Classic Management: The Union Stock Yards

Classic management, a workforce theory which focuses on efficiency was developed during the industrial revolution to maximize the output on the assembly line. This is a style with a purpose, and defined by managerial hierarchy. Based on five elements of management, planning, organizing, command, coordination, and control (Miller, 7) this style is authoritarian and responsibilities trickle down to employees through managers.

The importance of classic management is due in part to it’s wide-spread use during the Age of Reason / Enlightenment period of the late 1700’s through the 1950’s (Gregory Lecture). Many companies during this period implemented classic management practices as a business style in part because of the development of mass production, limited rights for workers and the shared understanding of the roles they played within the company (Miller, 8).

A view of the Union Stock Yards circa. 1947.

The Union Stock Yards of in Chicago’s meatpacking district during the 1880s-1930s is a perfect example of how classic management was implemented to create the world’s largest meat processing facility. The yards were created during the Civil War as a centralized place to process food for the Union troops due to Chicago’s vast array of centralized railroad access to the country. Once the war ended corporations took over the stock yards and further mechanized them for the sole purpose of maximizing efficiency.

This mechanization allowed the Union Stock Yards to grow and provide more packaged meat to the country than anywhere else in the nation. Beyond the efficiency of the yards this classical process clearly defined the hierarchy and division of labor according to Weber’s theory of bureaucracy. This focus on efficiency allowed labor and safety problems to arise that would cause work stoppages and disrupt the productivity of the process (Miller, 11).

During these years laborers in the “yards” were relegated to meager wages and unsafe working conditions. It was not unheard of to hear of a finger ending up in the meat processing lines or of employees dying due to dysentery from bacterial infections. In many instances labor walked off the lines to protest these conditions. Instead of listening to the concerns of laborers the top of the company hierarchy meet them with force In many cases riots ensued and were squashed by the authority. In a few instance laborers needs were meet at the absolute minimum and they reluctantly agreed to go back to work. The closed system of the Union Stock Yards allowed the authority to function without retribution. Meaning, when labor strikes did arise, they were quickly put down (Miller, 12).

Fire was another serious concern on the yards, the infrastructure of the yards was developed to accommodate an army, not a nation. When companies came in and expanded the yards, they did not take waste and pollution into consideration. Both ended up being dumped into the Chicago River, and the gases of decomposing cattle sometimes started a fire which spread throughout the wooded yards quite quickly. The factory bureaucracy of the Union Stock Yards did not place importance on the concerns of disaster. The belief was “there are no gains without pains” running an organization that was focused solely on efficiency proved costly in these instances where the lack of infrastructure development caused disaster (Eisenberg, 62-65).

Weber’s theory of bureaucracy proposes a closed system driven by rational authority with a strict reliance on rules, division of labor, and a hierarchy in which power is centralized. The result of this, in the case of the Union Stock Yards is maximum efficiency in processing cattle to the extent that they hold ultimate control over the procedures of laborers (Miller, 13).

In contrast, implementing Frederick Taylor’s theory of scientific management could help maximize efficiencies within the yards and suggests that with the development of infrastructure and labor rights the yards would be run safer and more efficiently (Miller, 14-15).

Taylor suggests that many laborers in a classical management system are systematically soldiering. Meaning a group of workers would often pressure each other to limit production to avoid having their individual pay scale lowered. In this instance decent wages and safe working conditions could have helped to maximize employees overall attitude towards working at the Union Stock Yards, which hypothetically speaking could improve efficiency.

Today, the Union Stock Yards are extinct. The implementation of the trucking industry and our interstate highway system dissolved the need for a centralized meat packing industry. In 1971 the last cattle was slaughtered in the yards and the area was quickly demolished and turned into a new Chicago neighborhood. It’s interesting to wonder if the stock yards would still be around today if decision makers used the scientific theory of Taylor to improve working conditions and wages.

Eisenberg, E. & Goodall., Jr., H. (2010) Organization communications, balancing creativity and constraint. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s.

Gregory, K.W. 2012

Miller, K., (2006) Organizational communications: Approaches and processes. (1,3) Belmont, CA: Thomas Wadsworth.


About Stephen

Father, music junkie, aspiring television producer, & student of media and communications.
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