Decatur Strike of 1951

In 1950, the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen of North America began organizing workers at poultry plants in northwestern Arkansas. The union’s regional organizer was James Gilker. A combat veteran of World War II, Gilker spoke of “tackling” and putting the “fear of God” into poultry companies. In one case, Gilker wrote with approval of strikers putting sugar into the gas tanks of company trucks. He also advocated for employing men who had been “involved in much violence and were tried for arson.”

Although Gilker would switch sides in 1957 and begin representing poultry companies against the Amalgamated union, early in the decade he was motivated by an interest in “class struggle.” He described northwestern Arkansans as “loyal and honest” and said that “if I ever loved any group of people and had real sympathy for them, these are the ones.” Under Gilker’s leadership, the Amalgamated union enjoyed success. Its membership in northwestern Arkansas rose from 180 at the end of 1950 to 620 twelve months later.

Gilker began work in Decatur (Benton County) on May 28, 1951. Pluss Poultry, which would eventually become Simmons Foods, had begun operations two years before. Gilker met with employees at the Pluss plant and observed that it was a “Good group—red hot.” Gilker’s message focused on pay, vacation time, double pay for work on Sundays, and employee representation. Within a week, 109 Pluss workers—a large majority—were union members.

Gilker enjoyed relatively easy success before arriving at Decatur, but the Pluss plant’s co-owner and manager, M. H. “Bill” Simmons, resisted the union. A strike was called on June 5, 1951, and it lasted more than three months, exacting high costs on both the plant and the union. Gilker wrote that the Decatur strike was of regional importance: “The entire program in northwest Arkansas hangs in the balance. If we win[,] the entire industry can be organized without additional strikes. If we lose[,] we will have to fight every step of the way.”

Violence early in the strike cost the union public support. The Springdale News reported that strikers “threatened non-striking employees.” Simmons’s home in Siloam Springs (Benton County) was threatened by rock-throwing union supporters.

The most acute violence involved the murder on June 6, 1951, of Decatur’s constable, Lester Setser, who was called to the Pluss plant following a disturbance. Setser arrested William Cowart, who was drunk and agitated. Setser walked the uncooperative Cowart to his home, where they would await a Benton County sheriff’s deputy. While Setser was speaking with Cowart’s wife, Cowart retrieved a pistol in the house and shot Setser four times, killing him.

Gilker asserted that Cowart had no connection with the union or strike. All available evidence from witnesses, however, recorded at the time in newspapers and in later interviews, points in the opposite direction. The day after the murder, a Benton County judge issued an injunction against picketing on the grounds that non-union members had been threatened.

When the strike ended in September, Pluss Poultry had conceded to some union demands, and the Amalgamated union had lost significant resources, as it had compensated striking workers. This notwithstanding, under Gilker’s leadership, the union continued to be a force in Arkansas and, in 1955, would launch another strike against Pluss Poultry that lasted five weeks. This strike involved harassment—for example, stores that purchased Pluss chickens were pressured to stop—but there was no violence.

As Constable Setser’s wife opposed the death penalty, William Cowart was sentenced to life in prison. He served only twelve years. Setser is buried in the Decatur cemetery.

Having switched sides to representing poultry companies against labor action, in 1963 Gilker played a key role in helping Tyson Foods defeat an Amalgamated union strike.

For additional information:
“Decatur Constable Dies in Shooting after Labor Row.” Springdale News, June 6, 1951.

Hendrickson, Faye. “Poultry Workers Gain in N.W. Arkansas.” Butcher Workman (January 1952): 7.

“Injunction Halts Decatur Strike; Murder Charge Filed in Shooting.” Springdale News, June 7, 1951, p. 1.

Jones, Preston. Uncommon Common Man: M. H. “Bill” Simmons & the Development of the Poultry Industry in Northwest Arkansas, 1949–1974. Pittsburgh, PA: Dorrance Publishing, 2024.

Samuel A. Twedell Papers. Special Collections, University of Texas, Arlington, Texas. Finding aid online at (accessed January 31, 2024).

Preston Jones
John Brown University


No comments on this entry yet.