08/14/1985 MPR report: Austin, before the strike

Protest during the Hormel strike
A protester leaned forward to shout at authorties during the 1985 Hormel strike.
Austin Daily Herald Photo


At first glance, Austin's most unique characteristic is its prosperity.

The community's wide, busy downtown streets could easily belong to a city with twice its 23,000 residents.

The town's success is due mainly to its largest employer, George A Hormel and company, whose founder guessed correctly over 100 years ago that a fortune could be made slaughtering livestock from Minnesota and Iowa farms and selling meat to city-dwellers.

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Since its beginnings in Austin, Hormel has grown into a corporation with assets totalling $1.4 billion.

Now, the first strike in more than 50 years is on the horizon at the Austin plant, and the town's business people are worried.

No one is more aware of their fears that Tom Kough, Mayor of Austin and himself a 30-year union worker at Hormel. Kough says economically, the town is in limbo.

KOUGH: Businesses that want to build here but right now everything right now is more or less at a standstill because of what's happening. Everybody's looking very closely at the outcome of the situation.

Kough says he's seen the stress on Austin residents, who are used to high wages and now have to pay bills will less money coming in and the possibility of the strike ahead.

KOUGH: We know that if it goes on, any time at all, it's going to be tremendous. People don't have a lot of extra money. They're not going to be able to afford their rents, their utilities. But I just have to be optimistic that it'll get settled and we hope that it's settled to the best interest of both parties.

Local P-9 president Jim Guyette is also aware of the difficulty the town faces. But he says his first responsibility is to the union membership.

Should a strike be called, union members would receive $65 per week in strike funds from the International Union of Food and Commercial Workers, plus whatever else can be raised from other union's contributions.

Guyette has often spoken of the struggle in terms of morality. And he says if the union gives into the cuts the company is taking, more cuts will certainly follow.

GUYETTE: Well, I think one guy in the meeting put it very well. He came here to work for a company to be able to provide for his family. And the company keeps insisting that they're going to take more and more and he's not going to be able to provide. So I guess how long we can hold out? How long can we hold out working for the company making less and less and people being forced out of their homes and people being hurt.

In December of 1984, Guyette and the union hired New York labor consultant Ray Rogers to fight what he called a corporate campaign against Hormel until the wage cuts were reinstated.

Since the contract the union was working under prohibited striking, Rogers announced he would attack the company's financial backers with the intent of pressuring them into restoring the cuts.

His main target is the First Bank System, which owns about 16 percent of Hormel's stock.

Although the bank has repeatedly denied any influence on Hormel's policy, Rogers says the campaign has been successful and that the union is now one of the best prepared locals to ever undertake a strike.

ROGERS: When we came into this campaign, we said that the workers and people in the community were not the only ones that were going to suffer. That for every causality that the workers in the community would suffer or have inflicted upon them, we would inflict multiple causalities on Hormel and it's financial power structure behind in the form of economic and political pressures. And we think we're being very successful in that and we can multiply what we've been doing up to this state, thousands of times. When we can turn that strike force essentially into a multi-million dollar economic and political campaign force.

Despite Rogers' enthusiasm, the corporate campaign's main success has been in the area of publicity. The dispute in Austin has attracted the national media and has gained the attention of labor organizations and experts throughout the country.

Since the campaign began though, both First Bank and Hormel's stock have gained steadily.

While Rogers and Guyette have pledged the campaign will intensify if there is a strike, it is said to be costing the union around $340,000.

While union members were meeting recently to look at the company's final contract offer, workmen were putting the finishing touches on a chain link and barbed wire fence surrounding the Hormel corporate offices.

CHUCK NYBERG (Hormel VP and General Counsel): We are going to run that plant.

Hormel Vice president and general counsel Chuck Nyberg says the company is preparing for a strike.

NYBERG: Short term we're going to close it down, but we're going to run that plant. And we'll do it, with management people if necessary on some kind of a basis, or with temporary employees, or if we get to the point we think it is necessary, then certainly we would have the option of running it with replacement employees. We hope that that is a decision that we do not have to make.

Both Nyberg and Guyette say the possibility for violence could arise during a strike. And they also say they'll do their best to avoid it.

In the meantime, company property is taking the appearance of an armed camp. And the residents of Austin are wondering if their town will ever return to the way it was before the dispute began.

Reporting from Rochester, I'm Mike Mulcahy.