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This Day in Labor History: April 11, 1986

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On April 11, 1986, police fired tear gas at strikers at the Hormel plant in Austin, Minnesota after UFCW Local P-9 shut down the plant by blocking the main gate to the building. 17 workers were arrested that day. The Hormel Strike was notable both for its militant local and the reluctance of the UFCW to put up a strong fight against contractual rollbacks. It also pioneered the modern corporate campaign as a labor tactic. Most importantly, the Hormel strike was a sign to the entire nation of the weakness of the labor movement by the late 1980s and the aggressive actions companies would now take to destroy their employees’ unions, a trend that has continued to the present.

In 1985, Hormel decided to bust the United Food and Commercial Workers union in its plant. Average wages in meatpacking plummeted in the early 1980s as capital mobility busted the industry’s unions. In 1982, meatpacking average hourly wages were $9.19. By January 1985, they had fallen to $7.93. Hormel demanded a 23 percent pay cut for the workers in Austin, to $8.25, even though the company made a $29 million profit in 1984. The Austin plant was a new, state of the art facility that could have been a model for a new day of labor in the industry, but Hormel ran a speedup and had a terrible safety record in the plant even before it demanded the wage decrease.

Originally the United Packinghouse Workers, a CIO-affiliated industrial union that cleaned up the horrible conditions Upton Sinclair described in The Jungle, the United Food and Commercial Workers represented workers in the industry. In the wake of labor’s overwhelming defeat in the PATCO strike, when Reagan destroyed the air traffic controllers union, UFCW leadership, like most of the rest of American labor, was afraid to challenge companies on anything because they too feared destruction. Nationally, UFCW acquiesced to these pay cuts because it feared a worse result if it said no.

But UFCW did not do this with the consent of the local. Local P-9 defied international leadership, preferring to go down fighting than just give up everything they had fought for over the previous decades. In response, 1500 workers walked off the job in August 1985, a strike that would last ten months. P-9 proved quite resourceful. It began what is known as corporate campaigns, hiring a PR person to go after Hormel nationally. That included national newspaper ads targeting the company’s poor labor practices, picketing at the company’s national headquarters, and turning a local campaign in a Minnesota town into a national event in order to gain public attention for their cause. This was not that different from how Cesar Chavez used white supporters around the nation to bring publicity to the cause of farm workers in the California fields. Among the successes of the corporate campaign was discovering connections between Hormel and the apartheid government of South Africa, leading to statements of support for P-9 from the African National Congress.

Nationalizing the cause was effective and brought Hormel unwanted publicity. National supporters sent money to P-9. Although the days of the union ladies’ auxiliary was long in the past, the wives of P-9 workers took the lead in organizing national fundraising, clothing drives, and other activities to sustain the strike. P-9 roving pickets at Hormel plants did have concrete results. But nationally, the UFCW opposed all of this. One shift of workers in Algona, Iowa crossed the picket lines because of orders from the union to ignore the pickets. At the Fremont, Nebraska plant, the union told workers that if they honored the picket line, they would be violating their own contract. Only 65 of 850 did so. Workers at a Dallas factory did respect the lines and briefly shut down this facility, but without support from the international, this proved very hard to maintain. When 750 workers in Ottumwa, Iowa honored the pickets, Hormel fired 500 because of the violation of the contract’s no strike pledge.

20100803_s10_33

Sympathy picketer for P-9

Hormel was annoyed by the corporate campaign but it made no difference to corporate strategy. It brought strikebreakers to Austin, getting them into the plant with the help of the National Guard. This undermined the strike itself. 460 members crossed it to retain their jobs after the company imported enough strikebreakers to get the plant started again. After 6 months, seeing a lost cause, UFCW leaders ordered P-9 to end the strike. An overwhelming majority of the workers voted no. At that point, the UFCW put the local into receivership and took it over. By September, UFCW negotiated a new four year contract with lower wages, the elimination of a guaranteed annual wage, and the 52-week layoff notice that the workers had originally won in 1940. Of the remaining 850 workers who had not crossed the picket line, fewer than 100 ever received their jobs back. A year later, Hormel demanded further concessions. When the union refused, the company outsourced most of the jobs.

strike2

Teargassing P-9 strikers

Hormel later leased most of the factory to Quality Pork Processors, which took over the most dangerous pork slaughtering functions in the plant. By the mid-1990s, QPP had replaced most of the labor force with Mexican labor, recent migrants who would take jobs with declining safety standards at low wages.

In my view, perhaps the most significant thing about the Hormel strike is not the corporate campaign, a strategy beloved by many liberals, nor the defeatist behavior of UFCW leadership, but rather the aggressiveness by Hormel. By 1986, American corporations simply stopped caring about the appearance of compromise with organized labor. Capital mobility was in full effect by this time. The rise of Reagan and the growth of open union-busting after PATCO took off the facade that corporations ever accepted unions in their factories (despite the necessity for rhetoric claiming it was so in the 1950s and 1960s, rhetoric too often taken at face value today).

Hormel’s open contempt for anything the UFCW could do was notable to everyone involved. It’s why that while the UFCW international leadership comes out of this strike looking really bad, in a sense their position is understandable. P-9 decided to go down fighting, They had the right to do that and UFCW should have supported them. UFCW’s actions in attacking P-9 president Jim Guyette (who international leadership saw as a real threat and thus red-baited him) were reprehensible But it was truly a lost cause. Hormel had all the momentum and all the ability to simply close factories and move. Some will argue that the Hormel strike shows the moral bankruptcy of business unionism and the potential of corporate campaigns, and while I don’t totally disagree with that, I think any larger examination of the larger trajectory of the meatpacking industry during these years should make one skeptical of the potential that this strike could have succeeded.

The Hormel strike is perhaps most famous today for being chronicled in Barbara Kopple’s American Dream, not exactly one of the most uplifting films about American labor you’ll see. The failure of the Hormel strike and the horrible internal struggle became a national symbol for labor’s hard times.

For further reading, see Peter Rachleff, Hard-Pressed in the Heartland: The Hormel Strike and the Future of the Labor Movement.

This is the 101st post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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  • End of the last sentence of the first paragraph is missing.

    • Bartleby

      Most importantly, the Hormel strike…ended the season with a cliffhanger?

    • Whoops!

      • Bartleby

        If I can throw an “Oh, by the way…” your way, Erik, this series is great. Thanks for shining some light on issues I, for one, am pretty unfamiliar with.

        • toberdog

          Ditto. Thanks, Eric!

        • Turkle

          +1, this series has been extremely valuable.

  • Kurzleg

    Peter Rachleff was briefly my undergrad adviser and a passionate supporter of the labor movement. Erik’s devotion to labor issues reminds me of Peter’s.

  • randomworker

    This depresses me. I was in MN during this time and some of my friends helped out P-9. I was a bit ignorant of the way the world worked back then so I was supportive in words only and looking back I wish I had taken a side.

    Now aren’t all those plants owned by shadowy partnerships and offshore subsidiaries?

    • I’m not sure about the Austin plant, but you are probably right. A lot are also part of the Tyson or Cargill empires.

      • randomworker

        Yes, I was thinking of this story from 2011. The pink slime mist.

        http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2011/06/hormel-spam-pig-brains-disease

        1986 was really the start of AIDS activism in Minnesota and a lot of the activists wanted to build common cause with P-9 and the labor movement, which they saw as potential allies. It was really a crazy time because for a lot of the gay white males this was the first activism they had ever engaged in. I wish I remembered it all better, but there were a lot of gay guys on the picket lines in Austin as I recall.

        • Now that is very interesting and a story I would like to know.

        • Kurzleg

          I couldn’t make it through the beginning of that Mother Jones piece without thinking how horrible it would be to do that work (let alone how horrible it must be for the animals). To think that Hormel was trying to extract wage concessions from the workers doing awful stuff like this is beyond reprehensible.

          • Today, most of that work is done by immigrants, often undocumented without the power to fight back.

            • Gus

              Yes. My wife is from Austin. Her brother talks about Quality Pork “busing in (undocumented) Mexican workers,” and this is apparently an open secret. There is still a good deal of bad blood in the town almost 30 years later.

    • toberdog

      Hormel is still a strong presence in Austin.

    • ploeg

      Hormel nowadays is mainly into packaging. It’s highly profitable to take somebody else’s meat, cook it, put it in a can, pouch, or sealed plastic container, and sell that under your brand name. It’s not so profitable to slaughter the animals yourself, particularly if labor problems can tarnish your brands.

      • socraticsilence

        That’s kind of the point of the link– Hormel still owns everything they create a Potemkin subsidiary to dodge Union and other pressure.

  • Miriam

    I had a “Cram Your Spam!” button. Good times.

  • Lev

    Trade unionism is a bourgeois trap. Only democratic workers’ control is the true solution, not begging for crumbs from the capitalist table. Done negotiate with thebourgeoisie, expropriate them.

    • Go away. You couldn’t speak to an American worker if Trotsky came from the grave and told you to do it.

      • Autonomous Coward

        Granted, he’s a troll but stopped clocks and all that. Only unions organized along industrial lines can bake in the solidarity required to avoid trades being played one against the other.

        It’s like Ben Franklin said: “We must all hang together or we’ll all hang separately. Also bring me more wenches, I grow tired of these two.”

        • Nick

          UFCW is organized along industrial lines. I don’t think the P-9 strike foundered on playing groups of workers in the local off against one another.

        • As Nick says as well, UFCW is an industrial union.

          • Autonomous Coward

            No disagreement on that. I’m just pointing out that (for once, and quite accidentally I believe) Lev is right.

            Poe’s law in reverse?

            • The problem is that his statements are ideology totally unconnected from how the world operates. “Trade unionism is a bourgeois trap.” So only revolutionary unionism is the answer? Great, and what happens to workers between now and the future that will never occur? “Only democratic workers’ control is the true solution.” Meh; I don’t believe that at all because it actually takes agency away from workers who don’t want to spend all their time working for the union and controlling the workplace. I think it just creates a different kind of hierarchy, as we witnessed during Occupy Wall Street with democratic control and unanimous decision making.

            • Nick

              Lev isn’t taking sides in the AFL vs. CIO debate of the early 1930s. He’s claiming that the only solution is a workers’ revolution and total appropriation of the means of production, throwing off their capitalist masters and the bourgeois running-dog lackeys. Which will, by the immutable forces of history, usher in the Workers’ Paradise.

  • cpinva

    I remember this strike well. the one thing that really appalled me was the involvement of the National Guard. in my opinion, the National Guard had no business whatever being involved in the strike, and its use in that context was illegal, and an impeachable offense by the gov. of MN.

    • toberdog

      Who, by the way, was Rudy Perpich – a Democrat from northeastern Minnesota, which is nominally a strong union area of the state. His action shows just how isolated the local was.

      • Randy

        [A] Democrat from northeastern Minnesota

        The Democratic Party in Minnesota is officially the Democratic Farmer-Labor Party. Sending the Guard in made a lot of us see the irony in continuing with that name.

    • Nathanael

      The real question is what cultural situation caused the National Guard to be willing to go work as professional thugs on behalf of corporate executives.

      The same cultural situation is the one which sent the Army to break strikes in the 19th century.

      Somehow, we managed to get rid of that cultural situation for a brief period. How? Why did it come back?

      • Nathanael

        Note that in more “economically driven” situations, the corporation would simply shut the plant completely, avoiding the need to call in the national guard. This was a case where the corporation *needed* the plant, and so they needed thugs to force the workers to work unwillingly.

  • toberdog

    Love the poster the guy is holding. I remember, vaguely, being a little drunk in a bar somewhere in the 1980s (OK, maybe more than a little drunk) and saying something loudly about refusing to drink fascist beer. Good times.

    • Yeah, that is pretty awesome.

      • JoyfulA

        That’s the era when the local “Democratic Club” had a neon Coors sign in the window. When I knocked on the door to complain, the gent had no idea of what I was talking about.

  • JL

    In some ways this story is more disturbing to me than the old, more violent stories from the early labor movement, because it’s recent and relatable. It happened within my lifetime, though barely. It’s still having a lot of repercussions. And being tear gassed is something that I can easily picture (and frankly, expect to happen at some point).

    All I can really say is props to the brave workers, let’s not give up their fight.

  • DrDick

    Great post and I think it reveals some of the ways that the decline of labor was engineered.

  • Rugosa

    I remember the PATCO strike and this one. Seeing the union movement die in real time broke my heart. In the 60s and 70s I was youthfully optimistic. After all, the civil rights and women’s movements were leading the way to a better country for all of us, and unions were able to keep the working class strong. The Regan administration was the beginning of the end for the American working class, and today we see the oligarchs succeeding in destroying the middle class as well. If we truly had a government of and for the people, corporations would be held to account and no National Guard member would attack American workers.

    • DrDick

      If we truly had a government of and for the people, corporations would be held to account and no National Guard member would attack American workers.

      Tell the folks at Ludlow or Pullman that. I think that may be more the exception than the rule for most of our history.

  • Nick

    A really smart and talented organizer I used to work with used to do a stewards training (one that I borrowed from him, in fact) in which he asked the stewards, “What’s a contract?” The group would go over a number of answers — the basic point of having a union; a tool for educating members; a set of rules we can hold management to — and eventually he’d say, “The contract is a snapshot of the balance of power between us and the boss at the time the agreement was made.”

    I’ve always thought of that as the best way to think of a contract. And one of the corollaries of that definition is that strikes and lockouts tend to happen when the contract no longer accurately reflect that balance of power. Or, put differently, they happen when the workers and the boss have very different views of the balance of power.

    Anyway, your assessment of the total context of the P-9 strike reminded me of this.

    • Yeah, that’s a really good way to put it. I like that a lot.

  • icy dance

    The replacement of a small town factory workforce with natives making $35 an hour in 2014 dollars with immigrants making poverty wages is an example of labor, not capital mobility.

    Part of being a progressive these days is pretending a large increase in the supply of high school and below labor, which they favor, is not responsible of the collapse in low skill wages and increase in inequality, which they purport to be concerned with.

    • Since you don’t know what you are talking about, let me explain. The packingworkers were relatively stable until the 1950s when the trucking companies, supermarket chains, and Eisenhower administration all worked together to undermine them by moving food production sites out of the cities and into smaller nonunion towns. New companies like Iowa Beef Producers rose up, extremely anti-union, and destroyed wages in the industry, forcing the Hormel’s and Armour’s of the world to respond in kind. This led to the rapid mobility of the meatpacking industry out of the cities, the destruction of the old UFCW locals, and the spiraling downward wages forced on workers here. The arrival of immigrants taking over that labor force did not happen for about 20 years after this process began in any large scale sense.

      But sure, just blame immigrants.

      • Kurzleg

        Erik – Was it at all the case that as wages declined, workers just decided that the unpleasant (to put it mildly) nature of the job just wasn’t worth it, that they could work equally-well (or poor) paying jobs without the nasty aspects of meat packing? I could envision a scenario where flight from these jobs created a vacuum that immigrants filled.

        • I have no evidence of people consciously making a decision in that way. Usually they simply lost their jobs and found what they could. Don’t underestimate the importance of work culture and gender as reasons to continue working hard jobs at low wages.

          But of course you can probably find cases where people did make that decision.

          • Kurzleg

            Don’t underestimate the importance of work culture and gender as reasons to continue working hard jobs at low wages.

            That, and I’m sure there’s a bit of projecting my own view of the work onto people that don’t see it my way at all.

      • Bruce Vail

        This continues even today.

        In 2012, Ahold USA (a subsidiary of a Dutch food retailer) began work on building a plant in rural Pennsylvania (http://www.cpbj.com/article/20120907/CPBJ01/309069995/Ahold-packaging-facility-to-shift-meat-cutting-out-of-stores) to cut meat and package it for sale in Ahold-owned supermarkets in New England and the Mid Atlantic regions. The point of this exercise: To eliminate the jobs of remaining UFCW meat cutters at the individual stores.

  • Claude Funston

    ‘Cram your Spam, damn your ham, and stuff your weiners, too!’ was a cry heard on the picket line during the strike. Blue and gold T-shirts (Spam colors) declaring, “Cram Your Spam,“ are worn by participants in the United Support Group, an organization aiding the unrecalled meatpackers.

    Vintage 80’s Cram Your Spam Hormel Strike of 1987 T-Shirt M Austin Minnesota

  • SRM488

    Soul Asylum’s “P-9” was, according to Trouser Press, was written and first recorded to benefit striking Hormel workers. It’s a great song, although it’s sufficiently vague from a lyrical standpoint that I’m not sure it would qualify as a great labor song.

    • Kurzleg

      The EP that “P-9” was part of actually isn’t bad. The cover of the record – an homage to Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass record “Whipped Cream and Other Delights” – has to be seen to be believed.

  • montag2

    Must have been something wedged in my memory about the date, because I just watched “American Dream” for the first time this past weekend. What I found interesting about the main conflict in the film, between the international and the local, was not concern by the international about Taft-Hartley, but, rather, vague and ill-explained protestations by the local that the company “would win” no matter what. Had the international shut down all of Hormel’s plants over the matter, the strike wouldn’t have gone on for anything like ten months. But, then, the union had already compromised itself by agreeing to no-strike clauses in the contracts with other Hormel plants. A union that agrees to hobble itself by contractually denying itself the only defensive tool in its arsenal has ceded all advantage to the corporation.

    Equally interesting was that the business manager of the international who’d urged the local to give up was himself fired just a few years later for resisting the IFCW’s general policy of “give up to save jobs.” It was as if his realization of the damage the policy was creating came just a bit too late for the Austin workers, in particular, and for the meatpacking industry, generally.

    • montag2

      Oops, I meant, instead of “protestations by the local…,” “protestations by the international….”

    • “What I found interesting about the main conflict in the film, between the international and the local, was not concern by the international about Taft-Hartley, but, rather, vague and ill-explained protestations by the local that the company “would win” no matter what. Had the international shut down all of Hormel’s plants over the matter, the strike wouldn’t have gone on for anything like ten months.”

      The problem here is that UFCW can’t do that and they shouldn’t be able to do it. Only the workers in each individual plant should have that right. Now you might argue it’s in their interest to do so, but that’s a big deal when you have to put braces on the kids.

      • Kurzleg

        This really gets at the fundamental argument offered by conservatives against unions: that “union big shots are calling all of the shots.

        • Also the criticism coming from the left, from council communists frex, the idea that inevitably in organised unions the union bureaucracy will call the shots against the interests of the workers.

  • Bruce Vail

    Not relevant to anything, but Baltimore Sun has this Passover/Labor/Meat non-story today:

    http://retrobaltimore.tumblr.com/post/82389450348/a-passover-story-the-kosher-butchers-strike-of-1907

  • aidian

    Two thoughts:

    1) the meat packing industry is a prime example for why I’m against illegal immigration, and against amnesty for illegal immigrants here now. Got nothing to do with racism.

    2) In this era of capital mobility and no international regulation, the only workable strategy for labor is violence. The local shoulda killed every C-level executive at the company, and a handful of the scabs, on the same day.

    • Once again, what does undocumented migration have to do with this problem?

      • aidian

        “By the mid-1990s, QPP had replaced most of the labor force with Mexican labor, recent migrants who would take jobs with declining safety standards at low wages.”

        Which reminded me of ‘The Heartland’s Raw Deal’ by Marc Cooper from the Feb/1997 issue of the Nation. Cooper…who’s a fairly well known reporter and lefty…chronicled how the meatpacking companies systematically used illegal immigrant labor to break the unions. Meatpacking is now poorly paid, terribly dangerous, and much more profitable than it was.

        I found a (likely illegal) full text reprint of the article here:
        http://www.tacomacc.edu/HOME/ssandwei/cooper.htm

        A lot of what Cooper covered was the truly scummy ways management had for avoiding responsibility for the injuries workers suffered….regardless of one’s position on immigration, it’s well worth a read.

    • Gareth Wilson

      Capital is much better at violence than labour.

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  • An excellent rundown of what happened in Southern Minnesota in 1985-86. I lived through some of the fallout from this strike. Pro-strike people would go into local grocery stores and affix “Cram Your Spam” stickers to Hormel products; some even went as far to use the key to open cans of Spam and intentionally spoil them.

    The effect was felt throughout the country, but the impact it had on Albert Lea, which is next door to Austin, was immediate. Conditions at the Wilsons/Farmland pork processing plant went downhill after P-9 was broken. Albert Lea’s P-6 union went on strike in 1959, which also drew national attention.

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