Despite Settlement, It's Still Not Over : Hormel Strike May Divide Town for Years to Come

Times Staff Writer

There was no need for a parade here this holiday weekend to remind the townsfolk of their labor history.

Austin is still living it.

"We've basically had Labor Day every day for over a year," said Bruce Lindquist, managing editor of the Austin Daily Herald.

In fact, a year and two weeks after nearly 1,500 union meatpackers at Austin's only major employer and most powerful institution, Geo. A. Hormel & Co., walked off their jobs at Hormel's meatpacking plant to protest wage and benefit cuts and poor safety conditions, this small company town on the plains of southern Minnesota has seen just about everything a long-running labor dispute could possibly throw its way.

Boycott of Products

National Guard troops have blockaded the streets. Mobs of strikers have threatened strikebreakers, pitting brother against brother, father against son. Hormel products have been the object of a nationwide boycott. A tent city has sprung up in downtown Austin packed with outside strike supporters from around the nation. Lifetime friendships have been sundered forever. There have been hunger, foreclosures, divorces and economic decay.

And, despite last week's announcement of a contract settlement at Hormel, it still is not over.

Hundreds of strikers, who have broken with their parent union to form a new labor organization, are vowing to fight on indefinitely, and local community leaders warn that this once-close town may remain divided for a generation.

'Won't Offer Peace Sign'

"I have parishioners who still won't even offer each other the sign of peace during Mass," says Father Charles Quinn, pastor of St. Augustine Catholic Church.

"I have got to say this town will heal, otherwise I might as well leave. But when you are up against that kind of depth of feeling, it will take years."

"When you live in a town of 23,000, you can't get away from this," adds Charles Nyberg, Hormel's chief labor negotiator. "So everyone is going to have to work very, very hard on healing the divisiveness."

Meanwhile, the strike's impact on the labor movement may linger just as long; clearly the strikers' rebellion against their own union is costing organized labor dearly, and continues to pose a serious threat to big labor's credibility among rank-and-file workers around the country.

So on its second Labor Day, the Hormel strike remains one of the labor movement's worst unresolved crises. The crisis came to a head last spring, when the international leadership of the United Food and Commercial Workers union became convinced that the Austin plant, which was running with non-union workers and former strikers who had crossed their local's picket lines, would go non-union if it did not quickly settle the prolonged walkout at Hormel.

Union Leaders Ousted

The international then won a court order in June ousting the leaders of its Austin union, Local P-9, and began bargaining directly with the company.

But under the settlement reached between Hormel and the international last week, Hormel will not have to rehire the 800 or so workers that remain on strike; instead, the agreement, which will be voted on this week, provides wage increases for the workers who crossed the union's picket lines. Union leaders said they could not get the company to agree to rehire the strikers, but the union members out on the street still feel betrayed.

"The international has made a complete sellout to the company," charges Jim Guyette, the former president of Local P-9, who was kicked out of office when the international took over the local. (Guyette, along with other former P-9 leaders, is appealing the court order that allowed the international to take over the local.)

'I'm Going to Fight'

"The international has done nothing to get back the jobs of the workers," Guyette said. "I'm going to fight until there is a fair and just contract here with all the people getting their jobs back."

Hundreds of strikers apparently agree, and have indicated that they are ready to keep fighting by signing up with a rival labor group, the North American Meat Packers Union, formed by a handful of strikers earlier this year. The group has set up shop in a storefront across the street from the Local P-9 union hall, and is fighting hard to oust the international and become the bargaining agent for Hormel's work force.

Pete Kennedy, a rank-and-file P-9 member who helped found the new union, says the group has signed up between 650 and 700 strikers (who remain eligible to vote on contracts and other union matters at Hormel) and has even persuaded a few workers in the plant to join.

The new union has rejected the tentative contract negotiated by the international, and has already won enough worker support to force the National Labor Relations Board to call for an election to determine whether the international or the North American Meat Packers will represent Hormel's workers.

'Gaining Credibility'

"As we get closer to an election, I don't think we will have too much trouble gaining credibility among the workers, since we are from here, and worked at Hormel," says Kennedy. "We aren't a bunch of union executives in here from Washington, D.C. (where the UFCW is based)."

On Sunday, in fact, hundreds of strikers and their families attended the new union's protest rally against the international's settlement. So while Hormel executives and international union officials insisted last week that the new contract would finally bring an end to Austin's war, many in town say they know it will not be so easy.

"Most people in Austin just want to sit down and cry about everything," says one former Hormel worker who asked not to be named. "They just want it to end."

Some civic leaders even warn that the strife that has plagued Austin and touched virtually every family in town is deepening, not fading away. Indeed, today the strike's influence on life in Austin has become pervasive; a strikebreaker is running for mayor against the son of a union loyalist, while a striker is running for county sheriff against the incumbent who led National Guardsmen when they kept Hormel's gates open so strikebreakers could enter last winter.

"I can just feel it, things are going to get worse," says Austin Mayor Tom Kough, himself a striker. As Kough spoke over breakfast at a local diner Saturday, a steady stream of angry and depressed P-9 strikers drifted by to complain about the settlement. "There's still a real bitterness," he said. "These people are angry, and it's not going away."

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