The Indomitable Rev. Addie L. WyattHistorians in the News
tags: African American history, labor history, womens history, Meatpacking
When she reported to work for her first day at Armour and Company’s meatpacking plant in 1941, Addie L. Wyatt was not planning on becoming a labor activist. She didn’t even really want to be a butcher, but after spending weeks applying for work as a typist and being rejected each time, the young Southern transplant was growing desperate. The meatpacking workers at Armour’s sprawling Chicago facility had a union, the United Packinghouse Workers of America (UPWA), and drew a good wage; Wyatt had a family to support, so despite her lack of butchering experience, the five-foot tall, 100-pound 17-year-old decided to give it a shot. An exasperated foreman tossed her off the line, but as she was leaving, Wyatt noticed a group of white women waiting to apply for clerical positions. She slipped in and took the typing test with them, passing easily thanks to skills she’d acquired in a high school typing course. Those who had passed were told to report to work on Monday, but when Wyatt showed up, she was instead directed to the factory floor, and told to join the other Black women canning stew. At Armour—and in so many other places then—Black women were not welcome in the front office.
What happened to Wyatt that day was not unique, or even unexpected. During the 1940s, Black women across the country were forced to endure these kinds of humiliations just to earn a living. This phenomenon was not new then, and it is not new now, when Black women still make on average 63 cents to the white man’s dollar and continue to face racism, discrimination, and misogynoir (as well as classism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, and various other forms of oppression) on the job, in the courts, and throughout society. Wyatt’s politics and identity as a Black Christian feminist trade unionist drove her to push back against an unfair system, and she fought even harder because she had come up against it herself. If today’s union leaders can be criticized as too meek, too comfortable, too conservative, and too quiet on pressing social and racial justice issues, they need only to look back at trailblazers like Addie L. Wyatt. She was a poor Black woman born into the Jim Crow South who harnessed the power of solidarity, collective action, faith, and sheer grit to change the course of history. Every union should know her name, and every union leader should aspire to the example she set.
That incident at Armour had set off a series of events that saw a furious and determined young Wyatt channel her indignation and hurt into action. After she’d been shunted off to the canning department, she stayed at Armour because she needed the money; the pay for canning stew was 62 cents an hour. As she later told interviewer Joan McGann Morris, “If you were black like me and got hired at all, you might have earned something like $8 a week. Of course, $24 a week was more money than I had ever seen in my life.” Wyatt discovered that the UPWA not only did not discriminate against women or Black workers but had in fact put significant effort into becoming a model of militant, multiracial solidarity. (The UPWA required each of its union locals to have an antidiscrimination department, which must have been a relief for Wyatt to see after the rude welcome she’d been given by her racist employers.) She joined the union in 1941, and almost immediately began seeing the benefits of her decision. When Armour tried to fire her and hire a white woman in her place, the UPWA used its seniority clause to protect her job. When she became pregnant with her second child, Wyatt again feared she would be fired, but thanks to concessions bargained in the UPWA contract by union women before her, Wyatt found she was actually eligible for up to one year of parental leave.
Through her involvement with the union, Wyatt saw how rank-and-file unionized workers could improve their material conditions and build power in the workplace by coming together. By 1953, she had risen through the ranks to become the first Black woman to hold the office of vice president for Chicago’s UPWA Local 56. She was elected president soon afterward, representing workers across a five-state region. “Racism and sexism is an economic issue,” she later reflected. “It was very profitable to discriminate against women and against people of color. I began to understand that change could come but you could not do it alone. You had to unite with others. That was one of the reasons I became a part of the union. It was a sort of family that would help in the struggle.”
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