History Labor

25th Anniversary of the Hormel Strike

Some 25 years ago, the workers at the Austin, Minnesota plant of the Hormel Corp. embarked on a long and brave fight. A fight which was not only right but fought “from below”. This fight and the rank-and-file efforts to wage and control the struggle captivated the attention of all militant workers.

In the Workers Solidarity Alliance’s print version of ideas & action Steve Boyce, Jake Edwards and Tom Wetzel penned an excellent, article, “Slaughterhouse Fight: A Look at the Hormel Strike” In recognition of the 25th Anniversary of the struggle, we are re-publishing the article below.

The Hormel strike came at a time of continued defeats for the American working class. Starting in the late 1970’s with de-industrialization, the Chrysler bailout and the continuous string of concessionary bargaining (collective begging), the attacks on the working class went unabated. The Hormel strike, as with the Phelps-Dodge copper miners strike a few years earlier, were workplace struggles where the whole community was involved. It was a struggle “at the point of production” and a social struggle engaged by the citizenry of their respective communities. They were struggles which started out in the confines of their respective trade unions. Yet as those unions failed the workers and the communities, in an effort to win their fights, both the Hormel and Phelps-Dodge workers began to self-organize.

UFCW: Strategy of Appeasement

The United Packinghouse Workers Union (UPWA) had been strongly influenced by the democratic and militant traditions inherited from the Independent Union of All Workers, founded at Hormel by IWW Organizers in 1933, and the left-wing socialists of the Packinghouse Workers Organizing Committee. With the competition between the UPWA and the Amalgamated Meatcutters Union for the allegiance of meatpacking workers, workers in the industry continued to gain higher wages, improved benefits, safety and job security. This continued from the founding of the IUWA and PWOC in the ’30s up into the ’60s.

During the period of American economic growth after World War II, meat-packing companies were investing heavily in new production capacity (new refrigeration, more automated techniques, etc). The federal government’s highway program made it more feasible to locate new plants out in the countryside, closer to where the animals were, and former big city packing centers like Chicago declined.

The Amalgamated was a conservative craft union of the AFL type. Despite the efforts of the UPWA and Amalgamated to build a pattern of common contract expiration dates and a national wage standard, the Amalgamated did permit the existence of an institution called the “Southern differential” in which southern operations were allowed to pay their workers less. In other words, a lower wage for blacks, “rednecks” and workers of Mexican ancestry.

The first break in this pattern was in the poultry industry, which began to move south in the ’50s. At that time wages in the poultry industry were roughly equal to those in red-meat packing. By the 1970s the wage level in the poultry packing industry had fallen to less than half the red-meat rates.

In the early ’60s a fledgling outfit opened a plant in Denison, Iowa. The company — Iowa Beef Processors — had new ideas about the beef business. Instead of shipping half-carcasses into the Eastern markets to be cut up and sold at retail level, this company would split up the beef into “primal cuts” and package them for retail. This meant that the grocery store didn’t have to buy or butcher those cuts which weren’t good sellers in their particular markets. This idea was very popular with supermarkets. But “boxed beef” was not popular with retail butchers — it eliminated their jobs. But IBP bribed a certain International Vice-President of the Amalgamated and “boxed beef” was allowed into selected Eastern markets.

With its plants located in rural areas, where unionism was weak, IBP could operate as a low-wage, non-union packer. Meanwhile, the mainline packers had been acquired by conglomerates: Greyhound bought Armour, LTV owned Wilson & Co., General Brands had Morell, etc. IBP was able to grow very rapidly during a period when these conglomerates were milking their meatpacking subsidiaries.

In 1967 the Amalgamated merged with the UPWA; the merged organization never acquired the will to organize IBP. In negotiations the major packers would routinely warn the Amalgamated, and later its successor, the UFCW, that they hadbetter get IBP into the industry pattern or suffer the consequences.

By the mid-’70s the Amalgamated bureaucracy could no doubt see that the conglomerates weren’t investing in their plants. They could see the proverbial “writing on the wall,” and looked around for a way to extricate themselves from the impending disaster. In 1979 the Amalgamated merged with the AFL Retail Clerks union to form the UFCW. Today the UFCW Packinghouse Division constitutes only 9 percent of the membership of the AFL-CIO’s largest affiliate. Thus,the top bureaucrats of the UFCW have even less reason to be concerned about the fate of the industrial butcher.

With intense competition from low-wage outfits like IBP, and the general economic downturn of the mid-’70s, the employers’ concessions drive in the meatpacking industry began in earnest. When the dust settled from the union-busting,plant closings, bankruptcy ploys and conglomerate buyouts, the $10.60 standard wage had been cut down to $6 and some change per hour in many plants.

Beginning in the ’70s, the UFCW’s strategy for dealing with employer aggression in an increasingly competitive environment was to use concessions as a means of “stabilizing” wages and, hopefully, placating the bosses so they wouldn’t make further demands for givebacks.

Though the master contracts with the major, old-line pork packers didn’t expire till September 1982, the UFCW re-opened these contracts in December of 1981 in order to offer to freeze wages at $10.69 an hour until September 1985. This meant a wage cut at Oscar Mayer, where wages were then $11.27 per hour. At Hormel, Wilson, Armour, Swift and Morell, it meant a freeze at the wage rate that had been established in the 1979 contract.

The UFCW leaders thought that by taking this initiative to offer concessions in 1981 they would preserve the integrity of their master contracts and ward off future concessions. But it didn’t work out that way.

In 1980 Dubuque Pack had threatened to close its doors unless it got concessions. The workers agreed and the company agreed to not seek additional concessions during the life of the contract. However, by March 1981, the entire hog kill department had been shut down and in October 1981 the workers agreed to a 16 percent wage cut. Despite these concessions, Dubuque Pack closed the plant anyway in October 1982 and it reopened as a non-union plant under a new name, DFL, and with wages cut to $6 an hour.

In June 1983 Wilson used bankruptcy to get out from under the master contract, which still had two years before expiration. Wages were cut to $6.50 an hour. Wilson was still making a profit at the time. The UFCW then struck for 22 days, which resulted in wages being raised to $8 per hour ($2.69 less than under the pre-bankruptcy contract).

Greyhound demanded further concessions for its Armour pork plants. When the workers voted to reject the concessions, the plants were shut down. Thirteen plants were later re-opened as non-union operations under the aegis of ConAgra. The only response of the UFCW has been drawn-out legal maneuvering and a consumer boycott you’ve probably never heard about.

In 1983 Lewie Anderson (UFCW International Vice-President and head of the Packinghouse Division) admitted that the number of workers covered by the master contract had dropped by 40 percent. Instead of bringing the low-wage employers closer to the master contract rate, further concessions were made to Iowa Beef Processors, Rath and Pierce Packing. By January of 1985 the average hourly wage in meatpacking had fallen to $7.93, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Today [1986] only 40 percent of the meat butchered in the U.S. is union — down from 85 percent ten years ago.

During this same period working conditions in the plants seriously deteriorated, as indicated by the rise of the injury rate. A number of changes in the industry contributed too this situation: speed up, tough competition from vicious low-wage producers like Iowa Beef Processors, changes in ownership, letting equipment deteriorate in anticipation of shutdowns, introduction of new technologies and a push for a rapid increase in productivity, and the union’s loss of shop-floor bite.

The UFCW’s “strategy” of trying to appease the employers with concessions in order to “stabilize” wages and preserve jobs has been an obvious failure. The UFCW’s “master contracts” have become a pathetic joke. In spite of all the talk of stabilizing packing wage rates at a “new level,” Lewie Andersonn’s Packinghouse Division has completely done away with the common expiration dates for contracts and thrown away any chance of industry-wide bargaining for years to come. The UFCW’s prevailing philosophy is, “Let’s keep the union in the plants at any cost”…at any cost to the rank and file, that is. The rule of thumb in meatpacking today is that each company will squeeze or discard the UFCW for the lowest wages and the worst conditions it can get.

— Tom Wetzel and Jake Edwards

The story of the Hormel strike is a story of struggle: against an employer who was out to take everything they could from the workers….and against a compliant union which engaged in a policy of “strategic retreat”.

From our vantage point, as class struggle anarchists, the analysis of the Hormel strike, and that of the trade union movement, rings as clear today as it did some 20 years ago.

The authors’ conclusion is worth emphasizing:

“The history of the Hormel struggle demonstrates once again how the present top-down union Internationals are bound to be in conflict with the rank and file who want control over their own movement and militant solidarity against the employers. To develop an effective challenge to the employing class and unionism self-managed by the rank and file, it is going to be necessary to develop new organization. …..

“A workers movement guided by the principles of rank-and-file democracy, worker solidarity, and militant struggle against the employing class is bound to develop new forms of organization, independent of the rotting corpse of American business unionism. The top-down structure of the AFL-CIO-type unions is an albatross around the neck of the American workforce. What is needed is a new form of organization in which the rank and file directly manage the struggle and the local organizations are linked together in horizontal, worker-to-worker solidarity.”

Slaughterhouse Fight: A Look at the Hormel Strike

by Steve Boyce, Jake Edwards and Tom Wetzel

When the airline unions and the AFL-CIO let the air controllers go down to defeat, the message to the employing class was, “You can do what you want; we won’t organize a fighting solidarity.”

The employers’ concessions drive soon became an epidemic. Yet there have been a number of militant, if isolated, struggles by workers who have put up a strong resistance. They have often had to fight against the union hierarchy as well as the employer. The Watsonville cannery strike is one of these struggles, the Hormel strike is another.

Local P-9 of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW), made up of workers at Hormel’s main plant at Austin, Minnesota, has attempted to break out of isolation in several ways: a “Corporate Campaign” that tried to bring consumer pressure against Hormel’s main bank, a consumer boycott of Hormel meat products, and by roving pickets sent to other Hormel plants.

In their union meetings and rallies, in their travels to other unions around the country, the message of the Austin meatpackers is that it’s time to re-orient the labor movement, it’s time for a real fight against employer arrogance. In their collective defiance of the heads of the UFCW International Union, the Hormel strikers have raised the question, Who shall run the labor movement, the careerist, top-down hierarchy of the AFL-CIO-type unions, or the rank and file whose lives are directly affected?

As of June [1986], P-9ers were claiming that only about 700-to-800 people were working in the Austin plant; the company, on the other hand, claims it now has 1,050 people working. Over 1,500 had been employed there before the strike. But the company claims it can run the plant with only 1,050 people. The 400 former P-9 members who returned to work after Hormel restarted production in January were particularly damaging to the strike since they had skills and experience needed to bring production back to normal levels.

Hormel recently announced that its profits were down 25.7% from the second quarter of last year, due to the strike. Nonetheless, they’re still making money and hundreds of P-9 defectors and new hires continue to labor in the Austin plant on the company’s terms.

After all the media attention and the hundreds who have attended the support rallies, what’s left is the remnants of a proud local union fighting a lonely battle against company greed and AFL-CIO betrayal. After a year-long corporate campaign and ten months on strike, it wasn’t supposed to end this way.

The Packinghouse Division of the UFCW was the inheritor of the traditions of the CIO United Packinghouse Workers Union (UPWA) and the AFL Amalgamated Meatcutters Union. The labor struggle in the meatpacking industry has faced some of the most brutal, dangerous, racist and unsanitary conditions in American industry. What was achieved, through several decades of struggle, were improved conditions and a national wage standard adhered to by all producers. The national standard was necessary to prevent wages from being undercut by competition from low-wage producers. The militant traditions and post-World War II prosperity had made these improvements possible.

By 1983 the eroded vestiges of this reality had collapsed. (See sidebar below, “Strategy of Appeasement”.) The rule of thumb in meatpacking today is that each company will squeeze or discard the UFCW for the lowest wages and the worst conditions it can get.

More Injuries, Lower Wages

The workers of Hormel’s Austin operations were first pressured to give concessions in the 1978 contract, which included a rigorous “no-strike” clause. At that time local P-9 was being led by a more pro-company case of officials, who decided to breakaway from the Hormel master contract in exchange for a supposed guarantee that there would be no more cuts at Austin. The $20 million in concessions helped to finance Hormel’s new $100 million plant in Austin.

Only 1,750 workers were employed in the new plant when it opened in 1982 — less than half as many as worked in the old plant. Some of the new technology had inadequate safety features — like automatic back saws with no safety guards. The plant seemed to be designed with little thought for the people who be working there. Instead of work stands that could be adjusted to the worker’s height, as in the old plant, the new plant had fixed work stations. Management was talking about getting a 20% increase in productivity out of the new facility. As one commentator has described it:

Everyone’s work was changed, sped up, pressured, and tied to external pacing and new standards. Ham-boners, for instance, were required to do 93 an hour. The rate was so fast that they could only sharpen their knives on the upswing, before plunging downward into another ham.

(“The Safety Issue in the Hormel Strike,” Pete Rachleff, Labor Notes #88.)

The new plant experienced a 120% increase in worker injuries.

In 1982 the UFCW’s Lewie Anderson negotiated a new national contract for the Hormel plants. The summary of the contract provided by the International said that the agreement continued the policy of wages being adjusted to the national standard and prohibited wage reductions. It was on that understanding that the contract was ratified by Local P-9.

But in the fall of ’83, Hormel decided to take advantage of the concessions fever then sweeping the industry and announced that it was lowering wages in pursuit of the UFCW’s “national standard” which had already become a pathetic joke. Hormel was not motivated by financial losses since it was — and remains — highly profitable.

What the surprised membership of P-9 discovered, when they got a copy of the contract from the International, was that the alleged provision prohibiting wage reductions was missing. What had been signed by the UFCW was not what had been sold to the local’s members. People were not happy. December of that year saw a reform slate elected for local office, including a new president, Jim Guyette, who ran on a platform of no wage concessions.

The 1982 master contract for the Hormel plants had contained a clause that permitted re-opening the contract in 1984, before the contract’s expiration in September 1985. The UFCW had justified this as a means of regaining lost ground. But in 1984 the International proposed a $1.69 per hour wage cut for Hormel workers outside Austin (from $10.69 to $9 per hour).

Lewie Anderson, UFCW vice-president and head of the Packinghouse Division, had negotiated the agreement that was falsely presented to P-9 as protection against wage cuts. This time he conceded that it was going to be difficult to sell wage cuts to the Austin workers given the profitability of the company. From the public record, it seems that brother Anderson does not engage in the truth, but this time he was right on the mark. It was not going to be easy selling this deal.

Wages were cut in Austin from $10.69 to $8.25 per hour on October 8, 1984.Ironically, the Austin local had broken earlier — under the previous local leadership — with the rest of the Hormel plants to negotiate separately.At that time they had gotten a better deal than everybody else. Now the new leaders of P-9 were faced with having the lowest wages and yet they could no longer count on the united strength of negotiating with the other Hormel locals.

Enter Ray Rogers

The immediate response to the wage reduction was a call for strike action — against the contract, the company and anybody else who was trying to gut their wages. Knowing that help from the UFCW would be non-existent, Guyette called a New York public relations firm to ask for help in getting the local’s message across. They put him in touch with Ray Rogers and Corporate Campaign, Inc.

Ray Rogers is a man with a mission and that mission is to reshape the labor movement, for a price. Rogers is not a wealthy man but he is a businessman and his business is providing local unions with an alternative to going on strike. He came to Austin and sold Guyette — and then the membership — on a campaign to restore to P-9 what Hormel and the UFCW had taken away. “Strikes are obsolete,” he told them. “What you have to do is to take your power to the doorsteps of power.” Ray Rogers talks fast, in his thick Boston accent, and is prone to a cheerleading style, as in “Give me a ‘W’, give me an ‘I’, give me an ‘N’; What’s that spell? What’s that spell?” Rogers told them again and again that they had the power and he would help them use it. P-9 listened, and believed, and did not strike.

What P-9 members got was a $3 per week assessment to pay for a $40,000 deal with Corporate Campaign, Inc. Rogers and his staff of ten make $425 a week with year-end bonuses of $1,000 (if business is good). The model for Corporate Campaign is Rogers’ campaign for the Amalgamated Clother and Textile Workers Union (ACTWU) against J.P. Stevens, which achieved union recognition against a notoriously nonunion Southern employer.

Rogers left ACTWU in 1981 and, with a partner, launched CorporateCampaign, Inc. as his own business. Since then his track record has been mixed — some wins, some losses but nothing approaching the publicity of the J.P. Stevens campaign. For Rogers P-9 provided the opportunity of another J.P. Stevens and Corporate Campaign threw themselves into this like there was no tomorrow. Protest plans for Hormel’s annual shareholders meeting panicked the executives into moving the meeting to Atlanta.

Research into Hormel’s stock ties and board of directors had turned up First Bank. One of the upper Midwest’s financial giants, the St. Paul-based bank looked like the ideal location of the “doorsteps of power.” First Bank was descended upon with pickets at branches in three states and protesters at their shareholders meeting. Enormous quantities of literature were produced — from leaflets to newspapers — and sent throughout Minnesota and beyond. Teams of volunteers went door to door canvassing in the suburbs of Minneapolis and St. Paul. The plan was to get individuals, and unions and other institutions, to withdraw their funds and bombard First Bank with demands that the wage cuts at Hormel be rescinded.

It didn’t work. First Bank blandly denied that it had anything to do with management decisions at Hormel.

The corporate campaign failed because it was based on flawed assumptions. The assumption is that workers should appeal to “public opinion” rather than to solidarity from other workers. This is done by trying to show how the targeted employer is especially unfair to its workforce. At best this could only work to bring a particularly nasty employer up to currently prevailing level of exploitation and arrogance among employers. In the case of the J.P. Stevens campaign, Rogers’ campaign dwelled upon the fact that Stevens had more violations of labor laws than anyone else.

But in the current climate of employer aggression, Hormel is just following the present trend, justified among business leaders as a “battle to become more competitive.” The leaders of Continental, Iowa Beef Processors, the Chicago Tribune and Phelps-Dodge would certainly not say that Hormel is particularly”unfair” to its workers. To the employing class, Hormel’s callousness and arrogance are just “smart business practices.”

Since the AFL-CIO heads see corporate campaigns as a way to avoid strikes, they actually favor them, as the J.P. Stevens campaign demonstrates. What the UFCW International and AFL-CIO tops dislike in this case is not the corporate campaign in itself, but the fact that a gutsy local union is charting its own course independent of the International.

The corporate campaign didn’t work because it didn’t stop Hormel from continuing to make money from packaging meat. To do that it was necessary to stop production.

Within the local a core of dissenters publicly attacked Rogers and Guyette and from UFCW Region 13 headquarters came veiled threats off-putting P-9 into receivership. On National Public Radio Lewie Anderson said that the problem now at Hormel was that the workers made too much money and this would make the company unprofitable and lead to loss of jobs. The NPR reporter commented that he sounded very much like a company spokesman.

As long as the company still recognized the UFCW and kept wages in the $8 per hour range, nobody at the International really cared.

Among those who did care, support was growing as the contract expiration drew near. In the Twin Cities area an informal group of local union officials, rank and file activists, sympathetic academics, revolutionary veterans of the ’30s and assorted leftists had become the Metro Support Committee. This committee then initiated the National Rank and File Against Concessions (NRFAC) to give P-9 leaders a national platform.

On the company side, active preparations were underway for a strike.P-9’s roving pickets against First Bank were being monitored and photographed for future legal action against the local. The line producing Hormel’s most popular new product — hot dogs stuffed with chili — was dismantled and moved to Houston. $80,000 worth of barbed wire was purchased and a marketing agreement signed with FDL Foods in Iowa. This last step was the most significant in that it would prevent Hormel from shortages of product should the Austin plant be shut down.

The shut down came on August 7th and stretched through the fall and into winter. The Metro Support Committee organized caravans bringing tons of food to Austin, as did Region 13 of the UFCW. While receiving strike pay of $40 from the International and $25 from Region 13, money was running low in Austin and striking families were facing a grim Christmas.

Local P-9 had wanted to restore the old $10.69 per hour standard wage. The differential in pay between what P-9 wanted and what Hormel offered had been steadily narrowed by arbitrators’ rulings before the strike and mediators proposals after the strike began. The final company offer was for $10 per hour for the current workforce. Though material had been published on the safety problems in Hormel’s new plant, Corporate Campaign’s overwhelming emphasis had been on the money issue — a profitable company cutting wages. They suddenly had to scramble to explain that there was a lot more at stake than 69 cents.

The proposed contract gave Hormel a free hand as far as work rules went and did cut wages for new hires to $8 per hour (a “two-tier” system). Region 13 director Joe Hansen made it clear in his announcement that this was the best deal P-9 would get and that the UFCW would conduct a mail ballot.Guyette and 150 strikers shouted him down and announced that they would take their own vote. The proposed contract was defeated by a small majority in both ballots.

Hormel had already announced that a defeat of this proposal would trigger the opening of the plan with scabs and as many P-9 members as were willing to cross picket lines. This eventuality had never really been confronted or planned for by local leaders. Some believed that Hormel could not bring in a large number of scabs into such a small community (population 22,000). Others thought Rogers would launch a new corporate campaign targeting fast food restaurants or other major customers of Hormel. Rogers began to threaten mass civil disobedience and the media started to call him the Martin Luther King of the labor movement. The UFCW replied by calling him the Ayatollah of Austin. William Wynn — the president of the UFCW International — public ally denounced Guyette, accusing him of leading P-9 on a suicide mission and appealed to the local membership to repudiate the strike and go back to work.

Hormel attempted to re-open the plant in January. The day the plant opened there was no mass civil disobedience or publicity campaigns. Instead there were hundreds of union men and women blocking the gates and the scabs did not pass that day or the next. By the end of the week the National Guard was in place and the area around the plant was placed under martial law.

Roving Pickets

P-9 then sent out roving pickets to spread the strike and shut down production at the other plants in the Hormel chain. Hormel was particularly vulnerable to this strategy since it is not a conglomerate that can bleed off profits from one industrial division to prop up another during a strike. All that Hormel does is package meat and it has been doing this very profitably from 1891 to the present.

On January 25th the Hormel plant at Ottumwa, Iowa was shut down by a march of hundreds of pickets to the gates. Hormel retaliated by firing 478 workers who refused to cross the picket lines. The plant normally employs 800 workers. With a large part of the workforce locked out, there was little production at the Ottumwa plant. On February 8th a rally of some 2,000 unionists, their families and supporters was held in Ottumwa. Support in the community is fairly strong. The mayor of the town told the rally, “You’ve got the right not to cross that picket line.” Another mass rally in support of the Ottumwa workers took place on May 10th, including hundreds of P-9 members bused in from Austin.

The shop stewards in the Ottumwa plant had been particularly instrumental in getting people to refuse to cross the picket lines set up by the workers from Austin. Instead of backing the fired shop stewards, the UFCW has lately been organizing elections of new shop stewards among the Ottumwa workers who weren’t fire.

On February 16th about 200 pickets from P-9 showed up at the FDL Foods plant in Dubuque. The local union president, Mel Maas, stood at the plant gates, along with representatives from the UFCW International,telling workers this was not a sanctioned picket and that they should go to work. Nonetheless, about half of the 900 workers on the morning shift were persuaded to stay out.

The roving pickets had less success at the other Hormel plants. Only about 65 workers stayed out when pickets showed up at the Fremont,Nebraska plant. When the pickets arrived at the Hormel operation in Atlanta, they discovered that the UFCW had only a minimal organizing effort going on. The UFCW only held union meetings every four months and the location of the meetings was 40 miles from the plant.

Local P-9 had originally considered sending out pickets to other plants in October. They waited until January because they were trying to get the International’s sanction for the roving pickets. They made a deal with William Wynn, who pledged to approve the roving pickets if negotiations with Hormel failed.

Though the negotiations did eventually raise the wage offer to $10 per hour, the company’s “final offer” in January still contained a lot of givebacks that would essentially give management the right to do anything it wanted in the plant, and wipe out all the past practices and procedures (e.g. seniority rights) that defended workers against arbitrary management power. But when P-9 members rejected this contract in January, Wynn reneged on his pledge and refused to sanction roving pickets. His pledge was exposed as a dishonest stalling tactic.

On February 15th 3,000 strike supporters from unions throughout the midwest marched in the streets of Austin and rallied at the high school. Speaker after speaker from National Rank and File Against Concessions pledged undying support for a fight to the end. The pro-strike community is a minority in Austin but they were there in force — from infants to old men. Workers from all industries were there, carrying signs, union banners and the American flag. Even boring speeches were interrupted by standing ovations again and again.

Everywhere in that crowded auditorium you could feel it, that we all need something, something different, something new from the labor movement, and maybe this is where it will start. Everyone wants to believe it. After the rally people filed out, pushing their way past legions of Trotskyists selling newspapers, pamphlets, and discussion bulletins.

Shortly afterwards in Bal Harbor, Florida, the AFL-CIO Executive Committee refused to hear an appeal by Rogers and Guyette for and AFL-CIO endorsed boycott of Hormel products. Later, William Wynn and Lane Kirkland stood cheek to jowl for the press while Wynn denounces the “fascist tactics” of P-9. Kirkland lets it be known that from now on the AFL will try to intervene in disputes between Internationals and insurgent locals. The official disapproval sent a chill wind through the leftwing cheerleaders who had been hailing P-9 and the corporate campaign.

Bill Montross of the UFCW’s research department was able to denounce the strike in the pages of In These Times (“Local P-9 Is Leading Mass Suicide”, 2/26), the Guardian (“Dissidence Isn’t Always Progressive,” 2/19), and Labor Notes (“UFCW International Led Fight Against Concessions”, April). Montross’s hatchet job, prepared by leftists at the International’s headquarters, tried to portray the UFCW as the defender of “progressive” unionism while P-9 was denounced for “isolation, individualism, and division.” In the International’s eyes,”solidarity” means obedience to their orders, even if those orders ban actual solidarity.

That this could even be considered a matter of serious debate was a disgrace. But the Communist Party registered the leftist retreat the earliest and clearest: “The local leadership’s attacks on the leadership of the UFCW has played into the hands of the corporations’ union busting strategy and will be used to split and divide other locals and be used as ammunition against the union in organizing drives…” (Daily World, 2/6). In other words, the union apparatus must be preserved, even against the workers themselves.

On Saturday, April 12th, another 3,000-strong rally assembled in Austin, with supporters from all over the country. The rally was fired up by the fact that 400 strikers and supporters had shut the plant down for several hours on Friday, before being dispersed by riot cops.

At the meeting before the Friday picketing, non-violence was stressed as it has been throughout the strike. The plan had been to block the roads leading to the plant with circles of cars. Several hundred strikers amassed at the main gate, chanting, hurling insults at the cops. The strikers had the advantage of numbers. But when the cops finally began to tow cars, no effort was made to stop them. Having broken through the protective circle of vehicles, the cops moved in to arrest picketers.

Rogers’ strategy towards the strike has been to push non-violent”civil disobedience,” rather like Martin Luther King in the civil rights movement or the anti-nuclear protesters who sit down in front of nuclear plants with the intention of getting arrested. Rogers preaches non-violence because he thinks the heart of the struggle is winning support for the Hormel strikers in the eyes of “public opinion.” But many of those in this amorphous “public” are landlords, small store owners, politicians, and others whose class interests are not the same as meatpacking workers. Meanwhile, if Hormel can successfully recruit and train a scab workforce, the company has no reason to listen to strikers’ demands. And seeing the scabs take their jobs is demoralizing for the strikers.

The problem with “civil disobedience” is its pacifism, which leaves the bosses’ law and order effectively unchallenged. It takes force to stop scabs; it can’t be done by moral appeals to public opinion.

“CD” only produces arrests, it does not produce any power for the workers. Yet direct action by workers to defend their picket lines against the job-stealing of the scabs is perfectly legitimate, no matter what capitalist legality may say about it.

Rogers argued that if the strikers didn’t practice non-violence, the National Guard would be brought back in. But Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party Governor Perpich had removed the National Guard in February only after hundreds of supporters from other unions had been mobilized to support the strikers in Austin. The honorable governor was worried about the political fallout from a major confrontation between the Guard and large groups of strike supporters.

Another twist in Rogers’ emphasis upon “public opinion” is the consumer boycott of Hormel products. But the track record of consumer boycotts in this country is not very encouraging.

If transport workers and retail clerks refused to handle Hormel products,that would be a more effective form of boycott. Most unionized supermarket clerks belong to the UFCW. But instead of asking retail clerks to refuse to handle Hormel products, the International demanded unconditional surrender by P-9.

Despite their sincere effort to be peaceful and avoid violence, local P-9 has been subjected to physical violence from the cops and National Guard and many have been arrested. Meanwhile, the Twin Cities dailies describe P-9 as “rigid” and “inflexible.”

After the attempt to close the plant on April 11th, Rogers was indicted under the Minnesota Criminal Syndicalism law, the first time that statute has been invoked in decades. This law, which bans advocacy of sabotage or industrial violence to affect social change, was passed in 1917 for the purpose of outlawing the Industrial Workers of the World. The IWW had led a major strike of mine workers on the Messabi iron ore range in Minnesota in 1916.

After announcing in March that it was ending sanction for P-9’s strike the UFCW International sent a letter to P-9 members cutting off strike benefits for strikers who refuse to go back to work on Hormel’s terms. The UFCW mailing included a form letter, addressed to Hormel’s personnel manager, which states that the applicant is willing to take any job unconditionally.

Bring Back the Sit-Down Strike?

The weakness of P-9’s position has been its inability to close down operations at the Austin plant. When Hormel began production in January, it would have been possible to break into the plant and carry out a sit-down strike. At that point the strikers’ numbers and enthusiasm were at a peak, and the “forces of order” could have been taken by surprise.

A sit-down strike would have been the most effective way to shut down production and force Hormel to take the strikers’ concerns seriously. When strikers are outside on picket lines, they are an easier target for cop violence and management has a free hand inside the plant. On the other hand, when workers are in possession of the plant, the scabs can’t be brought in to carry on production. The strikers would be holding the $100 million plant hostage. Management would think twice before ordering a cop assault to clear the plant of sit-down strikers.

A sit-down strike was how local P-9 was organized originally back in 1933. Discontented workers in the hog kill department got together with with an experienced Wobbly (IWW) organizer, named Frank Ellis, who was working as a foreman in another department. This led to the formation of the Independent Union of All Workers (IUAW). Ellis was one of a number of IWW butchers who migrated around the midwest from job to job in those days.

After the IUAW went on strike against Hormel in ’33, the company attempted to start up a sheep kill with scabs. At that point,

Four hundred men, many of them armed with clubs, sticks and rocks, crashed through the plant entrance, shattering the glass doors and sweeping the guards before them. The strikers quickly ran throughout the plant to chase out non-union workers. One…group crashed through the doors of a conference room where Jay Hormel and five company executives were meeting and declared “We’retaking possession. So move out!” (Larry Engelmann, “We Were the Poor — The Hormel Strike of 1933,” Labor History, Fall, 1974.)

Though Minnesota’s Farmer-Labor Party governor at the time, Floyd Olson, denounced the strikers’ “illegal possession of the plant,” the company threw in the towel after four days of worker occupation of the plant. The IUAW went on to become a major center for organizing meatpacking plants in the upper midwest in the ’30s. It eventually became part of the United Packinghouse Workers Union of the CIO.

The heads of the AFL-CIO unions are definitely opposed to the sit-down tactic. When the state outlaws the most effective forms of worker action, such as sit-down strikes and refusing to handle scab goods,the union heads simply go along with this because they try to avoid any action that may put their organization at risk or threaten to disrupt their long-standing relationships with management and government leaders. Workers’ first concern may be their on-the-job situation but the International union heads do not share those conditions and their first concern is the survival of the union as a bureaucratic institution.

Rogers and his supporters in local P-9 preached “civil disobedience”yet a plant occupation would have been the most effective form of “disobedience.” A plant occupation may be illegal, but it is also illegal to block streets with cars. And obviously Rogers’ strategy did not avoid arrests or police violence.

A New Union in the Meatpacking Industry?

On April 14th and 15th the UFCW International held hearings on its proposal to place local P-9 in trusteeship. The rationale for the trusteeship was local P-9’s refusal of the International’s order to end the strike. The International failed to provide documents and witnesses by local P-9, which denounced the proceedings as a “sham” and a “farce.”

On May 9th, the Executive Board of the UFCW International ordered a trusteeship for local P-9, with the Region 13 director Joe Hansen appointed as the International’s dictator in Austin. The UFCW’s trusteeship was upheld by federal District Court judge Edward Devitt on June 2nd and the UFCW then changed the locks on the union’s offices, seized all files and funds, and ousted the elected leadership. Even before the trusteeship was imposed, Joe Hansen made an unconditional offer to Hormel for the strikers to return to work. Hormel waited until after the trusteeship was upheld in court on June 2nd to agree to being negotiations.

Most of the actual strike support and fund-raising has been done under the auspices of the United Support Group, which is formally independent of the union. This has not stopped the UFCW from trying to seize the support group funds, however, which indicates how determined the UFCW is to crush P-9’s rebellion.

The International leaders are attempting to set up a “dual union” of the bureaucrats, to replace the real union of P-9 strikers, and negotiate a new contract with Hormel over the heads of the workers.

On June 9th petitions were filed with the National Labor Relations Board,signed by 800 P-9 strikers, to decertify the UFCW International in favor of an independent union. Initially “Original P-9” was the proposed name of the independent, but the NLRB rejected this name on the grounds that it would be confused with the official P-9, now controlled by the International’s trustee. The new union’s name was then changed to “North American Meat Packers Union.”

Supporters of the new independent estimate that there are between 12,000 and 30,000 meatpackers in 30 locals across the midwest who may be willing to leave the UFCW for an independent union. Meanwhile, local P-40 in Wisconsin and local P-6 in Albert Lea, Minnesota, are refusing to pay their per capita dues to the International until the trusteeship is removed from local P-9.

The history of the Hormel struggle demonstrates once again how the present top-down union Internationals are bound to be in conflict with the rank and file who want control over their own movement and militant solidarity against the employers. To develop an effective challenge to the employing class and unionism self-managed by the rank and file, it is going to be necessary to develop new organization.

The usual argument against a new union is that it would be “divisive” while so many other workers in the same industry remain within the “official” union, in this case the UFCW. But surely the UFCW International has proven itself to be an obstacle to worker solidarity. Affiliation of workers in different workplaces with the same AFL-CIO-type “international union” only guarantees subordination to a common central bureaucracy. These vertical bureaucracies often work to oppose direct, horizontal solidarity between workers since it imposes risks and costs (such as strike benefits) to their organizations, disrupts cozy relationships with employers, and challenges their top-down control.

We are not saying that workers should automatically avoid the AFL-CIO-type unions,even when no other mass organization is feasible. Nor are we saying that workers should abandon the struggle within the AFL-CIO-type unions against top-down bureaucratic control and against sell-outs. But when workers’ efforts to mount an effective fight against employer power and to control their own struggle come into conflict with the top-down hierarchies in the unions, as at Hormel, the need and opportunity for new organization is clearly demonstrated.

A workers movement guided by the principles of rank-and-file democracy, worker solidarity, and militant struggle against the employing class is bound to develop new forms of organization, independent of the rotting corpse of American business unionism. The top-down structure of the AFL-CIO-type unions is an albatross around the neck of the American workforce. What is needed is a new form of organization in which the rank and file directly manage the struggle and the local organizations are linked together in horizontal, worker-to-worker solidarity.

Leave a Reply