August 2010, Week 4


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Portside Labor <[log in to unmask]>
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Portside Labor <[log in to unmask]>
Mon, 23 Aug 2010 23:44:52 -0400
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Hormel Strike a Key Event in Nation's Labor History
by Peter Rachleff

From the late summer of 1985 into the early spring of
1986, the small town of Austin, Minnesota, figured
prominently in the national news.  The dramatic themes
and issues, twists and turns, of a labor conflict there
captured the national imagination.  This interest was
not merely passive, as more than thirty support
committees formed across the U.S. and aid for the
strikers came from nineteen countries.  This strike
touched a raw, deep nerve.

In August 1985, 1,700 meatpacking workers, members of
United Food and Commercial Workers Local P-9, struck
the flagship plant of George A. Hormel and Company in
Austin, Minnesota.  They had taken a wage freeze in
1977 as part of a bargain to get Hormel to build a
planned state-of-the-art plant in Austin, which had
been the center of their operations since the 1920s.
Corporations made so many threats in the later 1970s
and 1980s to relocate production facilities -- and
followed through on so many of them -- that the best-
selling labor books of the era carried titles like
"Capital Flight" and "The Deindustrialization of
America." Local and state governments, as well as
workers and unions, were challenged by such threats,
and they often responded with tax breaks and
infrastructure development along with the pay and
benefit cuts or freezes that workers provided.  Despite
these concessions, millions of manufacturing jobs were
exported from the U.S., relocated by corporate
employers to low-wage, minimally regulated sites from
Mexico and Central America to China, Vietnam, Thailand,
and Singapore.

In the case of Hormel in Austin, the company received
new exit and entrance ramps to I-90, new service roads
into and around the plant, tax breaks, and that wage
freeze.  Workers had also agreed to shift the structure
of their wage payments away from a system which since
1933 had provided them with stable earnings in a
notoriously seasonal industry to a more conventional
hourly wage system.  This shift also undermined the
controls that workers had long exercised over the pace
of production.  On the basis of these concessions,
Hormel built its new plant in Austin.

But workers were in for a very rude awakening.  When
the new plant opened in 1982, work was reorganized,
production lines were sped up, and injury rates
skyrocketed.  Workers' complaints were rebuffed by
management.  Then, when contract negotiations opened in
the fall of 1984, citing changes in the industry such
as the closing of major competitors' plants, mergers,
buy-outs, and ownership changes, and the imposition of
wage cuts, Hormel management demanded a 23 percent wage
cut!  For workers who felt that they and their families
had given generations of loyal labor to this company,
in exchange for which they had received respect and
decent compensation, this was adding insult to injury.

The local, under leadership elected since the new plant
agreement of 1977, made plans for their first strike
since the one which had established the union in 1933,
despite the advice of the international union and its
packinghouse division to accept management's demands.
This new leadership built a thick internal network of
committees responsible for a range of activities,
mobilized their retirees, reached out to UFCW locals at
other Hormel plants, solicited the support of union
activists in the Twin Cities and across the country,
and hired consultant Ray Rogers, founder of Corporate
Campaign, Inc.  With Rogers, they developed a strategy
that emphasized the economic links between Hormel and
key regional banks, sought a very visible public
presence, and put their members forward as their
greatest resource, not just as picketers but as public
speakers, artists, toy makers, cooks, and strategists.

The ensuing strike galvanized the attention of a labor
movement which was reeling from Ronald Reagan's firing
of the Air Traffic Controllers in the summer of 1981,
the closing of factories and the export of jobs abroad,
employers' demands for concessions, and the
government's weakening of its enforcement of labor laws
from the right to organize to workplace health and
safety regulations.  A new breed of management
consultants, union-busting lawyers, and private
security companies signaled a new determination by
corporate employers to manage their workplaces without
"interference" from unions.  When Hormel workers stood
up for themselves in a very public and creative way,
they inspired other workers who were facing -- or
fearing -- similar threats, demands, and pressures.
And when the strikers, receiving meager strike benefits
of $45 a week, asked for support -- at first, to make
car and mortgage payments, to keep the heat and lights
on, to buy groceries; later, to join picket lines,
participate in rallies, and boycott Hormel products --
what they received was unprecedented.  It not only
enabled them to survive materially for months and
months, but it inspired them to stand firm, to know
that they were fighting for more than themselves.

Local P-9 was ultimately defeated by an array of
powerful forces: corporate obstinacy, an ability to
shift production to other plants, and support from
other business interests including those banks; a
series of hostile court decisions and injunctions; the
intervention of the Minnesota National Guard, under
orders from Governor Rudy Perpich; an unsympathetic
media; and its own international union which was
supported by a labor bureaucracy at the highest reaches
of the state's and the nation's unions.  Looking back
twenty-five years later, it is sobering to assess how
much power could be marshaled to defeat this one local
union, even as it is inspiring to realize how valiantly
they stood up for themselves and for all working

Local P-9's stand inspired hundreds of thousands of
workers, not just in the U.S. but across the world, who
were beginning to feel the economic and political lash
which would drive a new corporate global strategy in
the late 20th and early 21st centuries.  Corporations,
governments, and transnational entities have
implemented a strategy including free trade, plant
closings, capital flight and the export of jobs,
deregulation, privatization, contracting out, the
reorganization of work, the exploitation of immigrants,
the tearing apart of the social contract which, in the
U.S. at least, had been embodied in union
representation, collective bargaining, the welfare
state, and Keynesian economic practices.  In place of
the panoply of alphabet soup agencies created by
Roosevelt's New Deal -- WPA, CCC, TVA, FTP -- and the
new labor organizations affiliated with the CIO,
workers' lives now take place in the shadows of NAFTA,
WTO, IMF, and the World Bank.  The Hormel strike
symbolized the fight back against this new corporate
agenda, not just because of the injustice of the
corporate demands but also because of the heroism of
the strikers.

Even as we pay homage to this heroism today, twenty-
five years later, we must assess the costs of the
defeat of this union, these workers, and the victory of
this corporate agenda: the triumph of greed on Wall
Street and the hard times on Main Street; the export of
millions of manufacturing jobs to places where workers
cannot earn a living wage or protect their communities
from the damage being done to their land, their water,
their air, and their health by the arrival of these new
economic "opportunities"; the dispossession of
millions of small farmers and the pressures on them to
migrate in search of work; the shredding of the "safety
net" in the U.S., western Europe, and other developed
countries, from public education to public safety; the
loss of economic security, from pensions, healthcare
benefits, and vacations, to the loss of jobs
themselves; the collapse of mortgages and the epidemic
of foreclosures sweeping communities; the rise of
political movements based on hate, from neo-nazis, the
KKK, and the tea party in the U.S. to Islamic
fundamentalism in the Middle East, South Asia, and
Africa.  The mural on the outside of the Austin union
hall, designed by national labor artist Mike Alewtiz
and P-9 rank-and-filer Denny Mealy, and painted by more
than 100 volunteers, included a banner: "IF BLOOD BE
PAID IN FULL."  Indeed.

This new corporate agenda, named "neoliberalism" for
its classical hostility to the state's playing a
leading economic role, on the one hand, and its
celebration of the free market, on the other, has
succeeded in transferring wealth from working people to
the elite.  The U.S. has been returned to the standards
of inequality which marked our economy in the late
1920s, after more than half a century of a rising tide
which was lifting all our boats.  Policies and
practices adopted since 1980 have benefitted only the
very rich, leaving most of us floundering well before
the Great Recession of 2008.  Neoliberalism has meant,
for most people in the world, the demand to work harder
and to receive less for it.  But the Great Recession
has revealed that neoliberalism has not brought growth
and prosperity to the U.S. or anywhere else, for that
matter.  Now, more than ever, we need to reflect on the
Hormel strike of 1985-1986, on the heroism and
creativity of its participants, and on the nature of
the opposition they faced.  We may yet learn from our
past to build a better future.

Peter Rachleff is a Professor of History at Macalester
College in Saint Paul, Minnesota.  In 1985-1987, he
served as chairperson of the Twin Cities Local P-9
Support Committee, and in 1993 South End Press
published his book on the strike, Hard-Pressed in the
Heartland: The Hormel Strike and the Future of the
Labor Movement.  He can be reached at
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