On November 10, 1933, workers at the Hormel plant in Austin, Minnesota sat down on the job. Possibly the first sit-down strike in American history, the win these workers achieved helped set up the labor militancy of the New Deal era that revolutionized the lives of American labor.
The Industrial Workers of the World had basically been crushed after World War I, during the Red Scare. Leaderless, with Big Bill Haywood dying in exile in Moscow, the organization divided into factions in the 1920s that effectively made it irrelevant. It would still pop up every now and again, especially in areas where it had built real worker support, such as the forests of northern Idaho and western Montana. But by and large, it was an afterthought in an era where the left had turned to communism.
But really, the IWW could pop up anywhere. And the IWW could inspire similar movements as well. This is what happened in Austin. The Independent Union of All Workers was an independent movement building on IWW principles and intended to organize the meatpacking plants of the Midwest. It attempted to organize all the meatpacking workers on an industrial basis, regardless of race or creed and placed feelers out into other industries around the region too, including railroads and retail. Led by the former Wobbly Frank Ellis, who had been involved in many of that union’s epic battles and had been on the IWW’s executive board in the early 20s. In the late 20s, he was working in the meatpacking industry and, presumably knowing nothing of his background, Hormel hired him as a foreman to help run their new sausage casing department, a skill he had picked up along the way. While he wasn’t making a lot of waves early on, he started hiring blacklisted workers into the plant. Slowly, a radical cadre built up.
Hormel had dominated Austin since it opened its plant there in the 1890s. When times were good, it employed up to 4,000 workers, though times were often not good. Hormel engaged in the paternalist capitalism of the 1920s. That included community work that was really forced onto workers by the company. The Austin Community Chest was some sort of charitable donation deal that foremen intimidated recalcitrant workers into donating to, even though they might not have the money. This caused enormous resentment among the poorly paid workers. In July 1933, the most militant part of the plant–the hog killers–surrounded the foreman and forced him to give up on the drive. This started the union drive, as this militancy gave workers hope and Ellis was ready to go. The union was chartered the next day. On September 23, the now very activated workers marched on the building and intimidated Hormel’s chief, forcing him to agree to sign a union contract. But he continued to resist the workers’ real desire: a significant wage increase.
So on November 10, the hog killers decided to take the plant over: Said Larry Englemann:
“Four hundred men, many of them armed with clubs, sticks and rocks, crashed through the plant entrance, shattering the glass doors and sweeping the guards before them. The strikers quickly ran throughout the plant to chase out non-union workers. One . . . group crashed through the doors of a conference room where Jay Hormel and five company executives were meeting and declared “We’re taking possession. So move out!”
Then they sat down for the next three days.
The workers had an ace in the hole: Governor Floyd Olson. Hormel naturally expected Olson to send in the National Guard to get rid of the strikers. After all, that had been standard procedure for strikebreaking for decades. But Olson refused. Under his leadership, the state would be neutral in strikes and not serve as a socialized police force for capital. Instead, Olson came to Austin and mediated the conflict. On November 13, they won the strike and Hormel signed the contract. It had some pretty big wins. Not only was the wage gain significant but they worked it out to a guaranteed annual wage that would be parceled out in regular chunks and where overtime would be pooled for a later date, providing steady income instead of a flush of money when workers were active and then none when there wasn’t meat to produce. The company agreed to letting workers know a full year before layoffs could take effect. Workers also won a group piecework system that incentivized overtime but also allowed workers to control it by pooling it all so that workers wouldn’t compete themselves to death.
In the aftermath, the IUAW organized grievance committees and maintained a strong presence on the shop floor and used short-lived sit-downs to resolve problems immediately rather than go through lengthy arbitration proceedings. The union began expanding into other Austin industries and then around the area. They engaged in community unionism that provided activities for families and ensured democratic participation in the organization, keeping the empowered workers active union members. By 1937, the IUAW had organized in Iowa, Wisconsin, North Dakota, and South Dakota, as well as in several parts of Minnesota. It was a regionally important organization. But after a series of sit-in strikes in Albert Lea, Minnesota, proto-fascist forces led by local businessmen and police engaged in a violent raid on union headquarters, engaging in mass arrests, and destroying the union. The Austin meatpackers immediately headed to the nearby town but the new governor forced them in his mediation to affiliate with a national union. That undermined the independence of the IUAW. Internal dissension began growing. The Albert Lea plant’s attempt to affiliate with the United Steel Workers of America actually ended up losing to the plant company union, probably because of intimidation and workers’ disappointment at what had happened to the IUAW. The different locals merged into various unions. Some disappeared altogether. The Austin plant ended up with what became the United Packinghouse Workers of America, which was a very progressive and anti-racist union with a lot of African-Americans in relatively important positions, although not necessarily in the Austin plant.
Much of the information for this post came from an article by Peter Rachleff, which you can read here if you want to know more.
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