They Say Give Back, We Say Fight Back

The Legacy of the Hormel Strike, Fifteen Years Later

By Peter Rachleff

This article is from the September/October 2000 issue of Dollars and Sense: The Magazine of Economic Justice available at http://www.dollarsandsense.org/archives/2000/0900rachleff.html


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This article is from the September/October 2000 issue of Dollars & Sense magazine.

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Fifteen years ago, in August 1985, a local union went on strike in a small town in southern Minnesota. Members of United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local P-9 at the Austin, Minnesota, Hormel meatpacking plant could not have known then what was in store for them: A strike lasting over one and one-half years, the creation of mass picket lines at Hormel, the deployment of National Guard troops to break the pickets, the arrest of hundreds of strikers, and job loss for more than a thousand.

As chairperson of the Twin Cities Local P-9 Support Committee, I witnessed first-hand the Hormel strikers' rank-and-file fight-back—against not only employer and government, but also the leadership of their own union—and the solidarity it inspired in working people and union activists. During the strike, marches and rallies brought 10,000 supporters and more into the streets of Austin to challenge the National Guard and its tear gas, sit down in front of the plant gates, and go to jail. Tens of thousands of women and men sent checks large and small to the support committees, brought truckoads of food to Austin, and tried to help families survive the pressures of a prolonged struggle.

In the course of the strike, we saw both the UFCW leadership and the state and national labor hierarchies turn their backs on the strikers—men and women willing to risk everything to resist unjust management demands. We saw a Democratic governor send in troops to break the strike—but heard no criticisms of him from the labor leadership. We saw local and state police and the National Guard violate Austin citizens' rights to free speech and peaceful assembly. We saw the Austin public schools, the city's churches, and its civic leaders turn their backs on their "humane" values to support Hormel's corporate policies. We saw the courts find repeatedly for the company when it opposed the union, and, likewise, for the international union when it opposed the local. We saw the media portray the local union in a bad light and encourage its members and supporters to concede defeat.

Only the strikers' courage and determination kept thousands of us from becoming hopeless cynics in the wake of the strike and its defeat. Few of us touched by the Hormel strike retired to our armchairs when the strike was broken. Some of us continued as officers in local unions—or sought union office for the first time. Many of us continue our work in the labor solidarity networks forged by the strike. The experience we gained from the Hormel strike has since contributed to numerous successful struggles. Even in defeat, the P-9 strikers showed us what the labor movement looked like at its best. Through those trying years, they showed us what democracy, participation, and militancy are, what solidarity means, and how people could grow in the course of a struggle. And therein we find the stuff of future victories.

The 1980s

What we now recognize as "neoliberal economics"—globalization, free trade, deregulation, privatization, and union busting—began to shape the U.S. and world economies during the 1980s. Reaganomics shredded the "social contract" between government officials, corporate management, and union leaders, which had framed capital- labor relations during the 1950s and 1960s. Against a backdrop of capital flight, plant closings, downsizing, mergers, buy-outs, layoffs, and management demands for concessions, labor suffered a series of grave defeats. Ronald Reagan opened his presidency by firing 1,400 striking members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers' Organization (PATCO). Strikers were "permanently replaced," their strikes broken, at Phelps Dodge in Arizona in 1983, at Hormel in 1986, and at the Chicago Tribune the same year. Employers defeated grassroots campaigns against plant closings by vegetable processors in Watsonville, California, autoworkers in Van Nuys, and audio- and video-cassette makers in Freehold, New Jersey. Enlisting a battalion of management consultants (the "union busters"), employers resisted organizing campaigns and undercut established unions. As the percentage of the U.S. workforce organized in labor unions fell from about 20% to less than 15%, union power receded on the shop floor and at the bargaining table. Productivity increases outstripped wage hikes; employers cut benefits, from health coverage to pensions; and work hours increased.

The meatpacking industry was a poster child for these developments. A corporate shake-out in the early 1980s saw such long- established firms as Armour, Swift, and Wilson replaced by conglomerates like Cargill (which owned Excel), Occidental Petroleum (Iowa Beef Processors), and Greyhound (Con-Agra). Plants closed and workers were laid off. Then the plants reopened under new ownership, without union contracts, and offered workers their jobs back at half pay with no benefits. The major union in the industry, the UFCW, was itself the product of a series of mergers, and packinghouse workers made up a small minority of its retail-based membership. (The "P" in the Hormel local's "P-9" designation indicated its origins in the old United Packinghouse Workers of America.) The union authored a strategy of "controlled retreat," advising packinghouse workers to keep their heads down until the storm blew over, when they could begin to rebuild. Meanwhile, pushed by angry rank-and-file workers, local packinghouse activists organized protests demanding that the union lead a resistance movement.

The Hormel Strike

It all came to a head in Austin, at the flagship plant of the George A. Hormel Company. While Hormel had been headquartered in Austin since the early 20th century, the plant itself was new. Hormel opened it in 1982, after prying major tax breaks from the city government and a wage freeze (which lasted from 1977 to 1984) from the union. Workers found the new plant to be a hell hole. New technologies came hand-in-hand with a sped-up disassembly line, a new payment system eliminating traditional premiums, and a new prison-like disciplinary regime. Hundreds of veteran workers opted for retirement after short stints in the new plant, replaced by young, inexperienced new hires who suffered an epidemic of workplace injuries.

Hormel workers aimed their growing frustration at the international union, Packinghouse Division Director Lewie Anderson, and a local union leadership that had gone along with the company's demands and the international's advice. The workers elected a new, militant leadership committed to union democracy and a fight-back against concessions, only to discover that management (besides ignoring the growing list of workplace grievances) now sought a 23% wage cut. When the company declared record profits and gave a whopping salary increase to its CEO, the new leadership began to prepare for war.

The new P-9 officers sought the help of Ray Rogers and Corporate Campaign, Inc., strategic planners of boycotts and other pressure tactics against recalcitrant conglomerates. They energized and organized the rank-and-file membership and their families. They reached out to local labor activists in the nearby Twin Cities and, with them, to like-minded activists around the country. In all of this work, they were opposed and undercut by the international union and its packinghouse division. In November 1984, for example, representatives of the international union distributed a letter, purportedly written by the presidents of other Hormel locals, condemning P-9 for having "withdrawn from the chain" (the network of Hormel locals that had just agreed to a mid-term reopening of the contract in order to accept a cut to $9.00 an hour).

In August 1985, P-9's contract with Hormel expired and the local began its fateful strike. The company shifted production to its eight other plants across the U.S., even unionized ones in the Midwest. Austin union activists visited these plants on several occasions, building relationships with activists there, but were stymied by the international union's refusal to endorse sympathy actions. The strike took place in a depressed region where both the farm and industrial economies were hurting, and when Hormel announced in January 1986 that it would hire permanent replacements, job applicants appeared on the scene. When picketers, backed up by thousands of supporters from the Twin Cities and elsewhere, tried to block the plant gates, Democratic Governor Rudy Perpich sent in the National Guard to escort the scabs through the lines. As the strike was broken, allies of the international union leadership organized a back-to-work movement among the strikers. About 500 Hormel workers crossed their own picket lines to reclaim their jobs, working alongside a thousand scabs. More than 1,000 strikers were forced to retire or take a place on a recall list, while 300 or so were fired for their behavior in the strike or for advocating a continued boycott of Hormel products. The strike was defeated, and the militant activists of Local P-9 were banished from the plant, the local union, and, in many cases, from the labor movement as a whole.

What Means This Strike?

The story of the strike, however, does not end there. Local P-9 remains a shining example for labor activists (in unions and outside them). One of the union activists shaped by the Hormel strike has become the key architect of the American Postal Workers' Union's (APWU) ongoing campaign to organize workers employed by private postal contractors. Greg Poferl, a National Business Agent in the APWU's Support Services Division, joined the Twin Cities labor-activist community shortly after the Hormel strike. In labor education classes, public forums, conferences, and informal discussions, he soaked up the lessons of P-9. In 1998, he was appointed by the APWU national leadership to head the union's new private-sector organizing campaign. Poferl shaped a campaign that incorporates knowledge of labor history, promotes a democratic and participatory union culture, offers workers education on U.S. and global political economy, and practices solidarity as the core value of the labor movement. Although the national union is providing resources and support for this campaign, it is being waged by locals, which are wrestling with their own internal cultures as they move into organizing mode.

Veterans of the Hormel strike, with some younger and newer labor activists, have also started an annual conference called "Meeting the Challenge." Now in its eighth year, the conference features local union activists from different parts of the country, women and men who are transforming their local unions into models of democracy and participation, who are fighting against racism and sexism, organizing the unorganized, building community coalitions, and creating cultural expressions for the labor movement. The conference gives out an annual "Solidarity Award," a quilt crafted out of old labor t-shirts, honoring local labor role models. In 1999, the award went to Northwest Airlines flight attendants (Teamsters Local 2000 and Teamsters for a Democratic Union) who used the internet to mobilize workers scattered in small units across the world. This year, it honored members of Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Local 17, who helped nine Latina housekeepers, who had organized a union at the Holiday Inn Express in downtown Minneapolis, win back their jobs after being arrested by the INS and threatened with deportation. In the last decade, the Meeting the Challenge Committee has also assisted striking Twin Cities bus drivers, Honeywell manufacturing workers, and Soo Line railroad workers. We have lent support to University of Minnesota clerical workers (AFSCME Local 3800) in their struggles for workplace dignity and a decent income (see "The Life of the Union," p.19), St. Paul retail grocery workers in their campaign against the anti-union supermarket Whole Foods, and St. Paul municipal workers in their fight against privatization. Some of us have participated in "living-wage" campaigns and in Labor Party organizing on the local and national levels. Veterans of the Hormel strike and our old support committee have published a labor history map of St. Paul and helped turn the once-moribund Labor Day Picnic into an event that now attracts 6,000 people. We have, with the help of the Friends of the St. Paul Public Library, turned May into "Labor History Month," complete with lectures, films, and guided tours. These are the rich, living legacies of the Hormel strike.

The Strike's Legacy for Today

This June, when 1,500 hotel workers, a third of them recent immigrants, speakers of seventeen different languages, struck seven Twin Cities hotels, veterans of the Hormel strike support committee sprang into action (see "Workers Who Understand Struggle," p.21). With a number of other activists, some of them from the younger generation, we helped launch a support committee for the striking hotel workers. Sub-committees rolled up their sleeves, preparing farmers to deliver food to the strikers, organizing local unions to contribute to strikers' support, and mobilizing labor troubadours, poets, and actors to enliven the picket lines and put on a major benefit event. They campaigned for supporters to come out to the picket lines and help the strikers keep the pressure on the hotels, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Support committee activists reached out to the young people who went to Seattle and Washington, D.C., to protest the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank, to bring them into this local labor struggle. Within a week of the strike's beginning, the support committee was up to the speed it had taken months to reach in 1985. It could not have happened without the experience and networks created by the Hormel strike.

During its momentous strike, Local P-9 was a magnet for disaffected labor activists across the country. The strike forged us into a community of solidarity. It showed us what regular people could achieve, right here on Earth. And it convinced us that what we had experienced was less a final gasp from the labor movement that was, than the first cry of a labor movement that could be.

Peter Rachleff teaches U.S. history at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. For the past eight years, he has been the chair of the Meeting the Challenge Committee. He is the author of Hard-Pressed in the Heartland: The Hormel Strike and the Future of the Labor Movement.

Resources: Michael T. Fahey, Packing It In: The Hormel Strike 1985-86, A Personal Perspective (St. Paul: Kirwin and Sons, 1988); Hardy Green, On Strike at Hormel: The Struggle for a Democratic Labor Movement (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990); Paul Klauda and Dave Hage, No Retreat, No Surrender: Labor's War at Hormel (NY: William Morrow, 1989); "American Dream," Barbara Kopple, director.
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