New York, NY – Upton Sinclair, author of The Jungle, said that his 1906 novel of workers’ lives in the Chicago stockyards had “aimed for the public’s heart, and by accident hit it in the stomach”—in other words, that readers were less appalled by reading about a father who lost an arm on the job than by the possibility that some of his flesh had wound up in their sausage.
Elsa Rassbach and Bill Duke’s 1984 film The Killing Floor, recently reissued by Film Movement, tried to rectify that, compellingly dramatizing the Chicago Federation of Labor’s unsuccessful struggle to unionize the meat packinghouses during and just after World War I. With production aided by a dozen-odd Chicago unions, it recreates a world of meat axes splitting cattle carcasses, floridly mustachioed union leaders, a genteel storefront where a woman writes letters for the less literate, Polish women in babushkas dancing to accordions, and South Side rooming houses where the sound of jazz trumpets supplanted the howl of Southern hound dogs.
Its protagonist is Frank Custer (Damien Leake), an ambitious, boyish-looking migrant from Mississippi, one of the thousands of black Southerners who came to Chicago when the war opened up jobs in the stockyards. He gets a job sweeping blood into floor drains with a large broom for 21 cents an hour. Seeking to bring his wife and three kids up north, he wants to become a butcher—a skilled job reserved for whites, while black workers got stuck on the killing floor and in the subbasement room where the hides were pulled off.
The union wants to change that, demanding a raise, an eight-hour day, overtime, and equal access to jobs, but even in the best of circumstances they’d have a hard job bringing together just-off-the-boat Eastern European immigrants and just-off-the-train black migrants. (Meetings are conducted in English and Polish.) This is Chicago, a city of virulent racial tension. The Packinghouse Workers Council union had only recently integrated, and some of the black workers—most notably Austin “Heavy” Williams (Moses Gunn)—had come into the plant as scabs during an unsuccessful strike 15 years before. The big five packinghouse companies were happy to exploit the divisions between the whites who felt the blacks were scabs taking their jobs and the blacks who felt that the union was a white man’s thing and the bosses were generously paying them way more than they got as sharecroppers and farmhands in the South.
During the war, the union wins a court decision granting them raises in the name of labor peace—but not a contract, and when the war ends, the layoffs come, with workers pushing and shouting for the bosses’ favors during the morning shapeups. Then, in July 1919, a black teenager who’d floated across the color line on a Lake Michigan beach drowned after whites pelted him with rocks, setting off a week of race war in which at least 38 people (23 black, 15 white) were murdered.
The Killing Floor suffers one flaw common in films based on real-life events: The dialogue often functions more as plot exposition than character development. For example, as the 1919 riot leaves Frank Custer whipsawed between the hostility of the white union members and the anti-union black workers, he could have expounded on his dilemmas in late-night talks with his wife, Mattie (a young Alfre Woodard), but he instead tells her to leave him alone. That might be in character, but it’s not a good way to reveal it.
Still, The Killing Floor has the courage not to follow the cliché of one heroic individual triumphing over adversity over all odds. It’s a movie about what we’re up against, not something comfortingly resolved to a soundtrack of uplifting music.
The Chicago stockyards weren’t successfully organized until the CIO’s campaign in the late 1930s, with the United Packinghouse Workers of America recognized in 1943. But the city’s Union Stockyard closed in 1971, and by the 1980s, meatpacking companies were relocating to smaller cities and rural areas such as Austin, Minnesota, where the defeat of a 1985-86 strike by a United Food and Commercial Workers local was one of labor’s landmark losses in the Reagan era. One hundred years after the events depicted in The Killing Floor, America’s meatpacking workers are once again primarily immigrants, often undocumented, with the risk of catching coronavirus on the job added to those of repetitive-strain injury and deportation.