The 1985 film set in Chicago between 1917-19 is finally available on to watch at home. Phil Butland reviews a film that discussed class struggle and anti-racism long before the term “Intersectionality” had been coined
September 1917. Young men are lining up in front of the Stars and Stripes and trying on military uniforms. Cut to a black man tending his sick wife and their children. In a voiceover he explains that the war has created new jobs up North, and he must leave his family and go to Chicago – the “Promised Land”. The family is not delighted, not knowing if they’ll ever see him again.
Welcome to Frank Custer, who soon gets a job in the Chicago stockyards, where he is assigned to the Killing Floor. His job mainly consists of cleaning blood off the floor, but he soon buys a knife and graduates to become a butcher. The union is pushing for a pay raise and trying to recruit new members. At first, Frank isn’t sure that he wants to join a “white man’s fight”.
Frank is encouraged to go to a union meeting which is addressed in English and Polish. It reminds him of the prayer meetings back home with people speaking in tongues. Shortly after, when a foreman tries to move Frank off a job, Polish union members down tools till he stays. Frank joins the union, although many of his Black friends have serious reservations. Racial tensions are rising, and as most of the Black workers come from the South, they have little experience of solidarity from white folk.
The union wins an 8 hour day and a wage increase, although its strategy largely consists of relying on the goodwill of a federal judge, who is not willing to rule that the union be recognised. The union leadership also insist on a strike ban for the duration of the war. This leads to tension in the rank and file – one union member, Bill Bremer, is particularly insistent that a strike is exactly what is needed to win union recognition.
The war ends, and ex-soldiers come back from the front expecting jobs. At the same time, the stockyards are laying people off, as they no are longer providing food for the army. In an attempt to defend existing conditions, union men refuse to work with “coloured fellows who don’t have [union] buttons on”. We are taking the first steps towards the Chicago race riots of 1919.
Gangs armed with baseball bats enforce effective segregation. As the stockyards are in the “White” areas, Black workers are physically unable to go into work. The meat packing companies now play their trump card, using state militia to bring in Black scab labour to bust the union. Frank is torn between his righteous struggle against everyday racism and loyalty to the union.
The Killing Floor was first released in 1985, but is finally available from 24 November in a 4K digital restoration. I first saw the film over 30 years ago in a packed community hall in Northern England as part of a tour organised by trade unions and socialists. I’m not even sure if it got a cinematic release – it certainly never had the wide exposure that it deserved.
Watching again after all this time, it is impressive how few punches the film pulls. Real tensions are shown between the anti-racist and trade union struggles. Although we do see white anti-racists and black trade unionists, solidarity is not seen as being inevitable, and there is an ongoing battle for political hegemony. While people are being burned out of their houses because of the colour of their skins, different forms of black and white nationalism provide a common-sense solution to some people.
The Killing Floor shows a struggle that ended in defeat. At the end, Frank is allowed a rousing speech, saying that “every day the bosses squeeze a little more life out of us. If don’t have to be that way. We can make them treat us with respect. And you can’t tell me, we’ve got that now. The union is all we got in this hell hole.” But the union is too weak to win this particular fight or to get people out of the hell hole.
In an interview in the 1980s, producer and co-writer Elsa Rassbach noted that “some union organisers in the States said ‘we don’t want to show this film because it doesn’t end in victory’. But I think the film is richer because it gives hope over time”. Films based on real events have a pesky tendency not to end in glorious victory, because real life is rarely fully victorious. But they are still able to confront us with important dilemmas that need to be overcome if we are to win.
And the film never sinks into pessimism. As the final captions explain, twenty years later, on the great wave of union organising of the 1930s, Chicago Stockyards workers successfully rebuilt their unions and gained recognition from the major meatpacking companies. In a sense, the defeat of 1919 was a prelude which helped build the strength needed for the unions to record future victories.
The Killing Floor also speaks directly to a 2020 audience. Made before Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” it shows how a failure to unite anti-racists with trade unionists weakens both struggles. At the same time, we clearly see the real obstacles that mean that such unity is not automatic. We are not allowed to passively cheer on the good guys. We are forced to think about how we would react in difficult circumstances.
Just over a century after the Chicago Race Riots, this is a film that deserves to be seen, but not in isolation. Watch The Killing Floor, but then find anyone you know to discuss its implications. The best way to respect Frank Custer, and the fighters of the past is to carry on their fight.
This review was originally written for theleftberlin.com
Amazon in U.S.A. ships Blu-rays & DVDs of THE KILLING FLOOR (1985 version, directed by Bill Duke) to Germany. There is a modest shipping charge and no import tariff. Independently, the producer plans make streaming and possibly Blu-ray & DVD available here in Germany, also with German subtitles, as soon as possible. If you are interested in being on a mailing list to receive notifications, please write an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.