United States 1985-1986
On 19 August 1985 Local P-9 of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) went on strike against Geo. A. Hormel and Company's Austin, Minnesota, flagship plant. The strike attracted widespread support among rank-and-file workers in the U.S. labor movement despite the reluctance of the UFCW to endorse its objectives. In January 1986 Hormel reopened the plant with strikebreakers, leading P-9 to widen its efforts to secure support from other workers. In April 1986 the UFCW terminated its support for the strike, removed the local union officers, and ended the strike by signing a contract very similar to the one P-9 had rejected when it walked out. Most strikers never regained their jobs.
- 1965: African Americans in the Watts section of Los Angeles riot for six days. Thirty-four people are killed, over 1,000 injured, and fires damage $175 million in property.
- 1974: In a bout with George Foreman in Zaire, Muhammad Ali becomes only the second man in history (the first was Floyd Patterson) to regain the title of world heavy-weight champion.
- 1979: More than a year after Afghan communists seized con trol of their nation, Afghanistan is in disarray, and at Christmas, Soviet tanks roll in to restore order, as they once did in East Germany, Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia. This time, however, the task of suppressing the local populace will not prove so easy: little do the Soviets know that they are signing on for a decade-long war from which they will return in defeat.
- 1982: Israeli troops invade Lebanon in an attack on the Pales tine Liberation Organization (PLO).
- 1985: A new era begins in the USSR as Chernenko dies and is replaced by Mikhail Gorbachev, who at 54 years old is the youngest Soviet leader in decades.
- 1985: In a year of notable hijackings by Muslim and Arab ter rorists, Shi'ites take a TWA airliner in June, Palestini ans hijack the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro in October, and fundamentalists take control of an Egyptian plane in Athens in November.
- 1988: A terrorist bomb aboard a Pan Am 747 explodes over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 259 people on the plane and 11 more on the ground.
- 1990: Iraq invades Kuwait, seizing oil reserves, and the United States begins mobilizing for war.
- 1995: The Aum Shinrikyo cult causes a nerve-gas attack in a Tokyo subway, killing eight people and injuring thousands more.
- 2002: The Catholic Church is rocked by allegations of sexual molestation carried out by priests.
Event and Its Context
The 1985-1986 strike by Local P-9 at Hormel's Austin, Minnesota, plant was the most visible of a wave of local meat-packing strikes during the 1980s that sought, unsuccessfully, to halt the unraveling of unionism in that industry. In a strike that lasted from August 1985 to June 1986, Local P-9 transfixed the labor movement—and occasionally the nation—with its dramatic struggle against contract concessions. The strike also divided packinghouse workers inside the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), as P-9 refused to accept the decisions of the international union, which disagreed with P-9's strategy.
Declining Real Income and Stability
The strike was provoked by the decision by Hormel's management to terminate the 1940 guaranteed annual wage agreement that had made the company's Austin employees the highest-paid workers in the meatpacking industry. For almost four decades Austin packinghouse workers received a guaranteed wage calculated on a 38-hour week, regardless of the hours actually worked. In addition, the workers collected incentive earnings that grew from 41 percent of the base wage in 1947 to 68 percent in 1956. As a result, the Austin workers earned on average $120 for a 35-hour week in 1956, compared to $87 for a 40-hour week in Iowa packinghouses. The hourly wage was pegged to the rates paid under union contracts in the major packing companies; it was incentive pay that made Hormel's Austin employees the wealthiest packinghouse workers in the country.
Under company pressure, the Austin local started granting concessions in 1963 in the form of higher production schedules that reduced incentive earnings. This erosion in earning levels continued throughout the 1960s and 1970s. In 1978, in order to exact a commitment from Hormel to build a new plant in Austin, the local union agreed to abandon the incentive system and not to strike for three years after the completion of the new facility. The new plant (which opened in 1982) also disrupted long-established work habits and rhythms. The massive retirement of experienced workers and the hiring of new employees added to the disruption on the shop floor.
The Hormel workers who led P-9's struggle in the 1980s generally were hired in the late 1960s, and had grown up in Austin under conditions of steadily rising income and stable employment for their parents, who generally worked at Hormel. Like many of their supporters, the P-9 president James V. Guyette and business agent Peter Winkels were second-generation Hormel workers who had started their employment in the late 1960s. However, this cohort experienced declining real income almost from the moment they were hired, and in an environment where pattern bargaining seemingly provided little assistance. When Guyette and his supporters took control of the local in the 1980s, the master agreements were disappearing from the industry and the UFCW was negotiating concessionary contracts. In fact, their main experience with pattern bargaining hurt Austin workers. As a result of concessions to companies under national agreements, an arbitrator held that Hormel could unilaterally cut hourly pay by $1.69, in accordance with a contract provision that tied the P-9 workers' wages to master agreement rates.
The P-9 Strike and Strategy
The road to the strike began in September 1984 when P-9 refused to go along with other Hormel local unions in signing a contract that accepted the arbitrator's decision and lowered wages to $9 an hour from $10.69. P-9's leaders maintained that the need to resist concessions and regain the $10.69 level outweighed the need to cooperate with other local unions. They argued that since their plant was one of the most modern in the industry, they should try for a high wage and act as an upward force on national pay levels. P-9's decision was based on the apparent collapse of pattern bargaining as a means of increasing—or even maintaining—the living standards of packing-house workers. But their decision went against traditions in meatpacking of cooperation between local unions, and many local union officials in the meatpacking industry disagreed with P-9's position.
While the P-9 strike that began in August 1985 reflected resistance to the concessionary pressures typical in meatpacking, particular local concerns significantly fueled the militancy and direction of its struggle. Hormel's final proposal eliminated major contractual provisions that had been secured by the union in the 1930s: a guaranteed annual wage, one year's notice prior to layoffs, and job placement in accordance with seniority. The contract also provided for a two-tier wage system, a 30 percent reduction in pensions, and a common labor wage of $9.25 with no increases over three years, and it eliminated maternity benefits.
With the UFCW unenthusiastic about the local union's approach, P-9's leaders looked elsewhere for assistance with their strike. They decided to hire Ray Rogers of Corporate Campaign, Inc., who had helped several local strikes, to act as an adviser to P-9's efforts. A skilled organizer, Rogers helped to structure the local union's strategy of reaching out to other workers and finding other points of pressure against Hormel. By the time P-9 walked out in September, it had a well-organized infrastructure that would spread support for the strike within Austin and among midwestern workers.
P-9's methods bore considerable resemblance to forms of working-class solidarity in the organizing drives of the 1930s and 1940s. P-9's members dispatched informational pickets to other packinghouses, distributing information on their strike and establishing personal relationships between rank-and-file packinghouse workers. Union members handed out thousands of leaflets about their struggle to working-class residents in towns throughout the Midwest. An educational committee trained more than 100 P-9 members in public speaking and dispatched them to speak at union meetings throughout the United States and Canada.
P-9 also devoted considerable energy to involving the families of Hormel workers. 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 families. A Santa's workshop organized before Christmas in 1985 made hundreds of toys for the strikers' children. A toolbox committee run by workers and their spouses handled the union members' financial, legal, and emotional problems. While Rogers coordinated the union's strike activities, much of the initiative, energy, and resources actually came from the Austin United Support Group, an organization of P-9 spouses that had been established in 1984. P-9 also aggressively reached out to workers in other, unrelated trades to ask for their moral and material support.
Division and Defeat
Opposition from the UFCW, high unemployment in the Midwest, and the hostile political climate for labor doomed P-9's resistance. In January 1986 Hormel reopened the plant with new employees and, with the aid of the Minnesota National Guard, stymied P-9's efforts to block entrances to the facility. The UFCW refused to sanction P-9's request to use roving pickets to halt production at other Hormel plants. Nevertheless, more than 500 workers respected P-9 pickets at Ottumwa, Iowa, and were promptly suspended. Without support from the international, however, this tactic was doomed. In Fremont, Nebraska, local UFCW officials instructed union members to cross P-9's picket lines; only a handful of workers stayed out. By February 1986 the strike was no longer effective. Slowly, P-9 union members started to trickle back into Austin even though the local remained on strike, until almost 400 had joined the plant's 1,000 new employees. As the strike unraveled, public recriminations between P-9 and the UFCW reached a crescendo, including a vitriolic clash between Lewie Anderson, the UFCW Packinghouse Division head, and Guyette on the ABC television show Nightline.
In April the UFCW president, William Wynn, decided the international union would settle the dispute on its own. The UFCW removed P-9's officers, terminated strike benefits, and signed a contract with Hormel (based on a settlement reached in the Oscar Mayer plants) for a $10 per hour base wage with an increase to $10.70 in three years. Aside from wages, the Austin agreement was very close to the terms demanded by Hormel when P-9 struck in August 1985. It eliminated two key contractual provisions that had been in the Austin agreements since 1940: a guaranteed annual wage and a 52-week notice prior to any layoffs. The four-year contract also terminated the common expiration dates achieved under the Amalgamated, and contained no language requiring Hormel to rehire the 850 P-9 members still out of work. Fewer than 100 of the P-9 members who refused to cross union picket lines ever regained their jobs.
Anderson, Lewie: Director of the Packinghouse Division of the United Food and Commercial Workers and a former packinghouse worker, Anderson was the key figure in the UFCW's efforts to curtail the Hormel strike.
Guyette, James V.: President of Local P-9 during the 1985 to1986 strike, Guyette began work at Hormel in 1968, was elected as P-9's president in 1994, and was removed from office by the UFCW.
Rogers, Ray: President of Corporate Campaign, Inc., Rogers was hired by Local P-9 to coordinate its efforts to involve retired Hormel workers, spouses, and other workers in Minnesota and nationwide to support the P-9 strike.
Winkels, Peter: Winkels was the business agent for Local P-9 during the 1985 strike. The son and grandson of former Hormel workers, he commenced work at Hormel in 1968. He was elected as P-9's business agent in the same election as Guyette became the president, and was removed from office by the UFCW.
Green, Hardy. On Strike at Hormel: The Struggle for a Democratic Labor Movement. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990.
Horowitz, Roger. Negro and White, Unite and Fight! A Social History of Industrial Unionism in Meatpacking, 1930-1990. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997.
Rachleff, Peter. Hard-pressed in the Heartland: The Hormel Strike and the Future of the Labor Movement. Boston: South End Press, 1993.
Schleuning, Neala J. Women, Community, and the Hormel Strike of 1985-1986. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994.
Koppel, Barbara. American Dream. 1990. Movie documentary.