Lessons of The Killing Floor

I saw a great movie Friday night – a remastered version of the 1984 movie, The Killing Floor, which is about the fight of slaughterhouse workers in Chicago in the 1910s to establish a union and how they were divided and defeated by racial conflict.

It is a reminder of a history we Americans shouldn’t forget and carries lessons for labor and social justice struggles today.

All the characters are based on real people, who supposedly did approximately the same things that the movie shows.

The viewpoint character is Frank Custer, an illiterate sharecropper from Mississippi, who at first is grateful just to find work and doesn’t want to get involved in what he sees as a conflict between white people.

But when Bill Bremer, a German-American union leader, sticks up for him, Custer begins to realize that people of a different race and heritage are not necessarily his enemies.

The union local reflects the culture of the immigrants from central and eastern Europe who make up the majority of its members.  Speeches by union leaders are translated into Polish, and union meetings are following by polka dances.

The white ethnic leaders welcome Custer into their midst, and rely on him and a handful of other black organizers to bring African-American workers into the union.  He becomes a respected member of the leadership.

This was a huge, huge thing for white people to do in the 1910s, when extreme racism was the norm not only in the United States, but throughout the Western world.

But the white leaders do not do what Custer did—get out of their comfort zone and make contact with people who are culturally different from themselves.

Instead they depend on him to represent the union to the black workers, and to represent black workers to the union leadership.  In the end, this proves to be too much to expect.

Custer’s best friend meanwhile goes off to serve in World War One, and comes home to scorn any idea of alliance with white people.  He trusts only his fists and his revolver.

Another black worker, Heavy Williams, resents Custer for the power and prestige he has gained by allying himself with white people.  He helps to sabotage the union’s fragile racial amity.

Following the end of World War One, the United States was torn with race riots—not race riots like today, which consist of black people going on rampages, mainly through their own neighborhoods.

The race riots of the “red summer” of 1919 consisted of armed white gangs shooting up black neighborhoods and wrecking property, while police looked the other way.

A race riot in Chicago was touched off by the stoning to death of a black man for trespassing on a white beach area.  White gangs in blackface set fire to Polish and Lithuanian homes.  Black Chicago neighborhoods are terrorized.

The meat packers used the end of wartime prosperity and the need to create jobs for returning veterans as an excuse to lay off union workers.  Many white union members saw African-Americans as a threat to their jobs.  Many African-Americans saw working as strikebreakers as the only way to get jobs.

The union was defeated temporarily, but gained recognition and a contract in the 1930s.

This movie contains a lot of questions and lessons for today.  One of them is the difficult position of black leaders in majority-white organizations and institutions—how they are chosen as “leaders,” and what kinds of expectations are imposed on them.

The Killing Floor was well-acted and includes many actors who later became famous.  The producers also did a good job of creating the look and feel of Chicago of a century ago.

The movie’s only shortcoming I can see is that conditions on the killing floor, the part of the factory where the animals were slaughtered and dismembered, must have been much worse than the movie was able to portray.  Short of slaughtering real animals, I don’t see how the producers could have got around this.


The Killing Fields was part of the annual Labor Film series at the Dryden Theater in Rochester, N.Y.  For this years complete schedule, click on 2019 Labor Film series.

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One Response to “Lessons of The Killing Floor”

  1. silverapplequeen Says:

    When Black people riot & go on what you call “rampages, mainly through their own neighborhoods”, they’re not wrecking their own homes or businesses … they’re wrecking CORPORATE businesses that have no roots in the hood, no love for the hood, no real care for the people who live there at all … often they don’t even employ the people who live there, preferring to hire people from outside of the neighborhood. Only someone from outside of the hood would say something like that. (yeah, I’m white but I lived in the hood for many years). I’m not condoning that kind of behavior … I’m just saying, take a closer look at it & see it for what it is … an attack on neoliberal corporatism.


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