Local P-9 Strikers and Supporters on the 1985-1986 Meatpacking Strike against the Hormel Company in Austin, Minnesota


In late 1984, members of Local P-9 of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union began a coordinated campaign against major wage and benefit cuts by Hormel, a meatpacking company in Austin, Minnesota. In August 1985, more than 90 percent of the local voted to go out on strike, despite pressure from their international union officials to take concessions. The strike generated widespread solidarity from other trade unionists, some of whom were fired when they respected roving picket lines set up outside other Hormel plants. As labor historian Peter Rachleff writes in his book Hard-Pressed in the Heartland, "Both the UFCW and the AFL-CIO knew that Local P-9 represented a dangerous example for other labor activists and rank-and-file unionists. P-9 quickly came to symbolize democracy and membership participation, a willingness to oppose corporate demands for concessions, regardless of international union agendas or strategies, and a form of 'horizontal' solidarity that threatened the vertical, bureaucratic hold that international unions exercised over their locals." In 1986, the national union put Local P-9 into receivership and forced through the acceptance of a bad contract. The strike, which was ultimately defeated, was a classic example of how employer power is used to break unions and maintain their profits. Here several participants in the strike reflect1 on their struggle against Hormel and its lessons.

From Voices of A People's History, edited by Zinn and Arnove

JIM GUYETTE: I was born and raised here in Austin. This is my hometown....

I started working at Hormel in July of 1968. In 1978, I got active in the union because they were negotiating a concessionary contract with the company. It was agreed that we would loan the company money to build a new plant, an interest-free loan, supposedly in return for never having our wages cut. I said, "The banks got more money than I do. Why are they coming to me for a loan?"

We were told we had to vote for the concessionary contract, but neither the company nor the union officials told us everything that was in it. It turned out to be open season for management to do whatever they wanted. It meant concessions in benefits. It meant concessions in every aspect of work. There was a no-strike clause for eight years and real speedup in production. At that speed, there were many injuries.

DENNY MEALY: I can recall as clear as day Chuck Nyberg, then Hormel's executive vice president, saying over TV that the workers will never receive any less in the new plant than what they earned in the old plant. But when I transferred to the new plant, I lost my incentive pay, which cost me a hundred dollars a week. The reduction in medical benefits was retroactive. I personally was paying back to the company forty-three dollars a week for medical expenses I had incurred. Between the transfer to the new plant and the concessions, I lost about one hundred sixty dollars a week. The working conditions had changed. The attitude of management to labor had changed. The injury rate was just phenomenal. It wasn't the same company.

JIM GUYETTE: The union meetings were held in the evenings. They would hold one the next day for those of us who worked nights. The president and one or two officers would sit up there and talk about what happened the night before. If one of us tried to make a motion, they would say that these meetings were simply a "courtesy," that all we could do was ask questions. But when we asked questions they didn't like, they'd get up and leave. Later, when I went to evening union meetings, they'd always rule me our of order. Finally, one of the older veterans said, "Look, I'm getting sick of all this out of order' stuff. He pays dues just like we do. Let's hear what the kid's got to say."

In 1981, I was on the executive board. We went to Chicago for a meeting before negotiations. What they did was booze you up, pound you on the back, and tell you what a great leader you were until your hat didn't fit. Then there was this big staged deal, that we had to take more concessions because everybody else was doing it.

Well, we had taken concession after concession. And I had pretty much stated where I was coming from in '78, '79, and '80. I mean, if the company wasn't making money, I could see the argument. But I couldn't see any rationale in offering new concessions to a profitable employer, one making more money than it ever had before. And I could see no rationale in beating the company to the punch. I just said, "Look, I'm going to tell you guys right up front, when we go home I ain't telling people to vote for this." They said, "We got to be united." I said, "Well, you be united all by yourselves—I want to give a minority report." I did. and we voted the contract down.

The international wasn't satisfied, so we had to vote again. Basically, it was "vote till you get it right." Well, the election was just a sham—I mean, there were ballots passed out wholesale. People were dropping in twenty-five at a time. I asked for a recount, but they destroyed all the ballots the next day. So it finally went through, and I was marked as a troublemaker.

Then I ran for president in '83. My opponent was John Ankor, who's now president of the scab union and was one of the first to cross the picket line. Before the election, I had made a motion that the rank and file choose an election committee from the membership itself. I asked the head of the committee if he would buy his own padlock to keep the ballot box from being stuffed. He did that. And, lo and behold, I won.

When I took over, we had friction within the union between the old leadership and the new folks corning up. The rumor through the plant was, "Guyette got elected, but nothing's going to get done because the executive board controls everything." But I went straight to the membership, and we started turning things around. What we said made sense to the rank and file. We were very upfront and honest with people and answered questions the best way we knew how. I think that's been the strength of what we've been able to do. I had confidence that if they were informed, if they knew the issues, they'd generally make the right decisions. And if they didn't, people had a right to be wrong.

Prior to my taking office, we'd be lucky to get a quorum of thirty-five people at the meetings. Our union hall held five hundred. Once we started communicating with everybody, we'd have to have four meetings a day to get them all in there. Issues got debated pro and con. Everybody got a chance to voice their opinions, whatever they were. That was just unheard-of.

CECIL CAIN: I came to Hormel about the time these rank and filers were taking over this local, Jim Guyette and Pete Winkels and a host of others. One of the first union meetings I recall was in July or August of 1984.

The union had already given a ton of concessions. Now the company was threatening to cut wages. Here I was, working for $10.69 an hour, and it still wasn't enough. So I went to that meeting. I remember Jim Guyette brought back a plan that the company wanted to offer us, paying $8.75 an hour. Good God, that's two dollars less! Here's a company, absolutely the most profitable meat-packer in the country, and they wanted more. And they didn't come after it nickel and dime.

I couldn't believe Jim was asking us what we thought. In my mind, he's the union president and he's supposed to take care of us. Why didn't he tell them to stick it? I walked right up to the podium and said, "I don't know why you even bother to come back and tell me this.'' But I found out that Jim Guyette doesn't make a move without corning to the rank and file. I got to appreciate it better. He would even present two or three aspects of a problem and say, "What do you want to do?" That's the way he always was: before the strike, during the strike, today.

JIM GUYETTE: Hormel had a tight control over everything. People in our community didn't see this complete domination so clearly before. Now they see how power corrupts, how power controls, how those who have so much money never seem to lose the desire for more and don't care how they get it or who they hurt. We could no longer stand by and watch people hurt to the tune of two hundred and two injuries per one hundred workers each year.

DENNY MEALY: My first five years with the company, I worked in the most dangerous area, the beef kill, doing the most dangerous job in the packinghouse industry. In that five-year span, I required a hundred and ninety-six sutures and ended up having two surgeries to realign my wrist. This injury rate was running rampant.

JIM GUYETTE: Young women, twenty-two years old, worked at the plant for less than two months and got carpal tunnel syndrome. They couldn't even pick up their kids anymore. People, thirty and thirty-two years old, big enough and mean enough to eat nails, couldn't lift a ten-pound box. Then the company retrains them to fry hamburgers at Hardee's and McDonald's and tells them to get on with their lives. After they've ruined people! We couldn't in good conscience stand by. We tried to approach the Hormel Company to create a safe place to work. They said to us: If you don't like it, there are plenty of others who will work under these conditions.

We saw the company's intent very early on. A year before the strike started, it became clear we were headed for confrontation. In order to avoid a war with Hormel, we said, "We'll gamble with you. We'll tie our wages to your profits. We'll guarantee you more money than you made a year ago or take a cut in pay." It took the company a minute and thirty-five seconds to tell us that wasn't enough. When we asked how much was enough, they didn't have an answer....

CECIL CAIN: When we first went on strike in August, Hormel's attitude was: They're going to get real tired and real hungry. The company "knew" that the strike would soon be ended. Only it didn't end in a couple or three months or four or five. We were real successful in staying out, and we were not going to buckle. But believe me, it's tough when you're getting forty bucks a week, now and then supplemented with twenty-five dollars. Then we started the Adopt-a-Famiiy program that Corporate Campaign brought before us. We made an appeal to locals across the country at the end of November. By Christmas time, we started getting responses. Holy Christ, it was a way we were going to survive!

DENNY MEALY: By now, Hormel had been closed for five months, and their productivity had been cut because we were effective with the roving pickets. On January 13, 1986, Hormel reopened the Austin plant.

JIM GUYETTE: When they tried to fill the plant up with scabs, our people decided to show up for work the same time the scabs did. They drove around the plant about two miles an hour. There was a giant traffic jam in Austin, Minnesota! Nobody was really breaking the law, and the police were frustrated....

DENNY MEALY: We decided on civil disobedience, a nonviolent protest. We would place ourselves strategically at the plant site, locked arm in arm. This was successful for several days until the company called the cops. The police would pull people out of the groups and immediately arrest them. Several times people were beaten to the ground. We went through a series of three arrests. On the day of the largest number, one hundred fifteen people were jailed. As our numbers increased, the police and the sheriff's department also increased their forces, calling in help from outlying communities. They used tear gas and riot dogs. For a situation we designed to be completely nonviolent, they employed force.

JIM GUYETTE: You see, they needed to use violence. So they had to try to make us into violent, crazy people. And that's something we've never become. The only violence in Austin was created by the company, the police, and by the National Guard. We preached nonviolence from the very beginning. We used ideas from Gandhi, from Martin Luther King, Jr. And we took a tremendous amount of time and conducted a lot of meetings to talk about what it was we wanted to do and how we wanted to do it without violence.

CAROL KOUGH: I was at the picket line most of the time. Basically, what everybody did was link arms. They stayed peaceful, linking arms. Terry Arens was the first one arrested. He was just talking to an officer. He said, "We're not doing anything wrong. We're not violent. I hope you guys remain the same." That made the officers mad. They said, "Let's get him." The officers pulled so hard, Terry said he thought his arms were going to come out of their sockets. When they couldn't get him loose, the police put their fingers in his eyes and pulled him down that way. Terry's a big guy, but they pulled him down to the ground. He had injury to his eyes.

Then they started macing people. They had police dogs there that could rip you apart. It got to the point where they didn't care what happened to a P-9er. That's an awful feeling, But that's the feeling people had. They didn't really care if they hurt you.

CECIL CAIN: We were winning at first. We'd turn out four or five or six hundred people there. We were effective in keeping it shut down. If you go down there and you're effective, here comes an injunction: You can only have three pickets per gate. In effect, they were outlawing pickets. The same difference to me. Then they started hauling up people, arresting them. Here they come on radio: "Violence!" "Mobs!" In comes the Guard....

CAROL KOUGH: They had the nerve to claim that one of the reasons they needed the Guard was because there was a physical attack on the company photographer by one of the workers. I was out at the gate that morning. Traffic was circling both ways, plus people going into work. There was a mixture of strikers and scabs. The photographer from Hormel was purposely agitating. And if you read the police reports, they admit that this man was purposely agitating. Then he got out of his car and took a swing and a kick at one of the P-9 strikers. That's when the striker kicked him back. The photographer got in his car and drove over to the corporate office. All of a sudden, they take him away by ambulance, supposedly because he's been hurt. Yet he was able to drive over and walk into the office, no problem. I still feel it was a set-up—I really do—because of the way it happened. They said that was one of the reasons they called the Guard—a "physical altercation."

DENNY MEALY: The National Guard cut off every entrance except one, the very north gate. Then they formed a V, almost like a funnel, that led from Interstate 90 directly to the gate. Anyway they could, they would get the replacement workers, scabs, into the plant. This "private security force" for Hormel cost the taxpayers of Minnesota over three million dollars.

We decided we would block that exit with cars and begin a bottleneck. Traffic started backing up. Now the Highway Patrol became involved. Hormel had the political power to get them to use their vehicles as tow trucks, pushing cars off the tops of bridges, down through the medians, through the intersections.

CECIL CAIN: I was in Fremont, Nebraska, with the roving pickets and freezing my tail off there. I came back here and heard that the National Guard had come. They were housed in St. Edward's Church; they just took it over. I drove in and went right to the interstate. I saw all those big National Guard trucks and the soldiers standing out there with shields on them. You see chose things other places, you know, always on TV, but not where you live and not where your kids go to school and not against you. We didn't do anything. We didn't hurt anybody. We said, "They can't do that, can they?"

We used to say, "They can't do that, can they?" We don't say that anymore. When we hear somebody say it, we laugh, because they can do any damn thing they want to. Jesus Christ, I've worked all my life, paid all the goddamn taxes, did everything you're supposed to do, and these guys come in here. This was wrong, absolutely wrong.

PETE WINKELS: You can't imagine what it's like until you go through it. The actual military, the National Guard, comes in, exerts its authority, and blocks off half the town. And they have got absolute control. For the first time, people in this town saw them: What in the hell is going on? I mean, it really heightened everyone's consciousness. They could understand what it was like in Korea or Central America or Poland when someone voiced their dissent....

CECIL CAIN: We wanted to get our jobs back, but it's changed a bunch. All those hundreds of years when people thought there was a difference between whites and Blacks, men and women, young and old—all that crap, it's changing. In a small town in the middle of no place in Minnesota—just a bunch of farmers, a bunch of white Caucasians, for cripe's sake, experience the same problems Black people have had trying to get a job and decent housing, the same problems Hispanics face getting jobs other than under-the-table dirt, or the same problems women have been facing, trying to get the same wage for the same job. Until you walk a mile in somebody else's moccasins, you really don't understand what they're calking about. The walls are coming down. These guys are looking at the country different, at the world different. We got a lot of people talking about their problems, talking about unionism, and a lot of people watching. We've got a lot of people holding hands together. And we've had quite an impact on the labor movement.


1 LocalP-9 Striken and Supporters on the 1985-1986 Meatpacking Strike against the Hormel Company in Austin. Minnesota (1991). In Bud Schultz and Ruth Schultz, The Price of Dissent: Testimonies of Political Repression in America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), pp. 96-102. 104-08,118.

Back To History Is A Weapon's Front Page