Debate in Labor Growing as P-9 Strikers Continue the Battle

Against the Current, No. 3, May/June 1986

Roger Horowitz & Kim Moody

ON APRIL 11, 400 strikers and supporters shut down Hormel’s Austin, Minnesota plant for half a day. After some confrontation, the Austin police dispersed the crowd with tear gas. Seventeen people were arrested on the spot and a warrant was issued for the arrest of Jim Guyette, president of the striking United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local P-9. The scene of the demonstration moved from the Hormel plant to the Austin city jail, where protesters chanted “Free P-9.”

It was not the first time P-9 members and supporters had tried to close the plant or the first time the Austin police made arrests. An earlier attempt to railroad P-9 activists and consultant Ray Rogers had collapsed and Mower County Sheriff Goodnature (not a joke) appears determined to find some way to “restore order” in the home town of the George A. Hormel Company.

By most reckoning, the nine-month strike of UFCW Local P-9 against the George A. Hormel Company’s Austin, Minnesota plant ought to have been down for the count long ago. A strike by a 1,500-member local union in a company-dominated town against a growing multinational corporation with expanding out-sourcing operations would be problematic in the first place. But when the International union leadership publicly opposed the strike and all effort to sustain it, you’d have thought the local was doomed.

The Governor of Minnesota did his part and called out the National Guard to guarantee the opening of the plant to scabs and the county sheriff and Austin chief-of-police declared war on the local. Then the UFCW International Executive Board withdrew its sanction from this perfectly legal strike. Strike benefits were ended. The art of union-sponsored strikebreaking achieved a new state with the UFCW’s offer of benefits–in this day and age it might be called “humanitarian aid”–to workers who agree to renounce the strike. But the strike continues.

The durability of P-9’s resistance against all odds can be explained in part by the careful pre-strike preparations of the local and, above all, by the rank and file character of the local and its leadership. (These have been discussed in the two previous issues of Against the Current and won’t be repeated here.) It can also be argued that the strike target, Hormel’s brand new “flagship” plant in Austin, combined with the skilled nature of key aspect of the work at that plant, has helped. Although the Austin plant has been operated by scabs for a number of months, production in this plant remains at 25% (P-9 estimate) to 50% (Hormel’s) of pre-strike production Hormel is profitable and the plant state of the art, so the threat of a closing, although occasionally brandished, is not credible.

But what has most made this strike durable and sustained the morale of the strikers has been the outpouring of support from local unions and rank and file unionists around the country.

The 500 supporters of P-9 who attended the second national rally on April 12 were there to show the Hormel workers that the impact of their strike was spreading. The rally, perhaps twice as large as the one in February, had an even greater rank-and file character. Striking flight attendants from TWA, machinists from Lynn, Massachusetts, shipyard workers from Bath Maine and other groups of militant workers joined together to support the P-9 strike. They were joined by autoworkers, public employees, communication workers and representatives of militant local unions from across the country. The rally consisted primarily of solidarity statements from union representatives, with national and regional officials notably absent.

There was also a significant presence from other packinghouse workers. The recording secretary of UFCW Local 40-P in Cudahy, Wisconsin announced that her union was withholding its per capita tax from the International until it supported the P-9 strike. A sizable contingent of discharged workers from Ottumwa, Iowa UFCW Local 431 carried a large banner, “We Respect Picket Lines,” and offered their support at the rally.

Supporters were also present from UFCW locals P-6 (Albert Lea, Minnesota), 538 (Madison, Wisconsin), 17 and 22 (Fremont, Nebraska). A week earlier Local 53 sent $30,000 worth of food to Austin, with the assistance of the Dane County Labor Council. A large car and true caravan from the Twin Cities also brought tons of food that weekend.

To William Wynn’s dismay, his heavy-handed attempts to break P-9 and its strike also sent out ripples of political change in his own union. UFCW Local 538 saw supporters of P-9 gain a majority of its executive board. A similar change in leadership occurred in Local 789 in St. Paul, Minnesota. Workers at Hygrade in Detroit, who are members of Local 26, have been collecting money for P-9 against the wishes of that local’s president, as have members of UFCW locals around the country. It is conceivable that Wynn has created an opposition in his own backyard, a factor that could prove important as P-9 continues its fight.

Behind the groundswell of support for P-9 are important generational shifts underway in the labor movement. As in P-9, a new generation of workers from the “baby boom” or “sixties generation” is rising into the leadership of local unions. Many of these workers are Vietnam veterans, while others were influenced by the social unrest of the 1960’s, even if they did not participate in it. More important than these factors, however, is that these workers are second generation union members. Their fathers or mothers spent their lives working in unionized factories and were able to achieve a decent standard of living as a result. With the widespread effort by corporations to reduce wages and benefits and to restrict or destroy union organization, the “sixties generation” of workers is beginning to resist the loss of that which their parents enjoyed.

The potential militancy of this generation is graphically evident in Austin. After a decade of chafing at the conservative policies of its union’s leaders, the Guyette leadership team was able to win a majority in the local when hundreds of older workers retired and a thousand new ones were hired in 1982.

The subsequent mobilization of P-9 against the Hormel Company provides an illustration of the subterranean shifts underway in the industrial workforce which only now are bearing fruit. Little wonder, then, that so many union locals, affected by similar dynamics, are rallying to the cause of P-9.

The hiring patterns in Austin lent a particularly sharp edge to the generational shift within the workforce. The company hired virtually no one from 1952 to 1965, and then stopped hiring again in 1970. When the local made substantial concessions in 1978 in order to get a new plant built in Austin, many workers who started during and immediately after World War II began to retire. When the new plant opened in 1982, the age structure of the workforce had been transformed. The “sixties generation,” led by Guyette, was able to swing the new workers behind them by advancing militant policies and to take the local out of the hands of the more conservative group.

Though not as graphic, similar trends are apparent in those mass production, transportation and communications industries which are not in steep decline. The generation of workers who started around 1945 has retired in great numbers over the past five years. As workers nearing retirement are often reluctant to risk their pension, this has removed an often conservative group within the unions. Their children, the so­called baby boom generation, have slowly been filtering into the leadership of local unions over the past few years. As in Austin, their efforts to turn the unions into vehicles for militancy instead of moderation have been facilitated by the retirement of this older generation.

A potential break on the “sixties generation” of unionists are the many new workers in these industries, most without union experience and often working for less money under two-tier wage systems. The new leadership of local unions has to devote considerable energy to winning these young workers to unionism, a task not facilitated by the passivity and concessions-bargaining of the mainstream labor leadership. However, as is apparent in Austin, this young generation is also capable of extremely militant activity if persuaded that it is in their interest.

The picture at the top of the labor movement is quite different. So far, not a single International union president has raised a voice in defense of P-9. Indeed, judged by public action, Jan Pierce, vice president for District 1 of the Communication Workers of America, stands out as the only International level official to support P-9.

There are, to be sure, many officials, staffers, and organizers throughout the labor movement who feel and privately express sympathy with P-9. But the pressure from on high is so strong and so pervasive that only a few have publicly gone beyond the parameters of token solidarity permitted by the UFCW International Executive Board and the AFL-CIO Executive Council. And those parameters are shrinking.

The reasons behind the labor bureaucracy’s attempt to isolate and destroy P-9 and its leadership-and with it Corporate Campaigns, Inc.-are not difficult to locate. P-9 represents a creative rank and file response to the new situation in which labor finds itself. As such it has bypassed many of the most sacred rules of protocol when the conventional channels have been closed. When the International union and its packinghouse department closed their doors on P-9’s plans for outreach, P-9 sent its members-mere members-out to other packinghouse towns to explain its fight even before their strike. P-9 deployed roving pickets against the International union’s wishes and, what was even more alarming, rank and file workers in other locals honored those lines against the advice of UFCW President William Wynn.

Some observers, however, believe that the International’s hysterical response to P-9 had as much to do with the local’s hiring Ray Rogers and Corporate Campaigns, Inc. Rogers is regarded in the executive suites of the AFL­CIO as an outsider and a loose cannon. The AFL-CIO has no objection to the corporate campaign idea in itself. Indeed it has long conducted such campaigns through the Food and Allied Service Trades (FAST) Department or through the Kamber Group and has just set up its own version of Corporate Campaigns, Inc. called Comprehensive Organizing Strategies and Tactics (COST), which has the status of a division of the federation. The AFL­ CIO’s problem with Rogers, like its distaste for the P-9 rank and file, is that it doesn’t control him.

Through its own rank and file actions, through its willingness to turn to the ranks of labor for support, and through the use of “outsiders” P-9 has challenged a number of the cornerstones of bureaucratic business unionism as practiced for the past few decades. It said no to the trendy “spirit of cooperation” that dominates the feeble attempts to come up with something new, represented for example in the AFL-CIO report, “The Changing Situation of Workers and Their Unions.” It balked at the UFCW leadership’s efforts to impose a concessionary agreement in the name of pattern bargaining. P-9’s leadership took every idea and tactic to its membership for discussion and approval. Disagreement was not regarded as treason in P-9 as it often is throughout the labor movement. The ranks were mobilized for action, participation and decision-making. P-9 members fanned the meatpacking towns of the Upper Midwest with their message, laying the basis for active solidarity later on, without going through the International union’s recognized channels, which by late 1984 were closed to P-9 for any purpose but obstruction. And when it struck, P-9 called on the ranks of labor to back its struggle.

P-9 did not set out to challenge the UFCW or provoke the opposition of its leadership. On the contrary, every tactical proposal approved by the membership was presented to the International union prior to implementation in hopes of gaining its support. And all were rejected by the International. What outraged the UFCW leadership and brought out all the big guns of the labor leadership to their aid was the fact that P-9 went ahead and carried out its democratically determined program without permission.

To the UFCW’s bankrupt strategy of seeking a common wage level in meatpacking through concessions, P-9 proposed an alternative: defend wages and conditions in the industry by drawing the line in Austin, re-establishing common expiration dates in the Hormel chain, and mobilizing the ranks.

In December 1981, the UFCW opened its major packinghouse agreements and accepted a wage freeze at the $10.69 level it had achieved in the 1979 contract. The freeze would last until September 1985, but the contract could be reopened in September 1984. The idea, according to a letter that Wynn sent out to the locals, was to close the gap in wages that had developed between the old-line packing firms such as Hormel, Swift, Wilson, and Oscar Mayer and the newer firms like Iowa Beef.

This, it was argued, would help restore order in the industry and return pattern bargaining to its previous days of glory. The strategy failed miserably. Wages in meat­ packing plants plunged from an average of $9.19 in January 1982 to $7.93 in January 1985.

In August 1984 the UFCW attempted to replay this strategy by agreeing to a $1.69 wage cut in the Hormel chain, bringing Hormel wages down to $9.00. When the offer was put to a vote by the Hormel locals, P-9 rejected it. It would first fight the company’s imposition of this cut, based on a me-too clause the International included in the 1981 settlement, in arbitration. Failing his, the P-9 leadership stated it would take strike action in August 1985 when its contract and a no-strike pledge that had been negotiated in 1978 as part of the agreement to build the new plant in Austin expired.

P-9’s strike in August 1985 was perfectly legal and the International had no basis to withhold support and sanction. For the first few months of the strike UFCW President William Wynn and packing committee chief Lewie Anderson were content to let the strike run its course in the belief that Hormel would triumph. Their opposition to the strike and its goals, however, were made plain from the start. They had long ago rejected P-9’s plan to hire Ray Rogers and Ed Allan and made no secret of it. In November, when P-9 asked the International to sanction P-9 pickets at other plants in the Hormel chain, Wynn dishonestly stated that he would approve such roving pickets if the company had not engaged in sincere bargaining by mid-January 1986. When that time came, Wynn said no. Then the offensive against P-9 became serious.

Shortly after that, Ted Koppel invited P-9 President Jim Guyette and UFCW President Wynn to debate on television. Wynn thought better of it and as his replacement he sent Lewie Anderson, who attacked the P-9 strike head on.

In February 1986, the UFCW went a giant step further in its attempt to isolate P-9. The support for P-9’s Adopt a P-9 Family Fund was not only a morale booster, it was a financial factor in the success of the strike to that point. Wynn had attempted to kill it by directing all UFCW locals who wanted to donate to the P-9 strike to do so through the Region 13 office, where the money was to gather dust. He also asked other International unions to stop the flow of funds to P-9 or at least funnel it into the region.

None of this was enough. Wynn wanted the backing of the AFL-CIO as a whole. At the February 1986 Executive Council meeting, the top leaders of the affiliated Internationals voted to support Wynn and the UFCW hierarchy. Only three months earlier, AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland had been asked to comment on the P-9 situation and had replied that he “wouldn’t touch it with an 11 foot pole.” Now he was prepared to join the fight.

An 18-page special report dated February 1986 was endorsed by the AFL-CIO and, with a variety of cover letters from relevant functionaries, sent out to all affiliates. This document, appearing with the UFCW’s “leadership update” cover, found its way to countless locals of most Internationals by spring. A short version by research department staffer Bill Montross was submitted to the Guardian, In These Times and Labor Notes. Both versions had been prepared by “leftists” in the employ of the UFCW and were unusually slick for such a hatchet job.

This literary effort was accompanied by a fair amount of arm-twisting. Many Internationals instructed their locals to contribute only to the region, a move which did create some confusion. Even liberal foundations with a record of funding labor-oriented causes were phoned and told to stay away from the P-9 situation.

In a show of solidarity, the Teamsters joined the fray. International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) President Jackie Presser sent out a telex to all locals stating that all Teamster support for P-9 was terminated and that the IBT was supporting the UFCW’s International Executive Board against P-9. It didn’t work. Support for P-9 continued to grow.

Following its termination of sanction and strike benefits in March, the UFCW sent a letter to P-9 strikers stating that aid from the region’s strike support fund would be available to any P-9 member who would renounce the strike and sign an enclosed company document asking for his or her job back. The form was addressed to Hormel’s personnel manager and stated that the applicant would accept any job unconditionally. The UFCW enclosed a stamped, addressed envelope.

This attempt to resurrect the yellow dog contract in order to break the strike also failed. In mid-April the UFCW began the process of putting P-9 under trusteeship. As it resisted Wynn’s previous moves, P-9 will fight trusteeship with rank and file power. Most likely, Wynn’s heavy-handed move will become another issue in the assault on bureaucratic unionism that P-9 is inspiring.

There remain distinct limits to the support for P-9. The active opposition of the AFL-CIO has made it difficult for national union leaders to publicly support the strike or the boycott of Hormel products. While a pole of attraction for union militants, especially those who have been through similar struggles, P-9 remains an outsider among more moderate unionists.

Within meatpacking P-9’s strongest support has come from other Hormel plants and the Oscar Mayer chain. Some locals in other plants have maintained their distance from P-9, in part due to disagreements with its tactics and in part due to pressure from the International. As yet unknown is the impact of the strike among the tens of thousands of unorganized packinghouse workers who hold the key to any forward progress for unionism in the industry.

P-9 leaders are not waiting for the rest of the unions to make up their minds. They are consciously reaching out to various social movements, seeking support for the strike, and most of all assistance in the boycott of Hormel products. Jesse Jackson spoke in Austin on April 13, and P-9 has started to emphasize Hormel’s relationship to firms in South Africa. Recently, ads signed by important Black community leaders supporting the boycott and drawing the connection to South Africa have been run in New York City’s Black newspapers. The National Organization for Women has endorsed the boycott, and reportedly women spokespersons for P-9 are in high demand at local NOW conferences and meetings. Several farmers spoke at the April 12 rally, including Bobbi Palzine of Groundswell.

In the face of trusteeship and even a new contract covering those in the plant, the struggle against Hormel and the UFCW’s losing policies will continue and support for P-9 will grow. P-9 is no longer simply a strike against concessions. It has become a rallying point for those in the labor movement who understand the need for change and new approaches. Inside and outside the UFCW, the example of P-9 is becoming contagious.

May-June 1986, ATC 3

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