Behind the Hormel Strike: Fifty Years of P-9

Roger Horowitz

TWO SCENES provide a window on the traditions of unionism at the Hormel plant in Austin, Minnesota.

As scabs try to enter the plant on January 20, 1986, a slowly-moving car caravan turns into a militant blockade which forces closure of the plant. After another day of skirmishing, the plant is finally reopened as scabs pass under the watchful eyes and riot batons of the National Guard, dispatched by Democratic &Governor Rudy Perpich.

On November 11, 1933, striking Hormel workers swept through the plant, clearing out reluctant workers, foremen, and company president Jay Hormel. Known at that time as the Independent Union of All Workers (IUAW), the union successfully blockaded the plant for three days and secured an agreement with the company.

The parallel between these two incidents is real as well as symbolic. Despite the impression conveyed by the mass media that the Hormel strike is simply over wages, it in fact reflects the determination of the Austin workers to prevent a return to the working conditions which preceded the rise of mass production unionism in the 1930s. It also shows the hazards faced by employers as they try to return labor relations to the pre-union era.

Origins of the Austin, Hormel Union

The foundation for the stubborn struggle of Local P-9 of today’s United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) was laid in the 1930s. The local was organized in 1933 through rank-and-file initiative and organization within the Hormel plant. It, in turn, organized other meatpacking workers in nearby facilities. Despite the deradicalization of the union in the 1940s and 1950s, it retained an inplant apparatus and membership control over union affairs. This would permit a more militant leadership, led by James V. Guyette, to resist concessions in the 1980s with far greater ability than many other local unions.

Organizing efforts in 1933 were prompted not only by low wages, but also insecurity of employment and abusive treatment by foremen. Periodic layoffs made it impossible for workers to maintain a regular income, and periodic “gifts” of liquor or free labor to supervisors were necessary to keep one’s job and secure the better assignments in the plant. Women could do little about continual sexual harassment by foremen.

Sentiment for unionism first surfaced among workers in the hog kill section of the plant, and crystallized when they established contact with Frank Ellis, a longtime member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Ellis, a foreman in the sausage department, had been able to get other IWW members hired in the plant, and was able to supply both organizing expertise and contacts within the plant to the hog kill workers. Hundreds attended a series of mass meetings over the summer of 1933, and the union rapidly signed up virtually the entire workforce.

Under Ellis’ influence, the Hormel workers initially adopted the IWW form of “one big union.” The IUAW was a regional organization in Minnesota and Iowa of workers with various occupations. Hormel unionists aggressively organized packinghouse workers in northern Iowa, southern Minnesota, and South St. Paul, as well as other workers in the town of Austin. After joining the CIO-affiliated Packinghouse Workers Organizing Committee (PWOC) in 1937, the local continued organizing in this area, funded by donations from the Austin workers and not the PWOC central office.

Relationship with the Hormel Company

The rapid success of the union was due in part to its relationship with company president Jay Hormel, a lifelong resident of Austin. The company was founded in 1891 by his father, George A. Hormel, who ruled it ruthlessly until retiring and passing the presidency to Jay in 1929. Jay, 37 years old at the time, ran the company in the style of his father until the 1933 strike. Stunned by the workers’ actions, Jay decided to reach an accommodation with the union soon after it was organized, rather than fight it.

The motor behind the amicable relationship that developed between company and union after 1940 was the combined guaranteed annual wage and group incentive system. The basic hourly rate was automatically pegged at the level of the workers in the “Big Four” chains of Armour, Swift, Wilson and Cudahy, with the guaranteed annual wage calculated on the basis of 52 weeks of 38 hours.

In addition to this wage, workers could earn production bonuses if their gang produced above a minimum set by negotiations between union and company. For many workers this meant earnings of 50% over the guaranteed wage, making them among the highest paid, as well as most productive, workers in the meatpacking industry. This relationship had a contradictory effect on the Austin union, now known as United Packinghouse Workers of America (UPWA), Local No. 9. The local became much less militant, as consultation replaced confrontation as the primary method for settling disputes. There were no strikes by Local 9 between 1940 and the present walkout, though slowdowns did occur periodical!y.

On the other hand, the need to implement the incentive system entrenched a substantial union apparatus of grievers, departmental and divisional chairmen in the plant. In addition, the tie to the wages of other packing locals made Local 9 members aware of their dependence on the struggles of other workers. For example, the Austin local donated over $100,000 to other meatpacking locals during the UPWA’s brutal 1948 strike against the Big Four companies.

The company-union relationship started to deteriorate after the death of Jay Hormel in 1956, when a new corporate leadership took over the daily operation of the firm. Dubbed the “Nebraska mafia” by Austin workers, these new company officials were hard-nosed managers from newer plants in the Plains States who held no particular loyalty to Austin. They rapidly expanded the Hormel chain and started to tighten controls over the Austin plant.

Local 9 started giving concessions as far back as 1963, in the form of higher production schedules which reduced the incentive earnings of workers. This erosion in earning levels continued throughout the 1960s and 1970s. In 1978, in order to exact a company commitment to build a new plant in Austin, the local agreed to abandon the incentive system and signed an agreement not to strike for three years after the completion of the new facility.

The pressures for concessions coincided with a vacuum of leadership within the local. Since the 1940s the union had been led by local president Frank Schultz, who recognized that bargaining with the company was a test of strength, not a discussion between parties with the same interests. After a long illness, he was voted out of the presidency of Local 9 in 1969 and succeeded by a series of weak union leaders.

The turmoil in the meatpacking industry over the 1960s and 1970s, transforming the structure of packinghouse unionism, accompanied these problems in Austin. In the 1960s, new meatpacking concerns such as Iowa Beef Processors built new plants in rural areas and effectively destroyed the hold of the Big Four on the industry.

Devastated by plant closings in its urban strongholds, the UPWA merged with its old arch-rival, the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen, in 1968. Further consolidation in the meat industry prompted the Meat Cutters to merge with the retail clerks in 1978, forming the current United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW). By this time, unionized packinghouses had been reduced to a shrinking minority in the industry.

These developments left the Austin workers (as well as other packinghouse workers) with an international union based in retail trade, not meatpacking, and hence less responsive to their concerns. Currently, only 10 % of the UFCW’s members are packinghouse workers, with many of them buried in huge amalgamated locals dominated by retail workers.

Left without much assistance from their international, packinghouse unions have suffered one defeat after another in the past five years. In the early 1980s, the Guyette leadership stepped into this vacuum and tried to turn the Austin local against concessions.

Rise of New Local Leadership

The ability of Guyette and his allies to move into leadership posts of Local P-9 in this crisis was due in part to a demographic transformation of the Hormel workforce. The company has hired in distinct waves, and prior to the strike had 300 workers hired between 1945 and 1952, 300 between 1965 to 1970, and 1,000 hired after the new plant opened (on the grounds of the old one) in 1982. Many of the younger workers come from outside Austin, and have been forced to find work due to the cur­ rent farm crisis.

James V. Guyette was hired in 1968, and his leadership team is largely composed of other ” ’60s generation” workers, plus a few older associates of former local president Frank Schultz, such as current executive board members Skinny Weis and Floyd Lenoch. His main base, however, are the younger workers hired after 1982, who, along with the ” ’60s generation,” never experienced the collaborative relationship between Local 9 and Jay Hormel. The main opposition to Guyette comes from older workers, along with some of the ” 60s generation,” who felt collaboration rather than confrontation would get the local benefits.

Guyette reportedly began to make a name for himself in the 1970s by opposing the various concessions of the local. In 1980, he was narrowly elected to the local’s executive board in a three-way race, while future ally Floyd Lenoch defeated the incumbent for the local’s presidency. In late 1983, Guyette became the local’s president by defeating pro-UFCW administration candidate John Anker. Lenoch did not run for re-election, and easily won a post on the executive board. In accordance with union rules, Anker became the vice-president of the local, a position he later resigned in order to organize opposition to Guyette.

In his “State of the Union” address, Guyette sounded the themes which reflect the outlook of P-9 workers towards their struggle. Emphasizing the good treatment of the workers by Jay Hormel and how this had benefitted the entire town of Austin, he argued that in resisting concessions, the union was struggling for its members, their families, and the future of their community. Union literature reflects this approach, with one bumper sticker reading “Hormel and First Bank Unfair to Austin, Minn.” Another popular sign states simply, “Jay Hormel Cared.”

The local started on the path towards its current strike when a rank-and-file meeting rejected concessions accepted by other Hormel locals in September 1984. P-9 was unable to join in a company-wide strike at that time because it was still saddled with one more year of its own no-strike agreement, signed in 1978. P-9 representatives urged the other Hormel locals to sign a one-year contract. Angered at being pressed by the other locals’ concessionary agreement which would tie P-9’s hands until 1986, the P-9 membership pulled the local out of the chain. As a result, Hormel unilaterally cut wages from $10.69 to $8.25 in Austin.

Some older members of the local criticized the decision to pull out of the chain, as they felt that the Austin local could not win a strike against Hormel without closing down the other plants of the company. This decision also angered the UFCW leadership, who placed a premium on stabilizing the wage rates in meatpacking at a consistent level, even if this meant wage reductions at the better­paid plants. In response, P-9 leaders maintained that the need to resist concessions outweighed participation in the chain, especially as the local was unable to go on strike in 1984 but perfectly willing to do so a year later.

From this watershed, the Guyette leadership started, in the fall of 1985, to plan for a strike which they felt was inevitable. Soon after rejecting concessions, the local hired Corporate Campaign strategist Ray Rogers to plan a comprehensive strategy for a strike against Hormel. Throughout 1985, the local prepared for the strike by leaf!etting other plants, developing educational material on working conditions at Hormel, its connections with First Bank Systems, Inc., and accumulating a war chest to pay for the costs of the strike.

The membership showed its support for Guyette’s strategy by electing a series of his supporters to union posts in the annual, rolling elections that characterize P-9. Pete Winkels, son of a union founder, was elected business agent in late 1984, on the basis of a campaign statement which concluded, “Just as they, the founders of Local 9 were ahead of their times with their ideas and their tactics (the nation’s first sitdown strike), we are now breaking new ground with the direction we are taking.” (The Unionist, P-9’s newspaper, 11/23/84)

The Organization of the Strike

When P-9 rejected the company proposal and struck in September 1985, more than 69 cents was at stake. The proposal submitted by Hormel eliminated the main contractual provisions won by the union in the 1930s: the one-year layoff notice and job placement in accordance with seniority.

In addition, Hormel wanted to add a new clause prohibiting strikes for the duration of the agreement and allowing the company to discharge workers who engaged in job actions. The contract also provided for a two-tier wage system, and thirty percent reduction in pensions, a common labor wage of $9.25 with no increases over three years, and eliminated maternity leave. In effect, the company was trying to reassert the level of company control over the shop floor which had existed prior to 1933.

What distinguished P-9’s response was not simply its militancy, but the high degree of planning and membership participation in strike activities. Hundreds of workers travelled on leafletting teams to Iowa, Wisconsin and other towns in Minnesota to win support for P-9. The local kept its large hall open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, serving basic meals in the basement and distributing free food weekly to union members. P-9 employed the talents of its idle members to remodel the unfinished basement, and organized a “Santa’s Workshop” before Christmas to make hundreds of toys for the children of the strikers.

The union also displayed unusual attention to the variety of personal problems that could sap the morale of workers on strike for months. The union organized a ‘Tool Box Committee,” a cross between a referral and counseling agency run by P-9 members, to handle a variety of financial, legal and emotional problems. The volunteers had to centralize information on various social service agencies in Minnesota and Iowa, as well as grapple with problems ranging from foreclosures on homes to efforts by ex-spouses to take custody of children away from strikers.

As a long-term measure, the union has developed an “adopt a P-9 family” campaign. In an appeal directed largely to other unions, P-9 asked for a commitment of $300-$600 a month for three months, primarily to prevent loss of homes through default on mortgage payments.

The employment of Ray Rogers, perhaps the most controversial decision of P-9, reflected the desire of the Guyette leadership for long-term strategic and tactical planning of the strike. Known for his successful Corporate Campaign against J.P. Stevens, Rogers has been less successful recently in his strategy of pressuring the corporate allies of a struck firm.

Rogers’ campaign of picketing and leafletting against First Bank Systems, Inc. was actually more effective in doing outreach to other workers than in getting First Bank to put pressure on Hormel. Union leaflets and statements described how First Bank, which stretches across Minnesota, the Dakotas and Montana, was a major force behind the farm foreclosures in that area. The union also made the point, though not as forcefully, that First Bank supported apartheid by making bank loans to firms which did business in South Africa.

When a caravan of P-9 members arrived in a town as part of the Corporate Campaign, only a few would spend their time picketing a First Bank office and speaking with local reporters. One small group would make the rounds of local unions, trying to enlist moral and material support for the Hormel strike. Other small groups would leaflet homes door-to-door, trying to explain the issues in the strike to townspeople, and placing particular emphasis on the argument that a lot more than 69 cents was at stake.

In this manner P-9 distributed 500,000 leaflets, visiting virtually every town of over 5,000 in Minnesota and some in adjoining states. The particular focus on First Bank, however, has thus far produced no tangible pressure on Hormel.

The other activities of P-9 have had much greater success. Support for the strike has spread throughout the Midwest, and is particularly strong in Minnesota. In late September, the Minnesota AFL-CIO endorsed the strike and urged all its affiliates to support the Austin workers in whatever manner possible.

Locals all over the state have donated money or food to the strike, and a Twin Cities Support Committee has organized food caravans to travel to Hormel. Meatpack­ ing locals in Minnesota, the Dakotas, Iowa and Wisconsin have also donated tens of thousands of dollars of food to the strike. And following a mass demonstration in Minneapolis, a caravan of 500 farmers stopped in Austin to show their support for the strike.

Future Prospects

The stakes went up in the Hormel strike when the company opened the plant in January, and turned to reliance on the National Guard when P-9 workers sought to obstruct the entrance of scabs through mass picket lines. The company seems determined to make the strike collapse; P-9, rather than admit defeat, has shown equal determination to continue their struggle until the last possible moment.

The greatest weakness in the strike, one which could undermine it in the end, is the ability of Hormel to survive the closure of its Austin plant with production from its other union and nonunion facilities. The failure of the UFCW to actively support the P-9 strike is most damag­ ing in this area. Though sanctioning the strike and paying $25 a week to the strikers, the UFCW has directed UFCW locals to disregard P-9’s roving pickets, who have sought to shut down Hormel’s other plants and have met evident sympathy from other packinghouse workers.

At the same time, the UFCW has been unable to completely turn against P-9, because of support for the local from other packinghouse workers and the impact on the UFCW of another defeat in this industry.

The willingness of P-9 workers to use massive and peaceful pickets to prevent entry of scabs into the plant has been sabotaged by the presence of the National Guard. However, a prolonged presence of the Guard in Austin will threaten the popularity of Governor Perpich and his Democratic Farmer-Labor Party among their traditional allies, and may lead to pressure on Hormel from the governor to compromise with P-9.

Moreover, when the Hormel chain contracts expire this fall, the company may well face challenges from other local unions. In the long run, the pressures experienced by P-9 and other meatpacking locals can only be overcome through the reunionization of this industry.

Hormel, by purchasing two large nonunion packinghouses in Iowa, has served notice on the UFCW that it is prepared to do without unions altogether. As long as dozens of packing plants pay $5-6 an hour to nonunion employees, there will be downward pressures on the wages and benefits of all unionized packinghouse workers.

Local P-9 has taken a leaf out of its own history by traveling to packing plants throughout the Midwest, seeking solidarity among packinghouse workers. In the 1930s, the Austin unionists showed the way by organizing not merely their own union, but by aggressively organizing the unorganized. In its efforts to link up with other workers, inside and out of the packing industry, the Austin Hormel union is once again in the vanguard of the labor movement.

Sources for this article are the records of the United Packinghouse Workers of America, interviews with founders and current members of UFCW Local P-9, the local’s paper The Unionist, and materials produced by Local P-9.

March-April 1986, ATC 2

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