Feb 11, 2011

UFCW Commemorates Black History Month: Celebrating Our Own

When Addie Wyatt went to work at the Armour plant in Chicago in 1941, she applied for a job as a typist. But at the time, Armour didn’t hire black people to work in its front offices. Instead, she was assigned to the canning department, putting lids on army stew. “If you got hired as a white typist,” she explained, “you might make $17 or $18 dollars a week. If you were black with a fair complexion, you might have made about $12. If you were black like me, and got hired at all, you would earn somewhere around $8 or $10 dollars a week.”

But, thanks to the union contract between Armour and United Packinghouse Workers, her contract meant she would earn more working on the packinghouse floor in three days than she would have made in a week working in the front office as a secretary. So she decided to accept the job—even though that wasn’t the position she applied for—and subsequently became an active member of the UPW.

In the early 1950s, Wyatt was elected as vice president of her local union, UPW Local P-56, and was soon elected President. The next year, she left her job at the packinghouse to work full time for the union fighting against discrimination for both women and people of color.

In her efforts to improve contract terms and on behalf of workers, Wyatt said she often found herself fighting on three fronts. “I was a woman, and a black woman at that,” she says, “so I was fighting on behalf of workers, fighting as a black, and fighting as a female.”
Because of their large, activist membership, UPW was able to wield real power at the bargaining table, and they were able to use their power to benefit society. UPW was deeply involved in Chicago’s community-based struggle for racial equality.

In many ways, the UPW was a union ahead of its time when it came to equal rights for black workers and women. It was the policy of UPW to try to eliminate unfair practices like discrimination against black people and women in hiring and wages. Wyatt and her fellow union negotiators were able to get “equal pay for equal work” written into many UPW contracts well before the Equal Pay Act of 1963.

Wyatt became deeply involved with the ministry and civil rights campaign of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and became labor adviser to King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). She was a leading civil rights campaigner in Chicago during the 1960s, serving on the Action Committee of the Chicago Freedom Movement and organizing protests. Wyatt and her husband also worked with Rev. Jesse Jackson in helping to found Operation Breadbasket, which distributed food to underprivileged people in 12 American cities, in 1962. Wyatt later became involved in its successor, P.U.S.H. (People United to Serve Humanity).

Wyatt was a founding member of the Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW), the first woman International Vice President of Amalgamated Meat Cutters, and went on to be the first woman of color to serve on the board of the UFCW after its formation in 1979. She is also a recipient of the UFCW’s Women’s Network’s Trailblazer Lifetime Achievement Award.

UFCW is proud to call Addie Wyatt - an inspiring, pioneering union activist - one of our own.

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