Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 15, 2020

The Killing Floor

Filed under: african-american,Black Lives Matter,Film,trade unions — louisproyect @ 6:42 pm

Now showing as part of Film Forum’s pandemic-induced virtual cinema program, “The Killing Floor” is a striking illustration of the need to synthesize class and race. Based on the experience of trying to build a trade union in Chicago’s stockyards during WWI, it is an object lesson on the need to abandon “white privilege”.

“The Killing Floor” was a 1984 TV movie directed by Bill Duke that I had heard about over the years but never seen. Not without its limitations, it belongs alongside “Salt of the Earth” and “Matewan” as truly engaged, working-class cinema. The teleplay was written by Leslie Lee, an African-American playwright who worked with the Negro Ensemble Company, and is based on a story by Elsa Rassbach. Rassbach lives and works in Berlin, where she heads the “GIs & US Bases” project for the German affiliate of the War Resisters International. She is also active in Code Pink, No to NATO, and the anti-drone campaign in Germany.

Duke, an African-American, is probably best known to most people as a hulking, action film actor who was part of the team Arnold Schwarzenegger led in “Predator”. He has also directed blaxploitation films like “A Rage in Harlem” and, unfortunately, directed his black cast members in “The Killing Floor” to use the exaggerated rhetorical style of such films. That directorial misstep and the inability of the film to represent the large-scale violence that took place in 1919 between whites and blacks due to budget constraints are its only drawbacks. However, if you are looking for an accurate and thought-provoking dramatization of the class/race contradictions that must be overcome in order to make a revolution in the USA, no other film comes close.

Nearly all of the characters in “The Killing Floor” are drawn from history, including the lead Frank Custer (Damien Leake), a black man from Mississippi who “freighthops” a boxcar to Chicago with his best friend Thomas Joshua (Ernest Rayford) in search of work.

Jobs were plentiful in the stockyards since so many able-bodied men had enlisted in the army. Like other blacks fleeing the misery of sharecropping, Frank and Thomas head directly to the YMCA on Chicago’s south side, the home of recently transplanted blacks. There they are told that they should go directly to the stockyards the next morning and expect to be hired on the spot. The YMCA’s role in funneling black men into the stockyards is just one of the many historically accurate details of the film.

Frank learned that a job in the stockyards paid well ($1.50 a day!) but in the most miserable conditions possible. With his experience slaughtering hogs on the farm back home, he was a natural for butchering cattle on the killing floor. However, he could not start right away since he didn’t have the knife necessary for the job. It took him days to put the money together. Unlike Frank, Thomas had neither the stomach for slaughtering cattle nor the willingness to put up with white worker racism. The Irish and eastern European immigrants who preceded them were spat upon in the old country. Now, in the U.S.A., they took every opportunity to spit upon those in a lower caste. Thomas, a “new Negro” who would not put up with such indignities, joins the army to leave all that behind.

Not all of the whites are racist. Some, like trade union organizer John Fitzpatrick (James O’Reilly), believe in black-white unity and bend every effort toward getting someone like Frank Custer to join the union. Like most of the newly arrived blacks, Frank is skeptical but eventually sees the wisdom of working-class unity and strength. My friend and fellow CounterPunch contributor Paul Street wrote about the role of people like Frank Custer in his 1996 Journal of Social History article “The Logic and Limits of ‘Plant Loyalty’: Black Workers, White Labor, and Corporate Racial Paternalism in Chicago’s Stockyards, 1916-1940” (the SYLC referred to below was the Stockyard Labor Council):

“Northern” Black workers joined unions in roughly the same proportion as white workers. Ninety percent signed up by early 1918. Barrett notes that they “created the type of institutions commonly associated with stable working-class communities-unions, cooperatives, fraternal groups, and an independent political organization [the Colored Club of the Cook County Labor Party].” They provided a “nucleus of Black union activity, serving on [SYLC] floor committees and recruiting for the SYLC.” Within that nucleus were such individuals as Robert Bedford and Frank Custer, both long-service packinghouse workers and elective SYLC floor committeemen on the Wilson plant’s cattle-killing floor. While they possessed a strong consciousness of race, Bedford, Custer, and other Black SYLC militants braved the scorn of anti-union Blacks (one of whom called them “a lot of white folks’ niggers”) to advocate labor unity “irrespective of race, creed, color, nationality or sex.” Their struggle reminds us that there were individuals within the Black working class striving for industrial unionism prior to the 1930s. It also suggests that Black workers’ race consciousness was not completely or inherently opposed to working-class solidarity.

Inside the plant, Moses Gunn plays Heavy Williams, a black worker deeply hostile to the union. When Thomas returns from Europe, he is forced to work in the stockyards and just as resentful of white racists as he was when he left. He takes Williams’s side against the union. No matter how often Frank tries to sell Thomas on the need for class unity, he sees few differences between white workers and their white boss.

Paul Street attributes this distrust to real factors that had to be overcome before a strong and lasting union could be built.

Black workers’ “loyalty” to the packers, then, was no simple, undiluted expression of docile Black paternalization. It was mediated by a proud “race consciousness” and by a realistic calculation of Black self-interest. It reflected both t core, self-active Black impulses behind the Great Migration and the influence a race-conscious Black middle-class leadership. It was offered because the packers (for all their racism) were especially favorable to Black workers, because labor movement and the working-class community in and around the stockyard were tinged by racism, because stockyards employment was a ticket to the relative racial freedoms of the North and (though this is the most difficult to gauge because of the dream of an independent Black metropolis built on wages earned in white-owned industries. It was contingent, and therefore reversible when if—as occurred during the 1930s—employers came to be seen as working against “the race,” northern opportunities waned, and a new unionism could emerge meet “the race’s” needs.

Once WWI came to an end, the veterans entered the job market once again and crowded out the blacks in a pattern aptly described as “last to be hired, first to be fired.” There had always been tensions between whites and blacks but as long as everybody had a job, they could be contained. With the post-WWI slump, class peace came to an end.

In the summer of 1919, the so-called Red Summer (named after blood, rather than communism) came to Chicago. That year and for a few years later, blacks were set upon by racist whites across the country, with the most devastating results in Tulsa, Oklahoma where Trump will visit soon in an obvious salute to white riots (good, rather than the bad black riots.) What makes Chicago exceptional was the willingness of returned black veterans like Thomas Joshua to use weapons in self-defense.

While the willingness of Chicago’s black community to defend itself against white pogroms was encouraging, it had the result of destroying any possibility of building a strong union. In the 1992 International Review of Social History, Rick Halpern deals with this sad failure to integrate race and class in an article titled  Race, Ethnicity, and Union in the Chicago Stockyards, 1917–1922”. He writes:

The most important force working to preserve order was the Stockyards Labor Council. Union leaders recognized how much was at stake. In a plea entitled “For White Men to Read”, the New Majority implored union members to use their influence in the community to shield blacks from the frenzy of race prejudice. Portraying the riot as their movement’s “acid test”, the article explained that a critical juncture had been reached: “Right now it is going to be decided whether the colored workers are to continue to come into the labor movement or whether they are going to feel that they have been abandoned by it and lose confidence in it.” This crucial question remained unresolved during the troubled days of early August. Anxious to preserve their strained ties with the black workforce, the SLC took the bold step of holding mass interracial meetings. Later, when it became impossible for blacks to reach the Yards safely, the Council organized relief for them and other victimized families.

These efforts proved insufficient. A week after the start of the riot, a new crisis arose which widened the gulf between black and white packinghouse workers. On 2 August, arsonists torched forty-nine homes in a Lithuanian’ enclave in Back-of-the-Yards. Although blame later was fixed upon the Irish gangs, rumors that revenge-seeking blacks committed the deed gained quick currency. While some spokesmen pointed out the absurd improbability of blacks sneaking undetected into the area, the moderation that prevailed in the neighborhood evaporated and was replaced with hatred and malice.

As it happens, the Irish gangs behind the raids were known as Rogan’s Colts, an “athletic club” sponsored by Democratic alderman Frank Rogan. Like the Irish race riots against the draft during the Civil War, the Democrats often show their true color: white.

Never that keen on white support during the best of times, black stockyard workers crossed the picket line and stayed on the job during these confrontations. The film ends with Frank Custer joining them in the plant with his union button concealed. In the locker room, he begins recruiting to the union once again—thus ending on a positive if not exactly convincing note.

In an interview with Time Out last year, Elsa Rassbach tells why she got interested in writing about a trade union struggle that took place a century ago but one that seems like it was torn off today’s front pages:

Though my family was neither left-wing nor union, I’ve been drawn to the struggle for social justice ever since high school, when we engaged in sit-ins at Woolworth’s in my hometown, Denver, in protest against the firm’s segregationist policies in the South. Following college in the U.S., I studied at the film academy in West Berlin, where people scoffed at the saying that “messages are for Western Union” and honored the work of politically committed artists like Berthold Brecht. My first short films were on feminist themes, but I soon developed a passionate interest in untold stories of history. I returned to the U.S. in 1972 and began reading more and more about the fascinating history of working people, who have played such an important role in our history, for which they have never been recognized. I found it astounding that I had never learned about these stories in school or college. Meanwhile I had been hired at the public television station in Boston, WGBH, to work on the first seasons of the NOVA series, and I received support from the National Endowment for the Humanities to develop a public television series on the history of the American labor movement. In William Tuttle’s book about the Chicago Race Riot I happened upon a footnote in which I discovered the two main characters in The Killing Floor: Frank Custer and Heavy Williams. These two black men, who both worked on the killing floor of a Chicago slaughterhouse, were testifying before a white federal judge, and the two were entirely at odds with each other in how they viewed the causes of the mounting racism from which they were both suffering. I was drawn to the complexity—the race riot was of course not just about black people vs. white people. So I ordered from the National Archives the entire transcript of the hearing in which the two testified. All of the characters who work on “the killing floor” in our film, both black and white, leapt out of the thousands of pages of testimony by a group of workers at the Wilson Meatpacking Company in June of 1919. I knew immediately that a film about them had to be made. I felt that the film needed not only to be dramatically compelling but also to be as accurate as possible—people should know this really happened. In the film the names of the main characters have remained the same as in the original testimony. And I founded a nonprofit production company to tell this story.

 

 

1 Comment »

  1. Thanks for this very interesting review!
    Synopsis, trailer, reviews, photos and cinemas that are streaming the film are here: https://www.filmmovement.com/the-killing-floor

    Register for the Q&A with director Bill Duke and co-writer & producer Elsa Rassbach at 7pm EST on Fri. June 26th here: https://www.facebook.com/events/307249380433819/ or here: https://tinyurl.com/y8d4ycxq

    Comment by elsarassbach — June 26, 2020 @ 1:17 am


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