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25 years ago, Hormel strike changed Austin, industry

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P-9 strikes form a picket line outside Hormel 1985
P-9 strikers form a picket line outside Hormel during the 1985 strike.
Austin Daily Herald Photo

Twenty-five years ago today, workers at the Hormel meatpacking plant in Austin, Minn. went on strike, bringing the struggles of the national labor movement home to southern Minnesota.

The strike became one of the longest in an industry racked by them in the 1980s.

Tom Kough was Austin's mayor in the summer of 1985. Just days before the strike began, he talked about the stress residents and businesses were under. 

"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," he said. "But I just have to be optimistic that it'll get settled and we hope that's it's settled to be the best interest of both parties."

The parties in this case were Hormel and its 1,500 union workers.

It was a tough time for the industry.

The recession of the early '80s had increased competition among meat packers nationwide. Many small companies went under, and others instituted wage cuts.

Hormel froze wages in 1977. So by 1985, when the company demanded a 23 percent wage cut on top of that wage freeze, workers walked off the job in protest.

Conflict during the Hormel strike in Austin
A photo taken from a bystander dated 1985 during the Hormel strike in Austin, Minnesota.
Mower County Historical Society

Dan Bartel was one of them. Back then, he worked in the boning department and with dry sausage. He said he went on strike that summer because he believed it was the best way to preserve what he considered fair labor practices at the plant. 

Today, he's the business agent for what's now called the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, Local 9.

"It was an unfortunate time for the people who worked in the plant and the community. A lot of folks that had worked a large part of their life in the plant, found themselves without a job, which is a very bad fit," Bartel said.

Hormel officials declined to comment for this story.

For Bartel, the strike ended after six months, when he crossed the picket line and returned to work. That's when the union's national leaders ordered the local union to call off the strike. 

But union members in Austin refused. Their local was placed in receivership and taken over by the national union.

"The strike was a valid effort at the time," he said. "Timing was bad. And the results were a little less than successful."

Union supporter during Austin strike
An image taken during the Hormel meatpackers strike that began in August, 1985 of a supporter of the local P-9 union.
Mower County Historical Society

Organized labor around the country had been on a steady decline since the early 1980s, and the issues in Austin resonated with workers everywhere. The strike quickly received national attention.

Peter Rachleff, a history professor and labor historian at Macalester College in St. Paul, said the strike in Austin quickly gained momentum and support from unions around the country. 

"The strike had to become a beehive of activity, in which workers and their families and their community became involved," Rachleff said.

But as months passed, Rachleff says that solidarity became a bitter fight. Families stopped talking. Neighbors screamed at each other on the picket line.  National Guard soldiers patrolled to keep the peace.  

"People were shocked that the National Guard and the State Police would haul people off to jail, would bust the windshields out of cars that were trying to block exit ramps off I-90, that they were very rough with people who were trying to commit what they considered in a very Martin Luther King-kind of way, to be a principled, civil disobedience," Rachleff said.

Today, many of the official records from the strike are stored away in a room at the Mower  County Historical Society. There are police reports correspondence with federal officials and newspaper clippings.  

Dustin Heckman, the society's executive director, said the strike in Austin left a lasting impression on residents. It also helped transform the demographic landscape of the city. Once the strike was over, Hormel hired new workers at lower wages. 

That eventually ushered in a wave of immigrant workers. Now, about a quarter of the city's population is minority.

Heckman says in many ways, the presence of the new, mostly Mexican workers at the plant deepened the longing for life before the strike for many old-timers.

"I think a lot of people would like to return to that. But at the same time, we have to look at it as it happened, it's over, we've dealt with it, let's move on, so that the next two generations aren't fighting this fight they were never involved in," he said.

Heckman said the memory of the strike is still very much alive in Austin. He says the city is now at a crossroads trying hard to redefine its identity.

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In the audio version of this article, "Proud to March With P-9" by Dennis Jones and "Which Side Are You On" with new words and vocals by Larry Long & Carrie Gerendasy are featured on the sound recording Boycott Hormel: Live From Austin, Waterfront Records. More information: www.larrylong.org.