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April 7, 1984

Drama Details Struggle For Unionization

(From National Catholic News Service)

NEW YORK (NC) – In  this day of government deregulation and business retrenchment, it may  be instructive to consider the shocking history of unfair labor  practices and injurious working conditions that once prevailed in  American industry. Looking back at an era in which workers were afraid  to stand together against exploitation by unscrupulous employers is "The  Killing Floor," a dramatization airing TUESDAY, April 10, 9 p.m. on  ETV.  

The setting is the Chicago stockyards during World War I, a place which  has become the battleground on which union organizers have to struggle  not only against the meat-packing industry but also their fellow  workers.  

Events are seen through the eyes of the rank-and-file, a multilingual  pool of immigrant laborers from Poland, Germany, Ireland and elsewhere,  as well as a growing number of black migrants from the South.

At the center of this labor drama is Frank Custer (Damien Leake), a  black sharecropper who gets a job sweeping the “killing floor” in a  slaughterhouse where the union protects him from an arbitrary foreman.  Soon, he too joins the union and eventually becomes an organizer.  

During the boom years of the war, Frank does well enough to bring his  family to Chicago, where they settle down to life of modest comfort.

The armistice  ending the war, however, undercuts the demand for beef and,  consequently, stockyard workers. The union tries to protect its members,  but because most blacks have refused to join in what they consider a  "white man’s fight," they are feared as potential strikebreakers.

In trying to counter this, Frank has some success. But racial tensions  erupt in the hot summer of 1919 into a race riot that engulfs the entire  city and crushes the union.  

It will not be until the 1930s that the meat-packing industry is finally  organized on the interracial basis of the earlier union.  

In dramatizing this sequence of events, Leslie Lee’s script is based on  historical research into the official sources and reports recording the  activities of these individuals, who later disappear back into  anonymity. This dramatic reconstruction is unusually convincing in  conveying the social history of a past era and the ordinary people who  inhabited it.

Not least among the virtues of this production is its linkage of the  union struggle to that of racial equality. As one of the characters  points out, the cause of labor is weakened whenever ethnic or racial  strife brings dissension among workers

The tragedy of the  Chicago race riot of 1919, which is forcefully rendered through archive  footage and dramatic re-creation, is shown as being used by the  meat-packers to break the union.

"The Killing Floor" measures up to the best of television drama and is better than most.

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