When Charlie Hayes left the UFCW in 1983 to take his seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, he left the union, and the entire labor movement, exponentially richer and far more just than the day he began organizing at his hardwood flooring plant in Cairo, Ill., some 50 years before.
By the time he was in his twenties, Charlie Hayes was organizing his brothers and sisters and leading them as president of Local 1424 of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners. Luckily for the UFCW, Hayes took his organizing savvy to Chicago’s South Side in the 1940s, where he organized meatpacking workers as part of the United Packinghouse Workers Association, and was a key figure in desegregating the plants and securing equal pay for black workers.
Hayes played a leading role in the historic Packinghouse Workers strike of 1949, and by 1954 had been elected to the executive board of the UPWA. But his work in Chicago extended beyond his local union hall. In the 1960s, he organized and served as the chairman of the Black Labor Leaders of Chicago, a group that worked to provide union training programs for black workers.
Hayes was an early mentor of the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, and a long-time ally of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He rallied support for Dr. King in the 1965 Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott, the 1963 March on Washington, and the 1966 campaign for open housing in Chicago.
Hayes’s comprehensive approach to social justice was one of his hallmarks: “I have tried to be concerned with the total welfare of our members – not only in the shops and plants – but from the standpoint of their social, political and cultural lives as well. This means, wherever they live – or would like to live.”
Hayes was one of the founders of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, formed in 1972, and key a figure in the establishment of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, now called the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, which coordinates collective activities of civil rights, labor, and religious groups.
In 1968, when the UPWA merged with the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen of North America, Hayes became an International Vice President and the director of Region 12, which included Michigan, Indiana, downstate Illinois, and parts of Chicago. He served an an IVP until 1983, when he took his seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he represented Illinois’s first district for nearly a decade. He was the first labor leader to represent the district and he felt strongly that it was “important for trade unionists to have an opportunity to go into the halls of Congress.”
As the then-mayor of Chicago, Harold Washington, put it, Charlie Hayes showed “unparalleled leadership and ability to unite blacks, whites, and Hispanics into organized coalitions fighting for economic, political, and social justice.” The UFCW is proud to call this legend one of our own.