Vicky Starr: union maid and democratic socialist

by Bob Roman

Vicki Starr at the 1992 Chicago DSA Deb-Thomas-Harrington Dinner

Vicki Starr at the 1992 Chicago DSA Deb-Thomas-Harrington Dinner

Union organizer, Debs-Thomas-Harrington Dinner honoree, Democratic Socialists of America member Vicky Starr passed away on Thanksgiving Day in Evanston, Illinois, at the age of 93. Vicky Starr’s long history in labor and progressive movements includes participating in the initial organizing of the United Packinghouse Workers in the 1930s and 1940s, and in the 1970s and 1980s helping to organize the clerical workers at the University of Chicago into Local 743 of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. In the 1970s, she was an active member of the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union.

Vicky Starr’s life was a resource for many authors. Accounts of her life are referenced in dozens of books, including Studs Terkel’s bestseller American Dreams: Lost and Found, Rank and File by Alice and Staughton Lynd, Howard Zinn’s and Anthony Amove’s Voices of a People’s History of the United States, Rick Halpern’s Down on the Killing Floor, Judith Kegan Gardiner’s Provoking Agents, and First Person America by Ann Banks. This is hardly a complete Vicky Starr bibliography.

Under the name Stella Nowicki, Vicky Starr was, along with Sylvia Wood and Katherine Hyndman, one of the stars of Union Maids, a Kartemquin Films documentary about women union organizers in the 1930s. Union Maids received an Academy Award nomination in 1978, won a blue ribbon at the American Film Festival, and was shown on public television. Her participation in this documentary was a sweet spot in her life, and she took every opportunity to show the film and to accompany it with a presentation. This brought the struggles of the past to life and made them an inspiration for people struggling today.

The documentary may have given Vicky Starr something of a rock star charisma, but that was well deserved. Organizing the slaughterhouses of Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood required extraordinary, even downright conspiratorial efforts. Union meetings were held in secret and new attendees needed to be vouched for by older members; simply to breath the word union was to bring instant dismissal from your job and black listing. But because the workers were willing to grab control of production in an industry where time was crucial, they were able to win concrete victories and ultimately union recognition. You can learn more of this in Rick Halpern’s Down on the Killing Floor.

My acquaintance with Vicky Starr came late in her life, years after the Democratic Socialists of America was formed through the merger of the New American Movement (NAM) and the Democratic Socialists Organizing Committee (DSOC).  Vicky Starr had been a member of NAM. I had been a member of DSOC. When we finally had the opportunity to work together,  I observed this: being an organizer requires, among other things, having a certain boldness combined with the manipulative delight in people that characterizes a good party host.   Being a bureaucrat requires, among other things, a talent for systematic manipulation of information and record keeping. Vicky Starr could do either or both and do it well. She was formidable.

If she helped change the meat packing industry, the experience also changed her in many ways, major and minor. On one occasion when she organized a mailing party for DSA, she absolutely forbade anyone to lick an envelope or a stamp. You wouldn’t dare, she said, if you saw how that glue was made.

Vicky Starr was honored at the 1985 Debs Thomas Harrington Dinner, an event she shared with another DSA member, then-President of the Screen Actors Guild Ed Asner. Congressman Lane Evans was the featured speaker at that Dinner. In the years since, she remained a faithful patron of the Dinner, attending nearly ever one since.

Bob Roman is an activist with Chicago DSA. This remembrance originally appeared in New Ground, the newsletter of Chicago DSA.

One Response

  1. Here’s a correction: “Union Maids” is not now nor has it ever been a Kartemquin Films product. It was independently produced by Jim Klein, Julia Reichert and Miles Mogulescu. For those interested, it’s available for rental or purchase from New Day Films, see:
    be well,
    bob roman

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