Tom Stiehm remembers when he first realized his town was changing.
Two decades ago, he was a police officer sitting in a squad car with another officer when he noticed several Latino men cross the street.
"Of course, being from Austin, I said, 'Where are all these people coming from?" recalled Stiehm, now the city's mayor. "And he said, 'They work at the plant.' And I said, 'To think we used to have one of the best paid meatpacking jobs in the country.' And he said, 'We still do.'"
The best-paid meatpacking jobs in the country lured a new workforce that has transformed Austin. Stiehm and others say one of the catalysts for change began on a hot summer day 25 years ago, when workers at the Hormel plant went on strike.
The strike became one of the longest in the 1980s. Hormel eventually won, and helped change the demographic landscape of this southeastern Minnesota town when it hired new workers at lower wages. Austin now has a deep dependence on mostly Mexican immigrant labor.
THE STRIKE THAT CHANGED THE TOWN
On a recent drive through Austin, Stiehm takes tree-lined streets around the plant. The sharp smell of processed pork drifts into his car when he lowers the window to point out a house where he once lived.
"It was all white," Stiehm said of the neighborhood. "That was back in 89, 90, 91. And there wasn't a single Hispanic here. It was all working class white. I wouldn't say its run down more. It was never one of the better areas of town. ...This area here, it's just all Hispanic."
Two decades ago, Stiehm's city was just like thousands of rural towns across America -- predominantly white and a solid mix of working and middle-class laborers. Officially, the 1990 U.S. Census counted just 243 Latinos in Austin of about 22,000 residents.
By 2000, the number of Latinos jumped to about 1,650. Within a decade, residents of this cozy town found themselves trying to understand who the new people were, where they were coming from and why they were here.
The strike followed the recession of the early 1980s and increased competition among meatpackers around the country. Many smaller companies went under. Others instituted wage cuts.
By 1985, Hormel felt pressure to remain competitive. When the company demanded a 23 percent wage cut, about 1,500 workers with the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, Local P-9, went on strike.
Dan Bartel is one of the strike survivors. He was hired by Hormel in 1982 when he was 24 years old.
Bartel, who worked in several areas of the plant, including the boning department and with dry sausages, went on strike but returned to the plant after six months. That's when the local union was ordered to call off the strike by the national leaders of the United Food and Commercial Workers. When the union members in Austin refused, local P9 was placed in receivership and taken over by the national union.
Bartel, the business agent for what's now called Local 9, still believes Hormel mishandled the strike.
"There was a culture here that Hormel, the original Hormels, took care of the people that did the work that took care of them," he said from his desk in the local union hall. "And my opinion, and this is solely my opinion, is Hormels turned their back on those people."
"It's a respect thing," he said. "And I think when you disrespect someone that deeply, those wounds will linger forever."
Austin still has wounds, although they're less conspicuous now. The 10-month strike devastated the city. Families stopped talking. National Guard soldiers patrolled to keep the peace. And in this quiet community, red-faced screaming matches happened almost daily on the picket line.
People who lived through the strike are tired of it and don't want to remember, Bartel said.
"I'm a little reluctant to go back and rekindle feelings about the strike," he said. "Been a lot of healing going on in the last 25 years and what purpose does it serve to get folks feeling, you know, down and out again? I don't see it adding any value."
After the strike, Hormel hired new workers at lower wages. And a few years later, the company leased part of its Austin plant to a newly created company called Quality Pork Processors (QPP).
Officials with Hormel and QPP declined numerous interview requests for this story.
QPP took over the more dangerous cut and slaughter part the business. Today, they process 19,000 hogs a day, according to the company's website. All of the fresh meat from QPP goes on for processing at Hormel.
QPP ushered in a new workforce of mostly single Mexican men, who worked in the United States and sent money back to their wives and children.
By the mid 1990s, Austin started to mirror other meatpacking towns around the country. City officials say the immigrants were seen as a mixed blessing. They added to the population and labor supply but created a slew of unanticipated concerns for the community.
But for at least one group of former Hormel workers, the influx of immigrant workers deepened the longing for what they call the old Austin.
STRUGGLING WITH THE PRESENT
On a recent Thursday morning, a group of former P-9 union members gathered for coffee and doughnuts, as they have for 25 years. Bumper stickers, caps and pictures from their P-9 days decorated the meeting room. A giant American flag hung from one wall.
They began the meeting with the Pledge of Allegiance and a chant: "United We Stand. Divided We Fell ...even P-9 fell all the way.""
Now in their 70s and 80s, these men and women were among the workers who never went back after the strike. The conversation quickly turned to the new workers and conditions in the plant.
"Would you want your grandkids working over at that plant?" one man asked.
"No!" a woman replied
"A guy said his granddaughter worked there one night and she was the only white person there," another man said. "And she said she was scared."
"You know, we sound like a bunch of racists down here," said Vincent Maloney, who worked at Hormel for 38 years. "But we're not."
Maloney, 78, considers himself part of old Austin. He'd do anything to return to what he sees as the city's pre-strike, golden days.
Still furious at workers who crossed the picket line during the strike, Maloney also is angry about the new workers who came later. And he acknowledges he doesn't like the daily bump and grind that comes from life in a more diverse city. In many ways, the changes make him feel unwelcome in his own home town.
"I walk through the parks every day, weekends," he said. "A white person can't go to the parks anymore."
"Not at all," said Jan Hoi, 75.
"We've got eight parks in town. Small ones. Big ones," Maloney said. "The white man don't dare go out there. The Mexicans have got them all cornered. And what a mess. They get these piñatas. Beat the hell out of them."
Maloney and others thought the new workers would only be in Austin for a little while before returning to Mexico.
Carol King, whose husband David worked at Hormel, wonders why the immigrants who've stayed, and those who've brought their families from Mexico, won't try harder to fit in.
"Everything is labeled here, making it easier for them to keep their language," she said. "At HyVee, the grocery store, they have the Spanish names for the restrooms and they have the magazines that are printed in Spanish. They just enable them to keep their language. ... I think everyone would feel more accepting if they tried to blend in."
Outside City Hall, Stiehm said it's a challenge to be the leader of a city with so many parts that don't stitch together. He says one of his priorities has been to try to help the city redefine its identity.
"What I tell people is you don't have to like it, but this is the future of Austin -- and either you go with it or it's like trying to swim upstream," Stiehm said. "Sooner or later, it's going to happen. ... It's like the weather. I don't think there's anything you can do about it."
The changes in Austin reflect new realities about immigration. Rapid demographic shifts once seen only in border states and large urban areas have transformed Main Streets in rural cities and towns. Stiehm said that's something Austin is still working hard to accept.
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