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Fascism and Big Business by Daniel Guerin

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Continuity of struggle in Austin, Minnesota

November 13, 1933 The first recorded "sit-down" strike in the U.S. was staged by workers at the Hormel Packing Company in Austin, Minnesota. When the Independent Union of All Workers (IUAW) went on strike, the company tried to bring in scab (strike-breaking) workers.

1985-86 Union Meatpackers Strike Hormel Plant


On Aug. 17, 1985, the 1,500 union meatpackers at Geo. A. Hormel & Co. in Austin, Minnesota, went on strike for a new contract. The battle by members of United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local P-9 marked a break in the rout of the labor movement in the United States of the early 1980s, as one union after another had accepted the employers' concession demands without a fight. The Hormel strikers won broad support from working people across the country. The P-9 workers not only faced company strikebreakers and the Minnesota National Guard, but also attacks from the UFCW international officialdom, which eventually put the local under trusteeship and declared the strike over in March 1986. The story of this strike, which served as inspiration to a wave of resistance to the bosses' offensive among meatpackers in the Midwest, is told in the pamphlet The 1985-86 Hormel Meat-Packers Strike in Austin, Minnesota, by Fred Halstead. Below are excerpts from that pamphlet, which is copyright (c) 1986 by Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission.

In the last full year before the strike, the Hormel plant in Austin had one of the highest injury rates in the U.S. meat- packing industry. In that year, there were 202 injuries for every 100 workers in the plant. The national average for all industries was 10 per 100. The meat-packing industry average was 33 per 100. In 1984, fully one-third of the workers in the Austin plant suffered injuries serious enough to cause lost time on the job.

In October 1984, Local P-9 members were hit with a 23 percent wage cut, from $10.69 an hour to $8.25. This cost the average worker almost $100 from the weekly paycheck.

Six months later, an arbitrator's ruling put the wage at $8.75, but allowed the company to cut benefits deeply, including the coverage under the company-carried health insurance plan. These cuts were made retroactive to September 3, 1984.

Workers who, in the meantime, had used the health plan for themselves or members of their families were suddenly in debt to the company for their retroactively not-covered medical and dental bills. In some cases this amounted to thousands of dollars, in others many hundreds. The company deducted this, chunk by chunk, from the already mangled weekly paychecks....

In early August 1985, the company made its final contract offer. It was so bad even the UFCW officials recommended rejection and promised the International's full support if P-9 turned down the contract. It did. The Local then requested that the International sanction a strike, and this was granted by telegram August 9. But the same telegram attacked P-9 and placed restrictions on the right to strike....

As soon as the strike started, the Local and its supporters set in motion a number of democratic committees and procedures to involve all the P-9 members. The United Support Group, which had been formed earlier by spouses of P-9 members, stepped up its activities.

No member who wanted to participate, both in activity and decision making, was left out. This has greatly strengthened the struggle and kept the members well informed. The International Union and UFCW Region 13 provided a total of $65 per week strike benefit, soon cut to $40. But the strikers were able to survive through their own efforts and solidarity from supporters.

A kitchen was set up to feed pickets as well as volunteers around the hall. A food shelf and clothing closet, stocked by donations, provided necessities to strikers and their families. Every once in a while a truck pulled into the parking lot of the Austin Labor Center, from a farm group, another packinghouse union local, or other supporter, to unload bags of potatoes, canned goods, and other food. Throughout the struggle, no strikers or their family members have had to go hungry, though the fare has been light on meat and other expensive items.

P-9 established the Tool Box, a support program to help with emergencies and the stress of the struggle; a War Room, to coordinate the various activities of the Local, including picketing; a Communications Committee, which organizes P-9 members to travel across the country, telling the truth about their fight to unions and other organizations and appealing for aid....

According to [Local P-9 president Jim] Guyette, "In the fall of 1985 the rank and file of Local P-9 voted to extend their picket lines to places performing struck work and to support any local union members honoring our roving picket lines." The members of Ottumwa Local 431, Fremont Local 22, and Dubuque, Iowa, Local 150A pledged to honor P-9's lines. They each also asked the International Union to sanction P-9's extended pickets, as well as a national boycott of Hormel products....

UFCW President [William] Wynn then agreed to issue a joint statement with Guyette saying the International would sanction extension of the picket lines if Hormel did not bargain in good faith.

On November 15, however, Wynn told the press, the company, and P-9 that: "No sanction has been granted to extend picket lines... and that we will evaluate reports from our representatives as to the good faith evinced by both the company and the Local.... Unless and until we sanction an extension our members outside Austin would be taking serious risks and the local unions could be faced with costly and risky litigation if they respected extended picketing...."

In late December a federal mediator presented a proposed contract that the company accepted. It was essentially the same as the company offer that had precipitated the strike. It left safety entirely up to the judgment of the company, gutted the seniority system, and prohibited handbilling and other constitutionally guaranteed union and political activity by employees. It contained a similar wage to that forced on the rest of the chain. (In January 1986, the annual cash compensation for Hormel Chairman Richard L. Knowlton was increased by $231,000 to $570,000.)...

The UFCW officialdom recommended -or rather insisted - that P-9 accept the mediator's proposal, and that a mail-in ballot be conducted by the International. Instead, Local P-9 held an open meeting on December 21 to discuss the contract and prepare for a vote the following week. In a secret ballot, the membership rejected the mediator's proposal by better than two to one. The International officials challenged the vote, demanding the mail-in ballot. This was held and the contract was again rejected.

On January 13, 1986, Hormel opened the plant to scabs, though not many got past the pickets and mass demonstrations by P-9 supporters.

While local police and deputies under the command of Mower County Sheriff Wayne Goodnature tried to break up the picket lines, UFCW President Wynn sent a message to P-9 President Guyette. Wynn refused to sanction roving pickets or the Hormel boycott, declaring: "Boycotting Hormel products produced under the chain agreement, which has some of the best wages and conditions in the industry, would undermine union jobs paying base labor rates of $10 an hour simply to try to secure the $10.69 an hour in Austin that you have unsuccessfully fought for for 13 months." He insisted Guyette "lead them back to work...."

Thus Wynn helped set the stage for Hormel's next move: getting Democratic-Farmer-Labor Governor Rudy Perpich to send in the Minnesota National Guard.

On January 20, 1986, the Guardsmen arrived in Austin, and by January 23 they were escorting the scabs - mostly nonunion labor - through the picket line.

On January 26, P-9 called for a national boycott of Hormel products. The next day, the Local sent its roving pickets to other plants in the Hormel chain, including Ottumwa and Fremont.

At Ottumwa the great majority of the 750 workers refused to cross the picket lines.


Meatpackers Mark 10 Years Since Strike At Hormel, Discuss New Contract Fights

September 11, 1995

AUSTIN, Minnesota - The 10th anniversary reunion of the 1985 Hormel meatpackers strike here August 19 provided the backdrop for discussing current contract fights with workers from two of the plants that were struck a decade ago.
Dale Chidester worked in Hormel's Ottumwa, Iowa, plant during the 1985-86 strike. Today he works at the company's flagship Austin plant and is secretary-treasurer of United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 9. The local's contract with the company expires September 9.

Contracts also expire the same day at Hormel's Fremont, Nebraska, and Atlanta, Georgia, plants. "There is no chain; we just have common expiration dates. These are individual local contracts, negotiated together. It's not chain bargaining like in the old days," Chidester said.

Hopes on the floor are for "keeping even," Chidester emphasized. "Hormel made record profits again, over $100 million last year. People are talking about a cost-of-living type deal. We just don't want to end up taking home less in these economic times. We'd like a fair share of the profit."

Hormel changed the name of its pork slaughtering operation here in 1988 to Quality Pork Processors, claiming the new plant was a separate company. At the Austin Hormel plant there are 1,000 workers today. Some 700 work at the adjoining Quality Pork facility, explained Chidester. "There is really a two-tier system here with Quality Pork," he said. They have a different contract with a different expiration date than at the Hormel plant. Pay at Quality Pork, where most of the kill and knife work is done, begins at $7.20 an hour and tops out at $9.50. Many of the workers are from Mexico, Central America, and Southeast Asia.

The company scheduled work at both plants during the anniversary celebration. "The word was out in the plant," Chidester said, "that you could lose your job if you came to the reunion.

"I think this [reunion] is important," he told the crowd of 300. "It's about our history. If you don't remember your past, you're condemned to repeat it.

"I'm not here as Local 9 secretary-treasurer," he said, "I'm not representing anyone but myself. But as a member of the working class, I think I have the right to speak here."

Ottumwa plant
Hormel closed down its Ottumwa plant shortly after the strike. It was sold to Cargill's Excel packinghouse division and reopened in 1987. Glenn Matters worked in the plant before and after it was sold. Members of UFCW Local 230 recently approved a new four-year contract there by a three- to-one margin.

"We gained nothing," Matters said. "There's a 15-cent an hour raise. We get that in 1998."

"The company got the Beardstown, Iowa, local to settle for less and then came to us" with the same offer, said Matters. "At least we said `no' to that. But we were played against each other, the same old story."

In the negotiations the company also pushed to hold down its compensation costs by dangling bonuses in front of the workers. "The new contract states that if we keep workers' compensation costs under $2 million, we get a share of what's saved. If costs go over $2 million, we get a check for $100," Matters said with disgust.

Jon Hillson is a member of the United Auto Workers in St. Paul, Minnesota. Dick McBride, a member of UFCW Local 1149 in Perry, Iowa, contributed to this article.

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