Confrontation in a Company Town

Eric Mann, a member of the United Auto Workers, writes on labor issues.

Austin, Minn., population 23,000, home of Geo. A. Hormel & Co., is a one-horse town, as the workers say, and Hormel is the horse. On Aug. 17, 1985, the membership of Local P-9 of the United Food and Commercial Workers voted 1291 to 96 to begin a strike that could become pivotal for the labor movement. Here is a case of a local now battling its own international union as well as corporate management.

What provoked the strike, say the workers, was not union demands to improve conditions, but management demands to continue to push down labor costs. Hormel's final terms included:

--Freezing wages, already cut from $10.69 an hour to $10, for three more years.

--Stiff increases in medical premiums paid by workers, and loss of rights for workers injured on the job.

--Further weakening of workers seniority rights.

Serious health and safety issues at the Austin plant also contributed to the strike. Kathy Buck, secretary-treasurer of the local explained, "We slaughter hogs and process them into ham, sausage and bacon. We have to work with sharp knives, lift hunks of meat up to 60 pounds. There are many cuts and muscle injuries, and it's so cold in the plant--about 38 degrees--people joke about the wind-chill factor."

Workers argue that while the average U.S. industrial injury rate was eight injuries per 100 workers and the average in meat-packing was 33 per 100, the injury rate at Austin was a staggering 202 injuries per 100 workers.

Hormel spokesperson Charles Nyberg, senior vice president and general council, responded, "Ask the union where they got those ridiculous figures from, demand documentation." P-9's Larry Gullickson replied, "Those are the company's figures. We got them right off the plant bulletin board when they were accusing us of injuring ourselves on purpose to collect worker's compensation benefits." The two sides also disagree on wages.

Nyberg: "The 69-cent wage cut was a response to far lower wages by our competitors. We must question why a local would strike the company paying by far the highest wages in the industry."

The company's annual report for 1985 suggests why: "Sales dollars exceed $1.5 billion for the first time . . . . Net earnings of $38,618,000 establish a new record." Business Week called Hormel "the envy of the industry because of its consistent profitability" and the chief executive officer's salary rose from $339,000 to $570,000.

The strike stopped production at Austin for more than five months. The local also tried to organize consumer pressure on the First Bank system, a major creditor and stockholder of Hormel, and sent roving pickets to other Hormel plants. More than 500 Hormel workers at Ottumwa, Iowa, held a short-term walkout in support.

The company played hardball in return. Management fired 538 workers in three other Hormel plants for walking out in solidarity with P-9's roving pickets. On Jan. 20, 800 National Guardsmen were sent to Austin to escort strikebreakers into the plant. P-9 President Jim Guyette wondered why: "Our pickets were nonviolent and disciplined. The only violence we did was to Hormel's profits." Having seen more than 600 strikebreakers take their jobs, 380 members of P-9, after six months, have crossed the picket lines. But the majority remain on strike and call for a national boycott of Hormel products to pressure the company back to the bargaining table.

In the past two weeks, P-9 leadership has offered to give in on the $10 hourly wage rate if the company will bargain in good faith on health, safety and seniority issues. But it now appears that the company's objectives are not just breaking the $10.69 wage demand, but breaking P-9 as a militant local.

The company's position is that the strikebreakers are "permanent replacements"; under a recent Supreme Court decision--Belknap vs. Hale, 1983--such workers were given rights to sue for damages if replaced by returning strikers. Nyland concedes that the company could have hired temporary replacements but didn't: "We had that option," he said, "but we chose not to exercise it, in order to attract better people."

David Taylor, a striker with 20 years seniority, commented, "In the late 1800s when this company was formed, George and Jay Hormel took care of the town and the town took care of them. Now, just for exercising my right to strike, I don't know if I have a job or where I'm going. The company has gone impersonal, hiring a professional strikebreaking outfit from Milwaukee that is running the whole show. We are seeing what happens when the company in the company town goes from paternalistic to downright vicious."

The company's biggest ally has lately been the UFCW International.

Nyberg is quick to ask a reporter, "Have you talked with the International Union? They don't support this maverick local at all. Let me give you some people to call at the international."

Lewie Anderson, vice president of the UFCW, is indeed a critic of the local: "My differences with P-9 are strategic. I am trying to build a solid floor against concessions, shoring up the bottom at the weakest plants and then raising everyone's wages together. But they want to go it alone, abandoning other locals."

Guyette responded, "Our strategy is to win exemplary contracts from the stronger, most profitable companies like Hormel, and then use them to pull up wages and conditions at weaker plants rather than take some abstract promise of better conditions in the future."

But the differences go beyond strategy. In a "Fact Book" put out by the UFCW International, Anderson refers to the P-9 leadership as motivated by a "Rambo attitude," "self-serving," even as "the enemy within." This view of the strikers--out for 28 weeks at $40-a-week strike benefits--as "the enemy within" explains Anderson's unwillingness to help the local. When asked if there was any possible way the international and P-9 could resolve differences, Anderson replied, "The strike is lost. Their actions are suicidal. The only solution is for them to end the strike and I will try to get them their jobs back."

David Taylor disagrees: "The international pressured the leadership of the Oscar Mayer locale in Madison, Wis., not to help us. So the rank and file kicked them out and elected a whole new executive board. The new local leadership just sent us $10,000 worth of food. Locals around the country are watching us as an organizing experiment and rooting us on."

The press reported shouting matches between Guyette and Anderson at the recent AFL-CIO convention in Florida. But there were also unreported, behind-the-scenes efforts by AFL-CIO leaders to bring both sides together in an effort to win the strike at Hormel.

The high morale of the strikers, and the impressive support they have from other rank-and-file unionists, farmers and small businesses is an organizing model the UFCW leadership might well embrace and could still support. But if the international union refuses to provide help for the strikers, then an already declining labor movement will lose another opportunity to regroup and reunify--while Hormel management can laugh all the way to the Austin bank.

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