"Back of the Yards"
Starr ("Stella Nowicki")
Starr ("Stella Nowicki"), "Back of the Yards"
ran away from home at age 17. I had to because there was not enough
money to feed the family in 1933 during the Depression....
was not really introduced to socialism until I came to Chicago and
the Marches began telling me about it. I lived with them at 59th and
Ashland. They lived on the second floor and on the third floor they
had bedrooms and an attic room. Anyone who didn't have some place to
live could always find room there. It was near the streetcar
intersection and when there were meetings blacks could come. (This
was a real problem at that time.) The Marches would have meetings of
the YCL [Young Communist League] in the attic and they'd ask me to
sit in. The terminology was like a foreign language. I thought that I
better join this outfit so that I would know what they were talking
pointed out things to me that, in my very unsophisticated and
farmlike way, I saw. There was so much food being dumped—the
government bought it up—and people were hungry and didn't have
enough to eat. (There were days when I didn't have anything to eat.
That's when I picked up smoking. Somebody said, "Here, smoke.
It'll kill your appetite." And it did.) I realized that there
was this tremendous disparity. The people in our YCL group told me
that the government was set up to keep it this way. They thought chat
instead of just thinking about ourselves we should be thinking about
other people and try to get them together in a union and organize and
then maybe we would have socialism where there would not be hunger,
war, etc. They initiated me into a lot of political ideas and gave me
material to read. We had classes and we would discuss industrial
unionism, the craft unions and the history of the labor movement in
this country. We talked about Debs, we talked about the eight hour
day, many things.
was doing housework for $4 a week and I hated it. I would cry and
cry. I was horribly homesick because I hated the restraint of being
in a house all the rime. I was used to being out a lot on the farm.
So Herb suggested that I get a job in the stockyards.
was working at Armour's at the time. He bought me a steel, with which
one sharpens a knife, and I took it with me. He took me down to the
stock yards and I said, "Those beautiful cows! They can't kill
those beautiful cows!" At home we just had cows for milking. But
here were all these cows and they were going to be killed and they
were crying, mooing, as they were going to be killed. But one had to
get a job!
of the ways to get a job was to go down to the employment office.
Every morning you got there by six or six-thirty. There were just so
many benches and they would all be filled early. They would only need
one, maybe two people. This woman, Mrs. McCann, women's hiring
director, would look around for the biggest and brawniest person. At
seventeen I weighed 157 pounds coming from the farm, rosy-cheeked and
strong. "Have you had experience?" I said, "Well not
in the stock yards but we used to butcher our own hogs at home."
I carried this big steel and that impressed her. Mrs. McCann hired
was in the cook room. At that time the government bought up drought
cattle and they were killed, canned, and given to people on relief to
eat. The meat would be cut into big hunks and steamed. Then it would
come on a rail and be dumped out on the table. The women would be all
around the table and we would cut the meat up, remove the gristle and
bad parts, and make hash out of it. The government inspector would
come around to see that bad meat wasn't being thrown into the hash.
But as soon as his back would be turned, the foreman would push this
stuff right down the chute to go into the cans—all this stuff
we had put aside to be thrown away he would push right down in,
including gloves, cockroaches, anything. The company didn't give a
meat would be so hot and steamy your fingers almost blistered but you
just stayed on. In 1933—34 we worked six hour shifts at 37 1/2
cents an hour. We would have to work at a high rate of speed. It was
summer. It would be so hot that women used to pass out. The ladies'
room was on the floor below and I would help carry these women down
almost vertical stairs into the washroom.
started talking union. The thing that precipitated it is that on the
floor below they used to make hotdogs and one of the women, in
putting the meat into the chopper, got her fingers caught. There were
no safety guards. Her fingers got into the hotdogs and they were
chopped off. It was just horrible.
of us "colonizers" had a meeting during our break and
decided this was the time to have a stoppage and we did.... All six
floors went on strike. We said, "Sit, stop." And we had a
sit-down. We just stopped working right inside the building,
protesting the speed and the unsafe conditions. We thought that
people's fingers shouldn't go into the machine, that it was an
outrage. The women got interested in the union.
got the company to put in safety devices. Soon after the work
stoppage the supervisors were looking for the leaders because people
were talking up the action. They found out who was involved and we
were all fired. I was blacklisted.
got a job doing housework again and it was just horrible. Here I was
taking care of this family with a little spoiled brat and I had to
pick up after them—only Thursday afternoon off and every other
Sunday—and all for four dollars a week of which I sent two
dollars home. I just couldn't stand it. I would rather go back and
work in a factory, any day or night.
friend of mine who had been laid off told me that she got called to
go back to work. Meanwhile she had a job in an office and she didn't
want to go back to the stockyards, so she asked me if I wanted to go
in her place. She had used the name Helen Ellis. I went down to the
stockyards and it was the same department, exactly the same job on
the same floor where I had been fired. But it was the afternoon and
Mrs. McCann wasn't there. Her assistant was there. Her assistant
said, "Can you do this work?" I said, "Oh yes, I can.
I've done it." She told me that I would start work the following
came home and talked with Herb and Jane [March]. We decided that I
would have to go to the beauty shop. I got my hair cut really short
and hennaed. I thinned my eyebrows and penciled them, wore a lot of
lipstick and painted my nails. Because I hadn't been working, I had a
sun tan. I wore sandals and I had my toenails painted, which I would
never have done before. I came in looking sharp and not like a
country girl, so I passed right through and I was hired as Helen
Ellis on the same job, the same forelady!
several days the forelady, Mary, who was also Polish, came around and
said, "OK, Helen, I know you're Stella. I won't say anything but
just keep quiet" if I wanted to keep the job. I answered her in
Polish that I knew that the job wouldn't last long and I thanked her.
She knew I was pro-union and I guess she was too, so I kept the job
as Helen Ellis until I got laid off. (Later on I was blacklisted
under the name Ellis.) ...
you even calked union you were fired. Jobs were at a premium. You
didn't have the law which guaranteed people the right to organize. So
we actually had secret meetings. Everybody had to vouch for anyone
that they brought to the meeting, that they were people that we could
crust, because as soon as the company found out that people were
trying to organize, they would try to send, in stool pigeons. They
paid people to come in and try to get information....
I look back now, I really chink we had a lot of guts. But I didn't
even stop to chink about it at the time. It was something that had to
be done. We had a goal. That's what we felt had to be done and we did
got into sending people all over to different groups and into
different shops so chat when union organization picked up we would
have people everywhere....
had an awfully cough time in the union because the men brought their
prejudices there. The fellows couldn't believe that women in the
union were there for the unions sake. They thought that they were
there to get a guy or something else. Some thought chat we were
frivolous. I would be approached by men for dates and they would ask
me why I was in the union, so I would cell them that I was for
socialism and I thought that this was the only way of bringing it
about. Some of my brothers, who believed in equality and that women
should have rights, didn't crank the mimeograph, didn't type. I did
the shit work, until all hours, as did the few other women who didn't
have family obligations. And then when the union came around giving
out jobs with pay, the guys got them. I and the other women didn't.
It was the men who got the organizing jobs. Men who worked in plants
got paid for their rime loss—women didn't. I never did. But we
were a dedicated group. We worked in coolers and from there I would
go to the union hall and get out leaflets, write material for shop
papers, turn in dues, etc., get home and make supper, get back. These
guys had wives to do this but there was nobody to do mine. Sometimes
I'd be up until eleven, twelve, or one o'clock and then have to get
up early and be punched in by quarter to seven and be working on the
job by seven....
organized women's groups, young women's groups. They liked to dance
and I loved to dance so we went dancing together and I talked to them
about the union. The women were interested after a while when they
saw that the union could actually win things for them, bread and
on, during the war, there was one department where I got the women
but couldn't get the guys in. They hung out in the tavern and so I
went there and started talking with them. I didn't like beer, but I'd
drink ginger ale and told them to show me how to play pool. I learned
to play pool and I got the men into the union. I did what they did. I
went into the taverns. I became a bowler and I joined the league. The
only thing I didn't do is rejoin the Catholic Church....
you are an honest leader, recognized and supported by the workers,
you could raise and talk about issues. You couldn't talk about
socialism and what it meant in an abstract sense. You had to talk
about it in terms of what it would mean for that person. We learned
that you can't manipulate people but that you really had to be
concerned with the interests and needs of the people. However, you
also had to have a platform—a projection of where you were
certain times we felt that the union wasn't enough. We worked in the
stockyards with blacks but when we came home, we went to lily-white
neighborhoods and the blacks went to their ghetto. How were we going
to bridge that? There was unemployment and people were being laid
off. There were many young people who didn't get jobs. There was no
concern on the part of anyone, the city fathers, the church, the
union and others, about the needs of young people and places to play.
What are unemployed young people going to do?
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