For nearly 30 years, Buck Heegard slaughtered hogs in a bloody, stench-filled George A. Hormel & Co. plant in Austin, Minn., and, even though the plant recently was modernized, it was and still is a rough, dirty job.
The pay wasn’t high--Heegard reached a peak of $10.69 an hour--but it was a steady job and only 29 miles from Albert Lea, Minn., where Heegard was born 59 years ago. He wasn’t yet ready to retire because his pension would not be high enough to allow him to maintain the modest standard of living that he and his family had achieved over the years.
When the company first asked the workers for loans and contract concessions to help raise the $100 million needed to automate the slaughtering plant, Heegard and his co-workers agreed.
But on Aug. 17, 1985, Hormel imposed another pay cut--down to $8.25 an hour--on grounds that other Hormel workers in other plants had accepted similar cuts. About 1,400 Austin workers struck in protest.
But now nearly 500 of the strikers have returned to their jobs. Hormel says more than 3,000 other workers in the depressed southern Minnesota farm area were ready to replace strikers like Heegard and that 600 permanent strikebreakers have been hired. The company says production is now nearly back to normal.
It is easy to understand why Heegard and about 900 other workers are still on strike, bitterly resisting the demands made by the profitable Hormel company.
“You just cannot live halfway comfortably on what they want to pay us now, and besides, they want to wreck our seniority system, reduce our pensions and force us to take other concessions we are just not about to accept,” Heegard said.
The only way to stop Hormel and other companies, he said, is to stand and fight and “stop cooperating with these bastards who are willing to sacrifice our economic lives to satisfy their own greed.”
His cause is so clear to him that he cannot understand why he and his fellow strikers are being denounced by leaders of their parent union, the AFL-CIO United Food and Commercial Workers, as “union busters,” bent not only on what the international leaders say is a suicidal strike but also badly damaging the entire labor movement.
Yet those accusations have substantial merit. The chances of Hormel giving in to the strikers are almost non-existent. There is only the remotest of chances that any of them ever will get their jobs back. And the same is almost certainly true for the nearly 500 other UFCW members who walked off their jobs at Hormel’s Ottumwa, Iowa, plant in support of the Austin strikers.
The leaders of the union’s Local P-9 in Austin have been so furious in their attacks against the UFCW, the largest affiliate of the AFL-CIO, that they probably are doing more to cheer the nation’s anti-union forces than any far larger labor-management battle in recent years.
For instance, Iowa Beef Packing Co., which has been fighting unionization of its workers for years, is said to be planning to use the furiously anti-UFCW films and statements by Local P-9 as a new weapon in future campaigns against UFCW organizing campaigns.
Many corporations spend millions dollars each year hiring professional “union busters” to help them find ways to discredit unions. What better way to achieve that goal than to quote statements and show films of militant unionists denouncing their own union in terms even harsher than the union busters use?
While the argument of the strikers has a strong ring of truth to it, Hormel and other meatpackers have an argument, too. For more than 50 years, Hormel has been unionized, and was regarded as a progressive employer.
An estimated 90% of the industry was unionized and workers’ wages and conditions were so uniform that they never could be used as a cost-cutting device in the competition between companies for customers. Today, sales generally are down. Non-union companies are on the increase and less than 70% of the industry is unionized. Several non-union firms now pay their workers $6 an hour or less and, even though Hormel still is making a profit ($38 million last year), the firm says it must have more labor cost reductions to remain in the black.
It is true that the international union has given support to Hormel in the strike, but the UFCW can hardly be called a weak, pro-company, anti-worker union.
Although the UFCW is not supporting the Austin Local P-9 strike, because the top officers see it is as a lost cause, the international has intervened 78 times over the past two years to prevent other local unions from making contract concessions to Hormel and other companies that had warned that if the workers did not give up a portion of their wages and benefits, they would lose their jobs. In most cases, the companies’ threats were withdrawn.
The UFCW intra-union battle seems far from over. Next Monday, the international union will take the first formal steps to put Local P-9 under trusteeship and install new officers. Local officials say they will not end the strike and that they are going to sue the international for “millions of dollars” for betraying the local union and working “in collusion” with Hormel management to break the strike.
Last week, Heegard went to San Jose to rally support for the strike from members of other unions. There are 85 other strikers from Austin on similar missions around the nation, living in cheap hotels, eating at the homes of sympathizers and rushing from one meeting to another to tell the story of Local P-9’s strike.
Local P-9 leaders argue that they are not hurting unionism by their prolonged strike. Workers do not join unions in order to take pay cuts, and the only way to stem the anti-union tide washing across the nation is to stand now and fight, they say. Even if this battle is lost, the true meaning of unions will survive, they insist.
But the union’s leaders, including UFCW President William Winn, argue more persuasively, with sadness, that worker militancy is not as universal as their critics contend. Unless there is some miraculous victory by the strikers, the only real beneficiaries of the P-9 battle will be the nation’s anti-union forces. The meatpacking industry already has suffered heavy employment losses. As a result of those losses and the rise in non-union competition, the union has developed what seems to be a sensible policy of “controlled retrenchment” so that it will be able to fight again for substantial contract improvements.
And in the meantime, some gains already are being made. The base wage now in most meatpacking plants is again about $10 an hour, compared to $8.25 a year or so ago.
The time for worker militancy is not over forever. But it makes more sense for workers to wage a militant strike when their own forces are united rather than when they are battling not just the employer, the police, the Minnesota National Guard and half the population of Austin, but also their own union and most of the leaders of all other AFL-CIO affiliates, as Heegard and his determined allies now are doing.
Stifling the Opposition
If they meet with reporters outside of the Las Vegas convention hall, dissident Teamsters attending the union’s convention there beginning May 19 can tell reporters why they don’t like their controversial president, Jackie Presser, and his policies. But they will not be allowed to talk with reporters on the convention floor.
The dissidents are too few in number to have any chance of getting rid of Presser, but they usually get wide attention when they talk with the news media during the session. The problem is for the dissidents and the reporters to find one another.
Reporters have been assured, however, that there will be no lack of information for them from the incumbent leaders. “There will be scheduled press conferences, the chance for interviews with (Teamster) officers and daily press reports on all convention activities.”
Few conventions, of unions or corporations, encourage media access to dissidents. But rarely do convention officials “protect” delegates from reporters who want to interview supporters or dissidents during convention sessions. It isn’t illegal, but the process seems clearly aimed at stifling public arguments against the international union by members themselves.