a good sign to me because nowhere had I seen the picture that I saw at the union meeting, at the union conference — blacks, whites, Spanish speaking people, men and women, young and old meeting together, talking about their common problems. This was a very impressive sight. So I went back after that conference, recommending to the women that we ought to find a woman to run for vice president of our local union."— Interview with Elizabeth Balanoff

UPWA: Unity in diversity
UPWA: Unity in diversity

No one wanted to take such a big step so Wyatt reluctantly agreed to run, sure that she would not win. Not only did she win, but when the president of the local resigned, she moved into the top spot as president. Now with a house full of kids and leadership of  her Altgeld Gardens community group, she was now head of a UPWA local with all of the heavy responsibilities of grievance handling and negotiating. Eighteen months later, she was hired by the UPWA to become a paid union staffer for District 1 which included responsibilities for a 5 state area. 

Addie Wyatt, with her already formidable experience as a woman of faith and solidarity was now a leader in a union which took those values very seriously. The union leadership had faith that with dedicated  organizing, white workers could learn to abandon racism and that men could learn to respect and value their women co-workers. The union leadership believed that solidarity among working class people could bring about long overdue social changes and that the union’s job was not just to fight for better wages and working conditions, but to help build a better world. The union went beyond short term pragmatism and the model of business unionism favored by most of the US labor movement. The UPWA had a a moral vision and they were not afraid to share it.

Packinghouse workers had come a long way since the days of Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle. 

Of course some workers blissfully ignored the union’s brand of social unionism and others were openly hostile. It became one of Addie Wyatt’s jobs to uphold the union’s moral vision in her practical day to day work. She traveled to the predominantly white locals of Southern Illinois under the direction of Charlie Hayes, the first black UPWA midwest district director, and later a member of the US Congress.

In the those days of Jim Crow accommodations,  Wyatt could not always find restaurants or lodgings because of her color. She sometimes ate a dinner of crackers, cookies and lunch meat in her car. But her steadfast work representing the often suspicious and distrustful white workers made a difference. During a long bitter strike she traveled all over the region organizing soup kitchens and Christmas parties for the children. That made a huge difference. Straight forward and respectful, she was also no pushover and her persistence and patience was legendary. The walls of Jim Crow began to crack even in the Dixie-like conditions of Southern Illinois. 

UPWA rank and file meeting
UPWA mobilization meeting

Wyatt was very sensitive to what would some have called the “triple jeopardy,” being black, female and working class:

"I find myself as a black woman oft times fighting on three fronts — the worker's front, the black front and the female front — trying to overcome all of these pressures. And I got a three fold impact of all of these discriminations "isms." Sometimes I think it's much more difficult as a black woman, because we have to carry the burden of all these problems. It isn't always easy for women, and especially for black women, because we have the white male, the white female and the black male all three looking down upon us, and we black women are on the bottom rung.”— from the interview with Elizabeth Balanoff

The UPWA did not confine its anti-discrimination efforts to the workplace. The union was one of the most fervent supporters of the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1956 led by Dr. Martin Luther King and was the only union to take part in founding the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Addie Wyatt was tasked with raising money for the bus boycott from the predominantly white locals in the Midwest. 

 While most unions were content with an anti-discrimination clause, the UPWA was pro-active and assertive, both for the practical necessity of multi-racial unity, but also because of its core moral vision. Although the Chicago locals with their large and militant black membership were a driving force in the union, the UPWA as a whole was majority white and white workers took part in the anti-discrimination efforts. Wyatt was appreciative of white support for the black freedom struggle:


“[W]hen you think in terms of the white people, there are decent white men and women. Had it not been for some of them we never would have broken through and come out of the degradation of slavery that we've come through.”–from the interview with Elizabeth Balanoff 

Wyatt had the honor of meeting Dr. King personally when he came to Chicago to accept the donations that UPWA had collected for the Montgomery struggle. She reports that in private King had a great sense of humor and a relaxed unpretenious manner. He spoke at the 1957 UPWA national conference and Wyatt followed up with more invitations to speak.

Dr. King responded by saying,“Addie, I’m coming because you called me, and I know you wouldn’t be calling me for just anything. You know how busy I am.” Wyatt was later jailed in Selma for her part in the voting rights protests of 1965 where many people were badly beaten and Viola Liuzzo was murdered. She was with Dr. King when he came to Chicago in 1965-66 in his open housing campaign which was met with the contempt of Mayor Richard J. Daley and the rocks of white racist mobs.

 ML King in Chicago
Dr. King on the streets of Chicago

 The UPWA mobilizations around racial discrimination inspired union women to take on gender discrimination. This was during the 1950‘s when feminism was supposedly “dead.” Black women were especially prominent in this effort. Although not as successful in fighting the entrenched sexism in the industry, women were able to make material gains, gain more confidence in their own power, change male attitudes and help to plant the seeds for the feminist revolution that would explode in the 1960’s and 1970’s. 

 Wyatt was one of the leaders of this movement within the UPWA and as in the battle against racial discrimination, she took women’s concerns outside of the workplace and into the larger community. In 1961, President Kennedy, under pressure from women’s groups, created the Commission on the Status of American Women headed up by Eleanor Roosevelt, widow of Franklin Roosevelt. Eleanor Roosevelt asked Wyatt to serve on the Labor Legislation Committee of the Commission. The Commission published a final report, but more importantly, brought women together  and established important connections that eventually led to the founding of the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1966. 

 Wyatt participated in the early meetings of NOW, but  not satisfied that the organization could adequately promote the interests of union women, went on to help found the Coalition of Labor Union Women(CLUW) in 1974. CLUW’s early years were difficult because of major disagreements among union women about how to move forward. Many of the more radical rank and file women objected to the domination by union staff people and officials like Wyatt. Coming out of the women's liberation movement and the rank and file labor revolts of the time, they envisioned something that was (ironically) more like UPWA in its most militant period.

Wyatt’s work in the labor movement had become more difficult as well. Out of the  killing floors of the USA’s meatpacking industry had been born the UPWA, a working class organization for human rights that helped change the face of a nation. Although largely ignored by the history books, the work of Wyatt and the other UPWA activists was vitally important to the black freedom movement and later the women’s movement. 

But by the 1960’s, the meatpacking industry was changing. The big companies were facing new competition as they deployed new technology.  The big plants in Chicago with their largely black workforce, the heart of the UPWA’s progressive base, were shut down. The union became more white, more rural and less numerous. The UPWA’s social mission needed dues money and activists and by 1968 the UPWA was in grave financial difficulty. A series of mergers with the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and the Retail Clerks union brought what remained of the UPWA  into the United Food and Commercial Workers. The old UPWA’s shop floor democracy and vibrant social mission became lost in the shuffle of union politics.  

Then in the 1980’s, an all-out assault on packinghouse workers by the owners resulted in a bitter lost strike in one of the union’s flagship locals in Austin, Minnesota and was accompanied by severe concessions across the industry. Today with a largely immigrant workforce, conditions in some of the USA’s meatpacking plants are scarcely better than what Upton Sinclair described in his 1905 novel The Jungle.

Hormel Strike
Police use teargas in the tragic 1980's Hormel strike in Austin MN

The United Packinghouse Workers of America was a brief and shining moment in American labor history, but it casts a light on where the labor movement stands today. Topdown narrow "pragmatic" business unionism  proved to be a poor defense against the corporate assaults on the working class that began in the late 1970’s. The UPWA social militancy couldn’t do it alone, but maybe they showed the broader labor movement the way to a better future.

Can US unions adopt a  democratic rank and file driven culture to overcome the cruel assaults on the US working class and help make a radical societal transformation? The grassroots working class revolt that began in Wisconsin last year and continued with the emergence of Occupy Wall Street suggest that may be a possibility. 

Addie Wyatt retired from the United Food and Commercial Workers in 1984. She had seen both inspirational victories and heartbreaking defeats, had her personal triumphs and made her personal mistakes, but her faith and solidarity remained unshaken. 

With her husband, she plunged full time into her work with the Vernon Park Church of God, a church with a social as well as a spiritual mission. The corporate assault on the working class had deeply wounded Chicago’s South Side with lost wages and lost jobs, causing mounting social ills. As usual, these wounds were felt most grievously among communities of color. When she and husband retired from the ministry, they then established a community center close to her home. In 2002 she reflected on her life’s work:

"We now have a family life community center where young people and seniors can come and interact with each other, where they can feel wanted, loved, and appreciated, and where they have an opportunity to express their Godgiven talents, and to know their purpose for being here, and to help others. That’s been a great joy which we have shared in the labor movement, in the women’s movement, in the civil rights movement, wherever we go, and I don’t separate them. We don’t, because it’s the total package that God has given us.”— from the interview with Joan McGann Morris

Wyatt had returned to her spiritual roots in Black Chicago, still living a life of faith and solidarity. 

Addie Wyatt

 Addie Wyatt passed away on March 28, 2012.


Sources Consulted

 The Rev. Addie L. Wyatt, 1924-2012 by Ronnie Reese

 Addie L. Wyatt Biography at JRank

 Video Oral History Interview with Addie L. Wyatt by Julieanna Richardson

 Rev. Addie L. Wyatt Interview with Joan Morris

 Addie Wyatt Interview with Elizabeth Balanoff

 UFCW Commemorates Black History Month: Celebrating Our Own by Leilah

 The King Philosophy by the King Center

 Negro and White: Unite and Fight by Roger Horowitz

 Out of the Jungle by Les Orear


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