THE HORMEL strikers blew it. The cause in the six-month strike of 1,000 meatpackers against the George A. Hormel Co. in Austin, Minn., may have been just. And their passion and militance drew intense national attention as they tried to use 1930s style tactics to resist the 1980s trend of labor concessions.
But Local P-9 of the United Food and Commercial Workers has now apparently lost its struggle, largely because economic and political changes have stripped the labor movement of its key weapon: solidarity. The Minnesota strikers were forced to fight alone in a battle they couldn't win. They failed to realize that striking in the 1980s is essentially a lost cause, and they ignored other, newer strategies that could have drawn on their militance but saved their jobs.
Hormel on Monday resumed slaughtering hogs for the first time in six months, turning them into Spam and ham with a workforce of roughly 1,000 strikebreakers -- including about 400 union members who crossed picket lines rather than continue an apparently suicidal stand that has cost 1,000 Minnesota breadwinners their jobs, along with 500 more at other Hormel plants in Iowa and Nebraska. Those latter workers were fired because they refused to cross picket lines set up by the 1930s-vintage "roving pickets" from Minnesota.
The strike is a monument to cutthroat corporate competition, union impotence, and a brave -- but misguided -- struggle by workers who were forced to take on two Goliaths -- their billion-dollar company and their own million-member national union, because the union itself was badly divided over how to take on Hormel.
The Hormel battle is a bright icon to those who mourn the current lapdog image of a labor movement that has been forced to swallow concession after concession and has virtually given up on the strike as a weapon. This strike took 800 National Guard troops to break. The do-or-die resistance of a local union to "givebacks" -- their willingness to endure a cruel Minnesota winter on $40 a week union strike benefits -- is inspiring to unionists around the country who contributed thousands of dollars and "adopted" strikers' families.
The strike has disturbed -- even frightened -- two groups: those who preach labor-management cooperation and those who advocate union-busting as the path to industrial salvation. The anti-union Center on National Labor Policy, for instance, countered a union-backed Hormel boycott with a "Buy Hormel" campaign to help the company beat the union.
For nearly half a century, the deal in Austin had always been relatively simple: In exchange for working with the blood and the guts, the stench and the injuries, the George A. Hormel Co. guaranteed its meatcutters a good wage and a steady job.
That deal was made after the first recorded sit-down strike in America happened at Hormel in 1933, when militant workers -- including members of the Industrial Workers of the World -- refused to work for the Hormel family unless they recognized their union. After that, Hormel had no strikes for more than 50 years and Hormel was regarded as a progressive employer.
Nationwide, meatpacking was a solid union stronghold until 1980 -- much like steel, airlines, trucking, and other industries used to be. Almost every meatpacker used to work under the umbrella of a $10.69 hourly wage, good benefits and job security.
But then came the changes -- automation, falling demand for meat and overcapacity among fiercely competing firms. The nationwide pattern of labor contracts was destroyed by a wave of bankruptcies, plant-closings, corporate takeovers and spinoffs. Unionized plants reopened nonunion, and employers lined up to demand "givebacks" from the national United Food and Commercial Workers.
When the meatpacking decline began, Hormel had demanded union concessions, threatening in 1979 to leave Austin and find another site for an $80 million high-tech slaughterhouse. To help build the new plant in Austin, workers agreed to actually loan Hormel roughly $15,000 each through payroll deductions and gave up incentive pay. Hormel, in turn, guaranteed jobs and pay scales -- until the industry began falling apart.
Hormel imposed a 25 percent wage cut -- from $10.69 to $8.25 -- in Austin 18 months ago because its UFCW contract included a "me-too" clause allowing Hormel to copy the cuts won by competitors. Once the UFCW had allowed failing meatpackers to gut their contract, even the profitable ones like Hormel could do the same.
Indeed, from the point of view of the Austin workers, Hormel earned a record profit of $38 million in 1985 and gave its chief executive a $200,000 pay raise -- yet demanded concessions from labor. While Hormel's other UFCW locals accepted these cuts and a subsequent contract settlement during 1985, the Austin local was hard-headed because the history of Austin and its workers was so different.
On one hand, the Austin meatpackers said that Hormel had cheated on the historical deal it struck with its workers.
On the other was the hitherto-impossible alliance of the Hormel company and the UFCW national union trying to tell the men and women of Austin that the whole deal is off; that the world has changed so much that the old rules of the game no longer apply; that judgments about social and economic justice must take a back seat to the brave new marketplace of the 1980s.
The Austin workers went on strike last Aug. 17 -- when they rejected the same contract that their union brothers and sisters had accepted at eight other plants because they believed it was the best deal possible in a declining industry.
The Austin workers were driven by history and principle, and they had the foresight to hire a New York labor consultant to coordinate a "corporate campaign" to fight Hormel. But when it came to the crunch, they neglected some key facts:
*Hormel could weather the isolated strike because the other UFCW locals regarded the Austin workers as uncompromising hardheads. The workers at the other Hormel plants were also obligated by contracts to continue working at the rest of Hormel's nine plants.
*The union didn't have the state on its side. The workers had the audacity to put their bodies on the line to shut down the plant for nearly six months, but once Democratic Gov. Rudy Perpich called out the Minnesota guard, the strike was over.
*A standing army of roughly 7 percent unemployed was waiting for work, and 3,000 applicants in the depressed southern Minnesota farm belt lined up to take the jobs of veterans who had worked for Hormel for 20 to 30 years.
*The company could say with some justification that its 2 percent profit margin was "fragile" in today's hyper-frenzy of competition and that it could not afford business as usual when its competitors were slashing away at wages, benefits, work rules and seniority provisions.
Is there anything that Local P-9 could have done short of striking Hormel?
Facing the realities that broke the Hormel strike, unions in various industries such as cement, textiles and some auto plants are experimenting with lesser, safer forms of resistance. These middle-ground survival strategies could help some unions endure and could become the wave of the future as growing numbers of workers are disgruntled by givebacks but fearful of striking.
These unions avoid strikes, stay in their plants and use various "in-plant" strategies such as slowdowns, informational picketing, mass grievance meetings on the shop floor, and other forms of collective low-level guerrilla warfare to exert pressure on employers. It's less exciting, less dramatic than striking. But compared to the alternatives in times like these, it's a timely option for labor.