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In November, we remember: Vicky Starr

Vicky Starr (right) in “Union Maids.”

Staughton Lynd remembers a working class organizer, Vicky Starr.

When my wife Alice and I interviewed Vicky Starr in 1969 and 1971 for a collection of oral histories called Rank and File, Vicky called herself "Stella Nowicki" because she didn't want her employer at the time (the University of Chicago) to know about her radical activities in the 1930s. When we interviewed her again for a second collection more than a quarter century later, she had retired and had no problem in using her real name.

Vicky Starr was the child of Eastern European immigrants. She grew up on a farm in Michigan. "We had no electricity. We had outdoor privies." Vicky ran away from home at age seventeen because "there was not enough money to feed the family during the Depression."

Vicky's father had been a coal miner and had "bought a few books about Lenin and Gorky." She recalled that when Sacco and Vanzetti were executed "the foreign-born people were in mourning for a week." The family practiced what Vicky's father described as a socialist idea, "No work, no eat."

Agnes, a woman from Chicago, had come to the farm for her health. Agnes invited Vicky to go back to Chicago with her. Vicky at first lived with Agnes' family and through them met a member of the Young Communist League named Herb March.

Vicky did housework for $4 a week and hated it. Herb March suggested she get a job in the stockyards.

Vicky began in the "cook room" where women cut big chunks of meat into smaller pieces to make hash. She worked six-hour shifts at 37 1/2 cents an hour.

On the floor below women made hotdogs and one day a woman got her fingers caught in putting meat into the chopper. The fingers were cut off. All six floors stopped work and sat down. The company put in safety devices. But Vicky was identified as a leader and fired.

A friend was recalled to the stockyards but had another job and didn't want to go. Using the friend's name, Vicky got back in.

Communist leader William Z. Foster and other full-time organizers passed through Chicago and held meetings. Leaflets were written. Students from the University of Chicago, who couldn't be fired, passed them out at the gate before work. The International Workers Order, which helped people with sickness benefits and insurance, gave union organizers access to large numbers of potential sympathizers. Vicky joined the Catholic Sodality and the Young Womens' Christian Association.

At work, the women with whom Vicky worked practiced solidarity by restricting output within agreed-on limits. But they didn't want to pay union dues. Again it was health and safety that opened a door. One of the women became paralyzed because of the intermittent freezing air to which the line was exposed, and died. "Within a week we organized that whole department."

Women often did harder work than the men and were paid less. Within the union, staff jobs went only to men. "I would be approached by men for dates and they would ask me why I was in the union, so I would tell them that I was for socialism." Vicky learned to play pool and bowl, and got men into the union that way.

In 1938, 1939, 1940 the Packinghouse Workers didn't yet have bargaining rights. There was "tremendous ferment." Vicky recalled:

"You had this sense that people were ready to get together, to protect each other... It did happen that people were fired but when people were fired the whole department just closed down."

By the 1940s the union would bring a sound truck and thousands of people would show up for meetings in the middle of the stockyards at noontime. "The union leadership would be negotiating within a particular plant on a grievance [and if] the matter wasn't settled by a certain time, the whole department would walk out."

In 1945, with the union recognized and the war over, Vicky left packing. She married a linotypist for the Chicago Tribune and had three children. About 1950 she went back to work as a secretary at the University of Chicago.

The NLRB decided that the "appropriate bargaining unit" was clerical workers throughout the whole university. There were 1800 of them. More than eighteen buildings had to be organized.

After other unions tried and failed, the Teamsters launched a campaign. Vicky had no use for the local union president who made $200,000 a year. But twenty-one stewards were elected by secret ballot before the NLRB election and Vicky, by that time working for the Department of Education, was one of them. Eighteen of the new stewards were women.

As in the stockyards, grievances were pursued and won before union recognition. And after union recognition "the stewards became the bargaining committee."

Vicky worked for another ten years after the union was recognized. She remembered going to the university hospital for medical reasons after she retired. Gregarious as always, she got into conversation with the secretaries. She said, "We helped to organize the union," And they said, "Thank you, thank you, thank you."

Vicky introduced us to two friends and fellow spirits, Katherine Hyndman and Sylvia Woods, and the three became the protagonists of the documentary movie, "Union Maids." Sylvia, an African American, helped to organize a UAW local at Bendix during World War II. Memorably, she stated in her interview in Rank and File:

"We never had [dues] check-off. We didn't want it. We said if you have a closed shop and check-off, everybody sits on their butts and they don't have to worry about organizing and they don't care what happens. We never wanted it."

In these later years Vicky Starr also separated from her husband and became an ardent proponent of womens' liberation.

Vicky says at the end of "Union Maids":

"There's some tremendous potential in people, in labor people, in working people, and in union people... They are very democratic... There's a tremendous militancy that's below the surface and that will rise and come up."

Vicky Starr died in November 2009. Vicky Starr, presente.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (November 2010)