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Tag: "labor"

Chicken Production and Workplace Dangers

[ 14 ] April 18, 2014 |

I strongly recommend Michele Simon’s article on how Tyson Foods and the USDA have pushed forward drastic increases in chicken production line speeds that would increase the profits of meat companies at the cots of workers’ lives:

But let’s back up a bit. As Mother Jones magazine explained last year, “Currently, each factory-scale slaughterhouse has four USDA inspectors overseeing kill lines churning out up to 140 birds every minute. Under the USDA’s new plan, a single federal inspector would oversee lines killing as many as 175 birds per minute.”

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack defends the proposal under the guise of modernization (an industry code word for deregulation) and claims the new standard would actually reduce bacterial contamination. However, Food and Water Watch found numerous food safety problems with the USDA’s pilot project owing to company inspectors missing defects such as “feathers, lungs, oil glands, trachea and bile still on the carcass.”

The rule is especially terrible for workers, who already suffer unsafe conditions, resulting in serious injuries and even lifelong disabilities. Last year the Southern Poverty Law Center released a disturbing account of worker injuries and health problems in Alabama poultry slaughterhouses due to what it called “punishing” line speeds. Workers were made to “endure debilitating pain in their hands, gnarled fingers, chemical burns and respiratory problems.” Also, for many immigrant workers, as the law center put it, “Threats of deportation and firing are frequently used to keep them silent,” making the USDA’s attempt to spin the recent NIOSH data particularly disturbing.

Federal agencies appear to be ganging up on the USDA — and rightly so. The Government Accountability Office published a report last year criticizing the USDA’s plan on the basis of inadequate and faulty safety data. Of course, the chicken industry loves the proposal. In fact, the National Chicken Council would prefer not having any limits on line speeds at all.

The Agricultre Department basically operates as the tool of agribusiness at this point and that’s why the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and DOA are basically at war, with NIOSH’s director directly calling out the Food Safety Inspection Service for lying about its data. The meat we buy from the store not only comes from a system that treats animals awfully, it destroys the lives of workers as well. It’s awful hard for the government to do much when one agency is fighting to make these factories safe for workers and other is fighting to make them unsafe.

Anti-Sweatshop Activism at USC

[ 6 ] April 18, 2014 |

In the late 1990s, United Students Against Sweatshops did some really great work around fighting the exploitative system of the apparel industry by placing pressure on colleges and universities to ethically source their school-licensed apparel. Then, with 9/11 and the Iraq War, economic justice question largely fell far down the priority list for the progressive agenda and USAS and other groups working on these issues went into a tough period. Now, they are again on the rise and again demanding ethically-produced clothing from their schools. Right now, this is happening at USC:

For the second day in a row, students on Wednesday protested in front of Tommy Trojan against the university administration and called for USC to cut ties with companies that employ sweatshop labor.

The protesters are members of the Student Coalition Against Labor Exploitation, or SCALE. SCALE members singled out Jansport, the clothing and accessories company, and accused Jansport’s parent company of relying on sweatshop labor in Bangladesh.

The protest comes one day after students descended upon the office of Pres. C.L. Max Nikias — a dramatic move that particpants say prompted university officials to call their parents and threaten to revoke financial aid packages.

Very classy of the university to threaten students for their activism. That’s the kind of inclusive and respectful leadership I know from university administrations in my personal experience. USC claims they do require apparel to not be made in sweatshops. But the students want the university to only work with companies who sign the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, which is the agreement that European manufacturers have agreed to join to try and ensure no more Rana Plaza factory collapses. American companies of course have refused because it is legally binding and we know that American corporations believe they should be able to do whatever they want to workers with no legal repercussions. Glad to see the USC students taking the fight to their campus.

Put the Wage Thieves in Prison

[ 188 ] April 18, 2014 |

Catherine Rampell is speaking smartly in her angry column on the systematic wage theft that goes on in fast food and other low wage industries:

Take Ashley Cathey, 25, a six-year McDonald’s employee who participated in a national one-day strike last December. A couple of months later, she got a 25-cent raise, to $8 an hour from $7.75. But something about her next paycheck looked fishy: Her pay seemed short given her raise and new, longer hours. She usually works overnight, and in recent months her shifts have frequently stretched to 12 or 14 hours because her Memphis restaurant has been short-staffed. (Perhaps because its wages are still too low to retain enough employees.)

She asked a friend who is a manager to print out her time sheet and noticed that someone had clocked her out for breaks she never took. Other co-workers spotted hours shaved from their time sheets, too. When employees brought this to the attention of a more senior boss, they were told the wrongly subtracted hours would appear in their next paychecks. Meanwhile, the helpful manager who had printed out the time sheets was reprimanded for sharing official time records with workers and told that he’d be fired if he did it again, Cathey said. Now Cathey keeps a personal record of the hours she clocks in and out.

“I never paid attention before,” she told me in a phone interview. She suspects that someone has been doctoring her hours for years, but she doesn’t want to endanger her manager friend’s job by asking for help obtaining proof. Even without proof she is convinced: “They’re hiding something, obviously,” she said.

This is not a one-off accusation. In the past few weeks, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman extracted settlements from dozens of McDonald’s and Domino’s locations around the state for off-the-clock work. Last month, workers in California, Michigan and New York filed class-action lawsuits against McDonald’s alleging multiple charges of wage theft. These suits have upped the ante by implicating the McDonald’s corporation, not just individual franchisees, in bad behavior. The plaintiffs allege that McDonald’s corporate office exerts so much control over franchisees — including by monitoring their hourly labor costs through a corporate computer system — that it had to have known what was going on.”

What to do about this? Put the people making this happen within the McDonald’s infrastructure in prison:

Harsher penalties, including prison time, should be on the table more often when willful wrongdoing is proved. Thieves caught stealing thousands of dollars from someone’s home can go to jail; the same should be true for thieves caught stealing thousands of dollars from someone’s paycheck.

There is no reason that wage theft should not be a criminal charge equal to robbery. It is the definition of robbery. It also reminds me of how the white cotton merchants stole from black sharecroppers by simply lying to them about how much cotton they grew. It’s basically the same thing and given the McDonald’s work force at the executive and employee level, the racial dynamics aren’t too different either.

stepped pyramids in comments: “Concealing timesheets from employees should be considered tantamount to an admission of wage-stealing, and there should be automatic penalties for it, along the lines of having to pay wages for the affected period at 40 hours a week, time-and-a-half.”

Yes.

Theoretically Progressive Media Company Typically Anti-Union

[ 120 ] April 17, 2014 |

I am so not surprised that self-proclaimed friend of labor Media Matters wants a union-free shop:

Media Matters for America is apparently resisting an effort by Service Employees International Union Local 500 to unionize its staff.

Last week, the union filed a representation petition with the National Labor Relations Board, indicating that the nonprofit media watchdog organization rejected an effort by the union to organize MMFA’s staff through a Card Check election.

But the filing does indicate that MMFA is not automatically accepting Local 500′s attempt to represent it’s staff. The nonprofit media watchdog group has hired the law firm Perkins Coie, which specializes in representing management in labor disputes, to represent it before the board.

This is like theoretically progressive academics opposing graduate student unions. If you don’t support unions when they affect you as an employer or manager, then you don’t support unions. If Media Matters receives any funding from organized labor, I hope those unions put some serious pressure on MMFA to accept the card check.

Shoe Strike

[ 26 ] April 17, 2014 |

Chinese workers making shoes for American manufacturers are on strike:

More than 30,000 staff at the Yue Yuen Industrial (Holdings) factory in Dongguan city have been striking for several days in protest at unpaid social insurance payments, said US-based China Labour Watch, adding that police had beaten and detained several protesters.

China is facing labour unrest as its economic growth slows and as factories in its southern manufacturing heartland report a shortage of workers, prompting rising demands from staff.

Yue Yuen says on its website that it produces shoes for foreign brands including Nike, Adidas, Puma and New Balance.

Once again, there is no good reason why international corporations should not have liability for injustice committed against workers making their products. Every cent of money not paid to the Chinese workers is profit for the corporations. Given the harsh downward pressure apparel companies place on their contractors to keep prices low, they incentivize ripping off the workers. This system exists to absolve western companies of any responsibility for what happens in the factories, even though they choose where to contract the work, what prices they will pay for the product, and how much they will sell it for. This is an unjust and morally bankrupt system that can be fought by western citizens and governments demanding accountability, including the application of a broad set of international laws that companies must follow regardless of where they site their work or who they contract it out to. Without this, the race to the bottom around the globe will continue.

The Ludlow Centenary

[ 14 ] April 16, 2014 |

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Next week will mark the 100th anniversary of the Ludlow Massacre. While it seems like a long time ago, in the New Gilded Age, it remains disturbingly relevant because the conditions that created such horrors in 1914 are returning to the United States of 2014. The historian Thai Jones gives an overview of the event and closes with this:

Observing from the vantage point of a half-century later, Howard Zinn saw two ways of understanding Ludlow. “If it is read narrowly, as an incident in the history of the trade union movement and the coal industry,” he wrote, “then it is an angry splotch in the past, fading rapidly amidst new events.” A second, more expansive view, he believed, revealed the true significance of the events of 1914: “If it is read as a commentary on a larger question—the relationship of government to corporate power and of both to movements of social protest—then we are dealing with the present.”

The export of manufacturing jobs abroad has produced an undoing of memory. Today, the nation is divided by the kind of severe income disparities last seen during the Gilded Age, and yet the traditions of labor militancy and resistance to corporate ferocity that flowered in the era of heavy industry have been largely forgotten by both workers and employers. But Ludlow is the terminus of capitalism’s regressive path. If our future is shaped by the further degradation of labor rights, there can only be more massacres and new monuments.

Indeed.

Microbreweries and Teamsters

[ 124 ] April 14, 2014 |

A bit of a kerfuffle in Minnesota between microbrewers and the Teamsters.

A bill that would allow limited Sunday sales of alcohol in Minnesota is in jeopardy.

Backers of a bill that would allow liquor stores to sell alcohol on Sundays have been rebuffed at the State Capitol for years. So this year, they considered it a victory that even a tiny Sunday sales provision was included in the overall liquor bill.

The measure, which would allow craft beer taprooms to sell growlers (refillable containers that hold half a gallon) on Sundays, sailed through legislative committees. But in recent days the bill has stalled in the Senate Tax Committee. The roadblock? The powerful Teamsters Union.

Teamster’s Union political director Ed Reynoso said the union started lobbying against Sunday growler sales after he learned a company that distributes alcohol and employs members of the union suggested the law would allow them to reopen their labor contracts because of it. He said the union wants to avoid that because it could mean wages, benefits and work hours could all be back on the table.

“As soon as we had an employer raise the potential that they were going to ask for a reopener, I reached out to leadership, I reached out to the Senate Committee chair,” Reynoso said. “I notified them of our objections and our concerns.”

The microbrewers are angry:

The issue is frustrating to members of the Minnesota Beer Activists, who have lobbied for ending the state’s ban on Sunday liquor store sales. The group’s director, Andrew Schmitt, said he thought allowing growler sales was a compromise.

“We’re not going to see any progress and who comes out ahead on that? It’s the Teamsters and it’s only the Teamsters,” Schmitt said. “They have protection for their concerns and the brewers aren’t going to get anything addressed and the consumers aren’t going to get their needs addressed and the Teamsters have essentially killed the bill.”

Well, the bill isn’t exactly dead yet and it’s far from clear in the story that the Teamsters have the power to do so. Could be used an excuse by politicians who don’t want to pass the bill anyway. But if companies are using this as a way to reopen contract and bust unions, then that’s an excellent reason for the Teamsters to oppose this bill. In fact, that’s exactly what a union is supposed to do. Now, it would be nice to know who this company is and what they are saying, something the report evidently couldn’t find out. It would also be useful if the brewers and the Teamsters could reach out to each other and talk this through (admittedly, making alliances has never been a priority of the Teamsters). The brewers should also come out in favor of strong union contracts and oppose anyone seeking to reopen contracts. But that’s evidently not something they have thought about.

This Day in Labor History: April 14, 1975

[ 35 ] April 14, 2014 |

On April 14, 1975, the Bunker Hill Mining Company in Kellogg, Idaho announced a new policy in response to worries about female workers suffering reproductive problems due to lead exposure. The company decided to require sterilization of all women working in its smelter. This was a landmark moment in the history of women working in dangerous labor, particularly in traditionally all-male industries like mining.

Bunker Hill was founded in the late 1890s and became one of the nation’s largest producers of lead and zinc. Until 1943, women were not allowed to work in the lead smelter. That changed briefly because of World War II, but they were again banned in 1946. In the 1970s, Bunker Hill employed around 1600 people. Of them, nearly 100 were women. 22 worked in the lead smelter area. By the 1970s, Americans’ concern over lead poisoning, both on the job and in the nation at large had grown significantly. The nation was moving toward banning leaded gasoline and both environmentalists and some labor unions fought for greater restrictions on the exposure of working people to all sorts of toxic materials, especially lead.

Bunker Hill was a union mine, its workers represented by the United Steelworkers of America. But the USWA was not particularly comfortable with female members. In 1973, the EEOC, Department of Labor, and Department of Justice filed suit against the nation’s 9 largest steel companies and the USWA, charging them with discriminatory hiring practices that extended through the mills. That the union was at fault too is depressing, but on target with a lot of organized labor in traditionally male physically challenging work at this time. The settlement agreed to give $31 million in back pay to 40,000 women and minorities in the mills and to set hiring goals of 25% of supervisory positions and 50% of craft jobs going to women or minorities. Neither the union nor the companies really wanted this to happen. But the EEOC settlement reopened the lead smelter to women.

Bunker Hill’s response to the EEOC suit was to cloak itself in a fetal rights argument, simply banning most women from the job. The company stated publicly that it “is willing to be criticized for not employing some women–but not for causing birth effects.” What it was not willing to do was to limit exposure of all workers to lead. Effectively, Bunker Hill decided to define women primarily as childbearers and operate accordingly. But as ACLU lawyer Joan Bertin stated, the real reason was that companies didn’t want women working in these jobs because of beliefs they were less efficient and argued, “The price of safety cannot be the loss of civil and constitutional rights.”

Thus if women wanted to work in the lead smelter, they could. But the company wanted no responsibility for the poison the women would ingest. So they had to be sterilized. 29 women refused and were transferred to safer work that paid significantly less and reinforced the gender norms in the mill. At least three women did receive sterilization in order to keep their jobs.

The women at Bunker Hill turned to their union for help. The USWA refused to get involved. It said the fight would be too expensive. It claimed that fighting this would cause more problems for women throughout the steel industry. It also worried for the future of the mill as the industry was already declining in the United States.

The women then went to the Idaho Human Rights Commission. It developed a compromise allowing women to be paid the same rates as if they worked at the smelter. Both the company and women rejected this idea; the company because of the cost, the workers for the principle. The women then filed a suit with the EEOC in January 1976. EEOC endorsed the same compromise as the IHRC.

Too many unionists did not care much about this case, including USWA officials. On the other hand, Tony Mazzocchi, safety director for the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers and the most important figure in the union environmentalism of the 1970s and early 1980s, stated bluntly, “Ultimately, it will be quite clear that women and men alike suffer from exposure to lead and other toxic chemicals. When that happens, the industry initiative may be to have men sterilized. We will then enter the age of the neutered worker.”

OSHA stepped into this debate. President Carter’s OSHA was Eula Bingham, and as an advocate for both feminism as well as women’s rights, Bingham was furious at Bunker Hill’s sterilization policy. As she noted, no one suggested men should be banned from workplaces where toxic exposure might lead to their sterilization. It’s also likely that OSHA wanted to use Bunker Hill as an example in order to get companies to comply with its stricter national lead standard. In 1980, OSHA filed suit, fining Bunker Hill $82,000 for 108 occupational safety and health violations, including $10,000 for the sterilization policy. But after Reagan took the presidency in 1981, OSHA dropped the case. Reagan’s OSHA already stopped referring to it as a “sterilization policy,” instead calling it an “exclusionary policy,” a significant rhetorical move.

But even before Bingham became involved in fighting the broader problem of discrimination based upon defining women as childbearers, the Idaho women had accepted defeat. The EEOC offered the same compromise as the Idaho Human Rights Commission. The women accepted their higher wages, but future women would not have the opportunity for those high-paying jobs. Within weeks, companies including Union Carbide, Dow Chemical, Firestone, General Motors, and AT&T all instituted similar programs that effectively excluded women from high-paying, dangerous work.

In the end, the women believed they had been victimized not only by their employer but by the USWA and the government. The union had done basically nothing for them. The EEOC did not want to get involved. Women in other dangerous trades would have to continue fighting for equal access to work, a fight that would continue well into the 1980s.

In 1979, the Labor Occupational Health Program made a film about lead exposure featuring this struggle. You can watch a chunk of it here. Pretty good stuff.

Although it is mentioned in several places, I don’t think there is a complete scholarly discussion of this event. I relied in part on Sara Dubow, Ourselves Unborn: A History of the Fetus in Modern America, which discusses the case for a few pages.

This is the 103rd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

LIUNA

[ 29 ] April 13, 2014 |

The Laborers’ Union continues to burn every bridge with other progressive communities with a napalm air strike:

A letter distributed Friday by the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA) to the districts of 27 House Democrats calls for union members to make sure their representative “feels the power and the fury of LIUNA this November.”

Their crime: signing a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry last month urging him to reject Keystone, which would carry oil sands from Canada to Gulf Coast refineries.

“Your member of Congress is trying to destroy job opportunities for our LIUNA brothers and sisters,” said the letter signed by Terry O’Sullivan, the general president of LIUNA.

“For every action, there is a reaction, and our reaction to this frontal assault on our way of life needs to be loud and clear. If you do not stand with us, we sure as hell will not stand with you,” O’Sullivan wrote, noting the jobs Keystone would create for union members.

While I’m sure LIUNA does not have the power to make anyone suffer, especially since most of these targeted representatives have the support of far larger unions like SEIU and AFSCME, unions it should be said who see value in not making other Democrats hate them for supporting climate change creating projects, it’s still unfortunate to say the least. As I’ve said before, I completely understand LIUNA supporting the project for their own members. What I don’t get is the aggression that represents something far more than the relatively few jobs it will get from the pipeline. This is the kind of cultural warfare the Carpenters used in the Northwest during the ancient forest campaigns in the Northwest in the 80s and 90s. The hippie enviros are an existential threat far beyond Keystone. This is about what it means to be an American, which for LIUNA is supporting any construction project regardless of social cost.

I have trouble seeing how this works out for the Laborers in the long run.

American Infrastructure, American Jobs

[ 73 ] April 12, 2014 |

American infrastructure funded with federal money should be built in factories that create American jobs.

This Day in Labor History: April 12, 1934

[ 14 ] April 12, 2014 |

On April 12, 1934, workers at the Electric Auto-Lite Company in Toledo walked off the job in a strike that united unionized labor and the unemployed, creating a social movement that scared capitalists around the nation, helped spur more substantial labor legislation, and left two workers dead after a five day battle between strikers and the Ohio National Guard. If I had to point to a the most militant moment in American history, I’d choose the spring of 1934. Huge strikes roiled San Francisco, Minneapolis, and Toledo.

The Electric Auto-Lite company made electrical starters and spark plugs at a factory in Toledo. Although we don’t think of the American Federation of Labor as organizing industrial workers–because usually they didn’t–by the early 1930s, the pressure to engage in industrial strikes was forcing the AFL to move in a limited way on this front, particularly after the passage of the National Industrial Recovery Act in 1933. So the AFL sought to organize the Auto-Lite plant, as well as several other auto plants. It had some early success, establishing temporary industrial unions at a few plants by March 1934.

AFL president William Green was never comfortable with this arrangement. He saw himself as the sole mediator between workers and employers and these industrial workers were too independent for his tests. When the auto unions decided on a strike in March 1934, Green tried to stamp it out, with the help of Franklin Roosevelt, who offered mediation because he feared an auto strike would hurt the recovery; Green felt the unions were not strong enough to win. When Green agreed, auto union membership plummeted since workers no longer trusted him to represent them.

In Toledo, workers had organized Federal Labor Union (the AFL name for these temp unions) Local 18384. This local focused on Auto-Lite but actually had members from multiple car and car part companies in Toledo. This gave the local a lot of power because they could go on strike at one company but still have dues money coming in, allowing it to pay strike dues without becoming insolvent. On February 23, 1934, workers briefly walked out for union recognition and a 10% pay increase. They came to an agreement in late March on a smallish pay increase (the union wanted another 20%) and an agreement to talk further. But when management refused to sign the new contract, a group of workers walked out.

Unfortunately for them, only about 25% initially came out for that second strike. Very fortunately, the American Workers Party under the leadership of the legendary radical and former Quaker minister here in Providence AJ Muste immediately joined the strike, organizing the city’s unemployed both to radicalize the general population over the terrible conditions of the Depression and to ensure that they wouldn’t take jobs as strikebreakers. Muste was in his Trotskyite phase at this point and like the Trotskyite Minneapolis Teamsters who would strike the next month, was more invested in direct action than obscure theoretical arguments. AWP executive secretary Louis Budenz led the party’s actions from Toledo.

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AJ Muste

The strike quickly became a social movement. When unemployed workers came to the aid of the strikers, employers and the agents of power were shocked. After a century of using the unemployed against unions, in the darkest days of the Great Depression, the employed and unemployed were uniting. The courts granted Auto-Lite an injunction against the strikers, limiting pickets to 25 at each of the plant’s 2 entrances, but that did not apply to the unemployed workers. The AWP responded that it would “deliberately and specifically violate the injunction enjoining us from sympathetically picketing peacefully in support of the striking auto workers’ federal union.” The AWP and the unemployed continued to block the entrance to Auto-Lite, organizing them in part so that they would not serve as strikebreakers. Leaders of the movement were arrested but the protests continued.

By early May, with the strike leaders on trial, Auto-Lite decided to break the strike and began importing strikebreakers. When the workers heard of it, the protests grew rapidly. On May 21, there were 1000 picketers, 4000 on May 22, and 6000 on May 23. Between May 23 and May 28, the streets of Toledo were a battlefield and strikers battled the Ohio National Guard seeking to open the plant. It started when police started beating an old man. The crowd erupted, started breaking windows and throwing rocks at the police. The National Guard came in. FDR sent Charles Taft in to mediate. Son of the former president and a major political player in Ohio (you can also visit an animatronic Charles Taft at the William Howard Taft museum in Cincinnati), Roosevelt hoped he could calm the situation but he could not. He wanted the workers to submit their grievances to the federal Automobile Labor Board, but this would have forced the workers to give them their best weapon–the strike–and so they rejected it. The National Guard killed 2 workers on May 24 in a pitched battle with strikers. The next day, Auto-Lite agreed to keep the plant closed to avoid further violence. But on the same day, 51 of the city’s 103 unions agreed to begin a general strike. However, the violence began to die down on May 26 thanks to mass arrests, especially of local American Workers Party leaders.

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Seeing the writing on the wall, the actual Auto-Lite workers lowered their request at Taft’s urging to a 10 percent wage increase. The company again became aggressive, attempting to create a company union and rejecting everything the auto workers proposed. As May turned into June, the chances for a renewal of violence grew. More unions geared up for a general strike while the company asked the Ohio governor to use the National Guard to keep the plant open by force. Workers appealed to FDR to intervene on their side. Finally what ended this was employers throughout the city granting pay raises to the unions, beginning with an IBEW local that won 20 percent. On June 2, the auto workers came to an agreement, getting only a 5 percent wage increase but also union recognition. The AWP urged the workers to reject the agreement, but the workers wanted to work and felt they had won what they wanted. The National Guard withdrew from Toledo on June 5. The Toledo Central Labor Council held a huge victory parade on June 9 with 20,000 people. Regardless of the AWP’s revolutionary aims, for labor itself, this was a gigantic win.

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The power of workers at Auto-Lite helped build momentum for the National Labor Relations Act that followed the next year. It also increased the appeal of large-scale industrial unionism. The Toledo workers became United Auto Workers Local 12 when that union formed in 1937.

The factory closed in 1962 and was turned into a park in 1999. The Autolite company is now part of the Honeywell octopus.

This is the 102nd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: April 11, 1986

[ 63 ] April 11, 2014 |

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.

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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.

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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.

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