George John Rath (varyingly referred to as George Rath and John George
Rath) was born in 1821 in Breitnau, Wurtenburg province, Germany. He
came to the United States in the late 1840s and eventually settled in
Dubuque, Iowa. In Dubuque, George J. Rath began a merchant business,
making and selling soap and tallow candles. He also began a pork packing
operation. By 1873 he had a new partner in both endeavors: his son, E.
F. (Edward Frederick) Rath, doing business under the name George Rath
In February 1891, the Rath's small pork packing plant and retail market
in Dubuque was destroyed by fire. The fire came at a time when many
growing towns in Iowa were trying to attract meat packers to relocate or
open operations in their communities. A packing plant was a major
acquisition for a small but ambitious town. Such a business meant
locally-available fresh meat, employment, and typically created a
livestock market, all adding to local commerce and prosperity.
The Raths were approached by the Waterloo, Iowa, Board of Trade (a
Chamber of Commerce forerunner) and were eventually won over. Incentives
included $10,000 in capital, land for a plant, and tax concessions. At
some point during this process, George J. Rath decided not to leave
Dubuque and not to continue in the meat packing business, rather to stay
with his mercantile business. His son, E.F. Rath and John W. Rath, a
cousin from Ackley, Iowa, began the Waterloo venture.
The Rath Packing Company (Rath) of Waterloo (Iowa) opened for business
on November 24, 1891, on the Cedar River. Initially, the company
concentrated on hogs, but by 1908 the company was also slaughtering beef
and soon lamb as well.
Business thrived; lucrative contracts to supply meat to the Armed Forces
during both World Wars helped the company grow. Growth and profitability
were also spurred between the 1930s and 1950s by innovations such as the
fancy dry curing of bacon and the vacuum canning of meats. By the
company's fiftieth anniversary in 1941, the small regional packing house
in Waterloo had grown into the nation's single largest meatpacking
facility with branch facilities in 12 states. By the end of World War
II, Rath was the fifth largest meatpacker in the U.S. Through two world
wars, stock market panics, depression, and drought, the company had
failed to show a profit in only four of its years.
The years following World War II brought labor troubles. A 1948 strike
at the Waterloo plant resulted in the death of a striking union member
and riot. Iowa National Guard troops were called in to restore order.
Holding firm, Rath management eventually outlasted the union in
negotiations, but labor relations remained sour.
The 1960s and 1970s were difficult times for meat packing companies.
Competition was fierce and the industry had become high volume, low
margin. Profitability was hurt by a decline in per capita pork
consumption beginning in 1960. By the mid 1970s, Rath's 50-year-old
four-story plant was obsolete. The new model for packing houses called
for single-level plants with continually moving automated disassembly
lines. In addition, Rath's workforce was predominately middle-aged,
older than the industry average for packing houses, and thus burdened
with higher than average wage and benefit costs.
In 1980, Local 41 of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union which
represented most of the labor force, negotiated a plan that, in exchange
for wage and benefit concessions from the workers, gave them control of
Rath's board of directors. The employee-owned Rath operated at a loss in
1981-1983. After a series of further financial setbacks, Rath ceased
operations in 1985.
The finding aid is available in pdf file format -- Rath Packing Company Finding Aid.