Hormel Strike a Key Event in Nation’s Labor History

From the late summer of 1985 into the early spring of 1986, the small town of Austin, Minnesota, figured prominently in the national news.  The dramatic themes and issues, twists and turns, of a labor conflict there captured the national imagination.  This interest was not merely passive, as more than thirty support committees formed across the U.S. and aid for the strikers came from nineteen countries.  This strike touched a raw, deep nerve.

In August 1985, 1,700 meatpacking workers, members of United Food and Commercial Workers Local P-9, struck the flagship plant of George A. Hormel and Company in Austin, Minnesota.  They had taken a wage freeze in 1977 as part of a bargain to get Hormel to build a planned state-of-the-art plant in Austin, which had been the center of their operations since the 1920s.  Corporations made so many threats in the later 1970s and 1980s to relocate production facilities — and followed through on so many of them — that the best-selling labor books of the era carried titles like Capital Flight and The Deindustrialization of America.  Local and state governments, as well as workers and unions, were challenged by such threats, and they often responded with tax breaks and infrastructure development along with the pay and benefit cuts or freezes that workers provided.  Despite these concessions, millions of manufacturing jobs were exported from the U.S., relocated by corporate employers to low-wage, minimally regulated sites from Mexico and Central America to China, Vietnam, Thailand, and Singapore.

In the case of Hormel in Austin, the company received new exit and entrance ramps to I-90, new service roads into and around the plant, tax breaks, and that wage freeze.  Workers had also agreed to shift the structure of their wage payments away from a system which since 1933 had provided them with stable earnings in a notoriously seasonal industry to a more conventional hourly wage system.  This shift also undermined the controls that workers had long exercised over the pace of production.  On the basis of these concessions, Hormel built its new plant in Austin.

But workers were in for a very rude awakening.  When the new plant opened in 1982, work was reorganized, production lines were sped up, and injury rates skyrocketed.  Workers’ complaints were rebuffed by management.  Then, when contract negotiations opened in the fall of 1984, citing changes in the industry such as the closing of major competitors’ plants, mergers, buy-outs, and ownership changes, and the imposition of wage cuts, Hormel management demanded a 23 percent wage cut!  For workers who felt that they and their families had given generations of loyal labor to this company, in exchange for which they had received respect and decent compensation, this was adding insult to injury.

The local, under leadership elected since the new plant agreement of 1977, made plans for their first strike since the one which had established the union in 1933, despite the advice of the international union and its packinghouse division to accept management’s demands.  This new leadership built a thick internal network of committees responsible for a range of activities, mobilized their retirees, reached out to UFCW locals at other Hormel plants, solicited the support of union activists in the Twin Cities and across the country, and hired consultant Ray Rogers, founder of Corporate Campaign, Inc.  With Rogers, they developed a strategy that emphasized the economic links between Hormel and key regional banks, sought a very visible public presence, and put their members forward as their greatest resource, not just as picketers but as public speakers, artists, toy makers, cooks, and strategists.

The ensuing strike galvanized the attention of a labor movement which was reeling from Ronald Reagan’s firing of the Air Traffic Controllers in the summer of 1981, the closing of factories and the export of jobs abroad, employers’ demands for concessions, and the government’s weakening of its enforcement of labor laws from the right to organize to workplace health and safety regulations.  A new breed of management consultants, union-busting lawyers, and private security companies signaled a new determination by corporate employers to manage their workplaces without “interference” from unions.  When Hormel workers stood up for themselves in a very public and creative way, they inspired other workers who were facing — or fearing — similar threats, demands, and pressures.  And when the strikers, receiving meager strike benefits of $45 a week, asked for support — at first, to make car and mortgage payments, to keep the heat and lights on, to buy groceries; later, to join picket lines, participate in rallies, and boycott Hormel products — what they received was unprecedented.  It not only enabled them to survive materially for months and months, but it inspired them to stand firm, to know that they were fighting for more than themselves.

Local P-9 was ultimately defeated by an array of powerful forces: corporate obstinacy, an ability to shift production to other plants, and support from other business interests including those banks; a series of hostile court decisions and injunctions; the intervention of the Minnesota National Guard, under orders from Governor Rudy Perpich; an unsympathetic media; and its own international union which was supported by a labor bureaucracy at the highest reaches of the state’s and the nation’s unions.  Looking back twenty-five years later, it is sobering to assess how much power could be marshaled to defeat this one local union, even as it is inspiring to realize how valiantly they stood up for themselves and for all working people.

Local P-9’s stand inspired hundreds of thousands of workers, not just in the U.S. but across the world, who were beginning to feel the economic and political lash which would drive a new corporate global strategy in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.  Corporations, governments, and transnational entities have implemented a strategy including free trade, plant closings, capital flight and the export of jobs, deregulation, privatization, contracting out, the reorganization of work, the exploitation of immigrants, the tearing apart of the social contract which, in the U.S. at least, had been embodied in union representation, collective bargaining, the welfare state, and Keynesian economic practices.  In place of the panoply of alphabet soup agencies created by Roosevelt’s New Deal — WPA, CCC, TVA, FTP — and the new labor organizations affiliated with the CIO, workers’ lives now take place in the shadows of NAFTA, WTO, IMF, and the World Bank.  The Hormel strike symbolized the fight back against this new corporate agenda, not just because of the injustice of the corporate demands but also because of the heroism of the strikers.

Even as we pay homage to this heroism today, twenty-five years later, we must assess the costs of the defeat of this union, these workers, and the victory of this corporate agenda: the triumph of greed on Wall Street and the hard times on Main Street; the export of millions of manufacturing jobs to places where workers cannot earn a living wage or protect their communities from the damage being done to their land, their water, their air, and their health by the arrival of these new economic “opportunities”; the dispossession of  millions of small farmers and the pressures on them to migrate in search of work; the shredding of the “safety net” in the U.S., western Europe, and other developed countries, from public education to public safety; the loss of economic security, from pensions, healthcare benefits, and vacations, to the loss of jobs themselves; the collapse of mortgages and the epidemic of foreclosures sweeping communities; the rise of political movements based on hate, from neo-nazis, the KKK, and the tea party in the U.S. to Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa.  The mural on the outside of the Austin union hall, designed by national labor artist Mike Alewtiz and P-9 rank-and-filer Denny Mealy, and painted by more than 100 volunteers, included a banner: “IF BLOOD BE THE PRICE OF YOUR CURSED WEALTH, THEN BY GOD WE HAVE PAID IN FULL.”  Indeed.

This new corporate agenda, named “neoliberalism” for its classical hostility to the state’s playing a leading economic role, on the one hand, and its celebration of the free market, on the other, has succeeded in transferring wealth from working people to the elite.  The U.S. has been returned to the standards of inequality which marked our economy in the late 1920s, after more than half a century of a rising tide which was lifting all our boats.  Policies and practices adopted since 1980 have benefitted only the very rich, leaving most of us floundering well before the Great Recession of 2008.  Neoliberalism has meant, for most people in the world, the demand to work harder and to receive less for it.  But the Great Recession has revealed that neoliberalism has not brought growth and prosperity to the U.S. or anywhere else, for that matter.  Now, more than ever, we need to reflect on the Hormel strike of 1985-1986, on the heroism and creativity of its participants, and on the nature of the opposition they faced.  We may yet learn from our past to build a better future.

Peter Rachleff is a Professor of History at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota.  In 1985-1987, he served as chairperson of the Twin Cities Local P-9 Support Committee, and in 1993 South End Press published his book on the strike, Hard-Pressed in the Heartland: The Hormel Strike and the Future of the Labor Movement.  He can be reached at rachleff@macalester.edu.

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