United Support Group Continues P-9 Fight

Against the Current, No. 9, May/June 1987

interview with Madeline Krueger

MADELINE KRUEGER IS an active member of the United Support Group in Austin, Minnesota. With her husband Merle she spent five-and-a-half months during 1986 on the road, spreading the word about UFCW Local P-9’s continuing struggle. Besides raising seven children in Austin, she also worked as a real estate agent.

Merle was one of the highest seniority people in the Hormel plant before the strike, and was third on the recall list for strikers, if in fact such a list exists. Nonetheless, Merle Krueger was fired from Hormel in the spring of 1987.

Madeline Krueger visited Detroit in March to address an International Women’s Day celebration. Jane Slaughter talked with Madeline about the impact of the strike on the small town of Austin, and how it had changed her life.

ATC: What was Austin like as a company town?

Mageline Krueger: You always felt that there was the west side and there was the east side. The professional people live on the west side and the blue-collar people live on the east side, where the railroad tracks are.

If an executive comes to town and you go out to show them a property, immediately it’s “I want the northwest or the southwest.” And it continues right on through the schools. Who wound up on the basketball team, who wound up on the football team? I had two sons go to Vietnam, and the football coach was on the draft board. My first son made the comment that all the super jocks never got drafted. If they were such athletes how come they never got drafted?

I went to high school in Austin, but it was really after I got married that I started to realize the divisions, the little unspoken things: “Come ring our cash registers and then you go your direction and the professional people will belong to the country club.”

They love you when they’re trying to get donations, but the Hormel workers are never mentioned. It’s as if the Hormel Company did it all. Until this year there was never any special recognition for Hormel employees who contributed to the United Way. This year it was on TV, in the newspapers, over and over, “the wonderful response from the Hormel employees in the plant.” It made my blood boil.

ATC: Was Merle working at Hormel when you got married?

MK: That was in 1949. He had worked there while he was in high school. He went to junior college for a while and then he went into the service.

For many years Merle worked in the ham-boning department on the Cure 81 hams. This is one of Hormel’s top shelf items, a premium product. Georgie Hormel wrote an article where he said that this was one of the most skilled jobs. They used to call Merle “the surgeon.” It was hard work. Merle would come home and sit down in the recliner to read the paper and nod right off. I used to worry because he was just gray.

ATC: Did you have an idea before the strike began that people would cross the picket line?

MK: Yes, because there were people who even before scabbing started were labeled “P-l0ers.” In fact, they took out ads in the paper.

ATC: When you started out with the Support Group did you know the other people?

MK: No, not really. Some of them I knew, some people probably knew no one. It was word of mouth, and the first thing we did was make the “We Support P-9” signs with a black magic marker and run them off on the copy machine and out we went with them.

There was a common bond that you had. We went around to all the various business people and asked them if they would please put them in their windows, saying “We Support Local P-9.” That was in 1984, long before the strike.

Then I recall informational picketing at the plant, saying things like, “We can’t survive on $8.25 an hour.” Not only were people reduced to $8.25 but they had to repay part of their medical benefits to the company as well. Some people had major bills, and they had up to $100 a week taken out of their paycheck. Our benefit plan was changed, and it was retroactive, so if you’d gone to the doctor under the old benefits, you had to pay it back.

ATC: Who chaired the first meeting? Ray Rogers?

MK: No, Ray wasn’t on the scene yet. The first meeting Ray was at was the huge meeting at the high school auditorium. The spouses were able to attend a portion of it and then they had to leave and it was just for the rank and file. That was the day they made the decision to hire Ray. But at this point the Support Group was already organized.

ATC: How many people were active in the Support Group at the height of the strike? What is it like now?

MK: Up until the time the UFCW took over the Labor Center, we met seven nights a week without fail. There was always a great deal going on, there were speakers coming in to speak to us. There would be people making reports of anything going on, court dates, you name it. There was always lots to talk about. Generally, Merle and I didn’t get home till between ten and eleven at night. You had the sandwich board sign in front of the Labor Center with events listed, such as a Wednesday night potluck. Of course it was always an “informational meeting.” If it was rank and file and closed to Support Group members, then it would say “rank-and-file meeting.”

Now we meet four nights a week.

ATC: How was it decided who would be the travelers?

MK: Volunteers, which were not easy to come by, because this was something you never expected to be doing. They certainly weren’t people who were public speakers, you got shoved into it.

They would approach people who they felt could do a good job, or like the situation with Merle and I-that we both could get away because we didn’t have any small children at home. No one likes to go out alone. We’d go out for a minimum of two weeks and keep it open-ended. You don’t know what kind of reception you’re going to get, particularly since the trusteeship. You don’t know what you’re going to face.

ATC: Do you feel threatened by the scabs in town now? Do you have to watch where you leave your car, for example?

MK: They’ve sprinkled the parking lot of the United Support Group with nails real regularly. They weld together staple-type things-devices made especially for this. They painted “We Love Hormel” on the side of our building.

We’ve never been bumper sticker people, but of course with the strike this is one time that we would be. But we don’t put any bumper stickers on now because of the scabs, the vandalism, which comes from both sides, and you’re immediately targeted if you have any kind of identification like that. The “I Love Hormel” bumper stickers are disappearing too because they have finally gotten smart enough to realize that they’re targeting themselves. But the scabs wear Hormel caps, and this is something the workers have never done before. Or red jackets with Hormel across the back. It’s gotten so if you see someone in a red jacket you just assume he’s a scab.

ATC: I understand that nonviolence has been one of the P-9ers’ policies throughout the strike. Was there discussion of that, how was it arrived at?

MK: With 20/20 hindsight, you can ask yourself, was it the right thing to do? There were people who had quite a problem with it. Not right away, but after all the insults they had to put up with. It got a little sickening saying, “Good morning, have a nice day” to the scabs, which is what we’d do in the beginning, on the line. I remember one person coming in and saying, “I can’t stand it anymore, I can’t do it anymore, they try to run us down,” really upset. Because they would spit in people’s faces.

My opinion is that we were too nonviolent. I couldn’t personally go out myself and do damage, but I think more could have been done than stand on the picket line and yell “scab” at people and try to get them-or ask them-to please leave.

ATC: Tell me about the impact of Ray Rogers (the director of Corporate Campaign, Inc. which helped P-9 develop tactics).

MK: One of the things about Ray was that he’d always ask, “What do you want to do?” I remember one night one of the fellows got up and said, “Well, you’re the guy with the ideas, you’re the guy with the brains, what do you think we should be doing?” Ray just kind of smiled. He said, “Well, I want to know what you want to do, because I may tell you what I want you to do and then when I get there, you’re not going to be there with me. You may say, Well I don’t think that’s a good idea,’ and not show up.”

Ray, Merle and I had the distinction of being the first to be arrested and carted off in their makeshift paddy wagon, February 6, 1986. The charge was obstructing and failing to obey police officers. Ray was arrested first, then Merle and then myself. The vehicle that was used as the paddy wagon was a van from the Hormel Nature Center, with the name covered over.

It took me quite a long time to find out what I was supposedly obstructing. When the one-year anniversary came up, the local newspaper had a two-page centerspread on events of the strike. So in this centerfold, our crime was called obstructing a down ramp off of 1-90. And as far as failing to obey police officers, I never did. The police officer said, “Follow me,” and I did. I followed him to where I stood all the time I was there, two to four feet behind the police officer.

I might have uttered the word scab, not yelling it because I’d have been yelling in the policeman’s ear, but more like, “Look, that scab almost ran over the police officer’s feet.” I was really quite courteous. No one did anything out of line whatsoever. We were just trying to see who was in the cars going in, let them know we’re still here.

This was when the National Guard was there. This was another reason I felt such an injustice, I think I could have been standing anyplace in Mower County and have been arrested on the same charges. We were outside the area cordoned off by the National Guard, but they said the injunction did not have any limits. So that’s why I think we could have been anywhere in the entire county and been arrested that day.

I think they had decided they wanted to arrest Ray Rogers and they just wanted some other people with him to make it look good, to back up the charge that they were levying against him, which was criminal syndicalism.

When I came out of jail I told our attorney what Ray had been charged with. He said, “You’re kidding, they haven’t used that law in seventy years.”

ATC: What happened to the charges?

MK: Ray’s charges were dropped, for criminal syndicalism. We were all told there would be no way we could have jury trials. I cried. I did not want to sign that paper and plea bargain. I kept saying, “I didn’t do anything, I’m not guilty,” and she said, “You’re not pleading guilty.” And I said, “If I’m not pleading guilty, why am I going to have to do community service, why am I going to be on six months’ probation?” I had this feeling of rage.

When I finally signed the paper, I said, “I can guarantee you this. When I do this community service, I’m going to be wearing a ‘Cram Your Spam’ shirt. I’m not doing it graciously.”

ATC: What did you do for community service?

MK: I was allowed to work at the Support Group bagging up groceries for the Food Shelf.

ATC: Besides the support from other unions, have you been able to get any kind of government assistance, how have families survived?

MK: We recently decided we would swallow our pride and go and apply for fuel assistance. But we couldn’t qualify because we owned property worth $25,000. It doesn’t make any difference if you owe $24,900 on it, it’s in your name.

So the next week I said, “I’ll go apply for food stamps, what the heck.” Many more people were applying for them by then, they weren’t waiting any longer. I thought we’d been paying in for years, I made up my mind, I’ll apply for anything there is. Well, we couldn’t get anything. The person we had to apply to turned out to be an ex-friend whose husband scabbed quite early on and went back into the plant. I asked if there wasn’t someone else I could talk to, and they told me no, it had to be her, they go alphabetically. Well, from the get-go, she was much more nervous than we were. We had nothing to be ashamed of.

The churches haven’t done anything. At our church, before Christmas our pastor asked people in the congregation, if we knew of anyone who was unemployed, to let them know. So we thought maybe we’ll get something at Christmas time. But no. And I think that was really a blow to Merle. He never said anything about it, but he skipped going to church two Sundays.

We got nothing at Christmas from the UFCW. There was food stacked up in the Labor Center for us, and it was not handed out. You could see the stuff stacked way up through the windows. And they denied that they had food there.

Finally, in the latter part of January, someone from the NAMPU (North American Meat Packers Union, formed by the P-9ers) office, which is not far from the Labor Center, saw someone with an “I Love Hormel” bumper sticker carrying out groceries. So some of the NAMPU people went in and said they wanted groceries too. So people started going in. The UFCW’s excuse was that they’cl just gotten too much hassle at Thanksgiving, and they didn’t want to go through all that again at Christmas. So there sat the food.

ATC: What is it like in Austin now?

MK: While we haven’t been happy with the atmosphere, this dividing like that I spoke of, this is still our town. You can’t spend your entire lifetime in one city without feeling an attachment.

I want to feel the way I used to feel, and that’s another reason I’d like to see this strike resolved. The healing process that the town is talking about isn’t there. These people with their heads in the sand want to pretend. But we all say it’s not going to go away, it’s never going to heal until these people get their jobs back. People have been forced into retirement. I don’t know how much longer we can hold out.

We have met so many wonderful people who have been so kind and so good and have worked so hard to help us. They opened their hearts, their homes, they joined us in the struggle. I feel like I’ve expanded and that I can be a better person from these experiences.

You think of retirement-“Oh maybe I’ll take up golf.” I had one gentleman who always promised to teach me to play golf, but I was always pregnant whenever he would volunteer. So you think of things like that, and traveling more, and seeing your children and your grandchildren.

But since this experience, I’m thinking more, ‘What can I get out and do?” So when I say I’ve changed, I’ve changed.

May-June 1987, ATC 9

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