"It's like being the mayor in wartime," said Mayor Thomas H. Kough, "only we're at war with ourselves."
The mayor had just appeared on national television to explain why 800 National Guard troops were occupying his town of 23,000; had met earlier with Minnesota state police and the county sheriff to complain that his constituents were being denied their civil liberties, and then had received several standing ovations at the union hall as he denounced the "takeover" of Austin by outside forces.
Last night, the 1,500-member Local P-9 of the United Food and Commercial Workers met again to consider whether to press its five-month-old fight or return to the strikebound Geo. A. Hormel & Co. meatpacking plant where 2 million hogs a year are slaughtered, sliced and turned into Spam, Cure 81 Ham and other products.
P-9's dispute with Hormel is also a civil war, setting local union officials against other locals and the national union and dividing the town's elected officials, businessmen and clergy. It has broken up longstanding friendships and some families.
At the center of the storm is Tom Kough (pronounced "Q"), 54, a popular two-term mayor who defeated a Hormel executive for the job with 73 percent of the vote and keeps The Living Bible on his office desk. After working at Hormel for 31 years, he is on strike.
Two of his City Council colleagues have crossed the picket line and returned to work under the protection of Guard troops called in by Gov. Rudy Perpich (D) at the request of town officials -- including Kough.
"I can't believe this is all happening . . . . It's like we're in Russia . . . . " Kough said, wheeling his pickup truck through icy streets past troop-carriers and state police cars. "I realize big corporations have a lot of control, but here, you have a corporation controlling a city, controlling the military."
Such comments have made Kough a lightning rod for praise and scorn. "I have criticized the mayor . . . . The mayor has made some nasty speeches about the company" and misused his office, said council member Gerry Henricks, a 19-year Hormel veteran who has returned to work despite telephone threats and shouts of "Scab!" as he crosses the picket line. Henricks said the union is misguided to hope for a better contract offer.
The union has been part of Austin since 1933 when militant members of the Industrial Workers of the World, the "Wobblies," helped stage the nation's first recorded sitdown strike to gain recognition. The Hormel family went 50 years without another strike here, adopting a management style -- at once paternalistic and progressive -- that included a guaranteed weekly wage and a Hormel Foundation that plowed company profits into the community.
But automation, declining meat consumption and tougher corporate attitudes sparked by competition have reduced union jobs and eroded wages and benefits. These forces -- and the local union's strategy -- have pushed P-9 to the edge as Hormel began replacing strikers permanently this week. Hormel is one of seven major meatpackers struck in the past year, the most strikes in the industry in 35 years.
"People are losing their homes. We have families splitting up. This has touched everybody. Church collections down; hairdressers, restaurants, bars" are suffering without Hormel payroll dollars, Kough said. On Main Street, Woolworth's, the two major clothing stores, a jewelry store and others have closed.
The mayor, a lifelong resident, said he often calls his 1950 Austin High School classmate and football teammate, Dick Knowlton -- son of a Hormel union meatcutter and now chairman and chief executive of the company. Knowlton set the stage for the dispute when he ordered a 23 percent pay cut in October 1984, citing the company's contractual right to do so because other meatpackers had cut wages.
Hourly wages fell from $10.69 to $8.25, and Kough said he told Knowlton then: "Dick, whether or not this is legal, what you're doing is wrong. It creates bad blood to take a man and chop him down like that."
Knowlton has become much-vilified here because his salary rose 68 percent, to more than $550,000 after the company demanded concessions.
Company officials point out that Hormel's record $38 million profit in 1985 is little more than 2 percent of its $1.5 billion sales.
"It is a slim profit margin for a food processor and not as much as it sounds . . . especially in a volatile industry," said Keith DeVore, a Minneapolis stock analyst.
Hormel later raised its contract offer to $10, but the union balked at a three-year wage freeze and the elimination of certain seniority and job-security rights.
"People have worked many years to gain seniority," which governs layoffs and promotions, Kough said. He progressed from the malodorous, bloody "hog-kill" and "beef-lugging" departments to a top job as a $30,000-a-year steam engineer.
Hormel officials said the contract provisions have been accepted at other UFCW-represented Hormel plants in Iowa, Wisconsin and elsewhere and that P-9 is being unrealistic. The 1 million-member parent union, the Washington-based UFCW, agrees.
"Nobody thinks their goals are misguided, but the tactics in achieving them are misguided. They have been on an all-or-nothing strategy, and they can't admit that it has failed," said UFCW spokesman Allen Zack. ". . . Part is inexperience, part is idealism."
The idealism is evident nightly in the union hall. Facing the Minnesota winter on $40 a week in strike benefits, 600 striking meatpackers and family members sing the labor anthem "Solidarity Forever" and shout their determination to win.
From the union "war room," they dispatch 1930s-style "roving pickets" to try to shut other Hormel plants, send out 1980s-style fund-raising letters nationwide and run emergency food and clothing programs and family support groups.
"We are quite a community here . . . . People are fighting for what they believe in," said Kough's wife, Carol, a volunteer. "My husband would not be throwing away 31 years [at Hormel] if there wasn't something very wrong . . . . You know, he is up all night sometimes. His friends are getting hurt, and he doesn't know how to stop it." AP