You’ll be hearing a lot about Kansas City this week as the Chiefs take on the 49ers at the Super Bowl. And as the big game is union – union NFL players, union refs, and union television workers, to name a few – we thought it would only be appropriate to highlight five reasons why Kansas City is a great union town.
Organized in 1880, and headquartered in Kansas City since 1893, the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers is one of the oldest unions in the country. With over 200 local lodges throughout the United States, they have built nuclear, gas-fired, and advanced coal-fired power plants, as well as military ships, including various classes of submarines. They helped build the world’s first nuclear submarine, the U.S.S. Nautilus and the machinery to construct the Panama Canal.
Kansas City is home to two union automobile assembly plants. The Fairfax Assembly is a General Motors factory that manufactures the Chevrolet Malibu and the Cadillac XT4. And the Ford Kansas City Assembly plant in Claycomo, MO builds the F-150 and the Transit. Workers at both plants belong the United Automobile Workers of America.
The Bank of Labor
Formed in 1924 by the Boilermakers, the Bank of Labor has been serving the labor community for almost a century. Despite its creation a mere five years before the beginning of the Great Depression, the Bank of Labor has stood strong to provide financial services to the labor movement. And, true to the bank’s name, the employees are represented by a labor union.
The repeal of “right to work” in 2018
In 2017, the Republican-dominated legislature of Missouri passed a statewide ‘right to work’ law, which then-Governor Eric Greitens signed into law. But thanks to Missouri’s referendum system, voters in Kansas City and the rest of Missouri repealed the law a year later by more than a two-to-one margin.
A strong labor tradition
Kansas City has a rich, diverse, and complex labor history.
John McKerley, historian at the University of Iowa Labor Center, writes:
As early as the 1870s and 1880s, Kansas City was a growing center of the labor movement in the West. The city and surrounding counties in Kansas and Missouri included almost fifty local assemblies of the Knights of Labor. Although the Knights struggled with the racism, sexism, and nativism of the period, they were still one of the most progressive and integrated organizations of their kind in the US.
During the Progressive Era (1890-1920), the city became home to a variety of labor reformers. Arguably the most important of these reformers was an Irish-American attorney by the name of Frank Walsh. He later became a member of the US Commission on Industrial Relations, a federal effort to study and respond to labor unrest around the country. As a member of the commission, Walsh was distinguished by his support for empowering workers.
Kansas City’s stockyards and packinghouses became centers for progressive labor organizing between the 1930s and 1950s. The common experience of dirty and dangerous working conditions helped black and white workers overcome the city’s culture of racism. This was particularly true within the city’s affiliates of the United Packinghouse Workers of America (UPWA), which held on to traditions of interracial organizing even as the larger industrial union movement became more conservative during the Cold War.