Leaders of the militant six-month-old Hormel meatpacking strike in Minnesota came 1,500 miles to this sunny resort today to denounce lack of support by top AFL-CIO officials, gathered here for their annual winter retreat.
The unscheduled arrival of the two strike leaders led to a series of shouting matches at news conferences that turned into bitter debates over the best method for labor unions to fight concessions demanded by employers.
The 1,000 strikers at the Geo. A. Hormel & Co. plant in Austin, Minn., have drawn widespread publicity and considerable financial support from local unions around the country that view the walkout as an important symbolic struggle against the trend toward wage and benefit concessions.
However, some national union officials have criticized the strike as a suicidal attempt by a local union to fight a major corporation after its seven sister locals had already reached agreement on a contract with Hormel.
Talk of Hormel has dominated many conversations here because it spotlights labor's internecine warfare.
"When we started this Hormel battle, one factor we never expected was that the national union would undermine the struggle with this viciousness," said Ray Rogers, a New York labor consultant hired by the striking Local P9 of the United Food and Commercial Workers.
Rogers and the local union president, James Guyette, who are both facing fines and possible jail sentences for strike-related actions, accused UFCW President William Wynn and the AFL-CIO brass of "antiunion" behavior, describing them as "out of touch with workers" who want unions to be more aggressive.
AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland and Wynn agreed to meet privately tonight with Guyette.
Wynn said his 1 million-member union has strongly resisted contract concessions in many cases in recent years, but had been forced into a "controlled retreat" on concessions in fiercely competitive industries like meatpacking.
The national union has paid $40 weekly strike benefits to Austin workers, but refused to sanction boycotts and picketing of nonstruck plants because Hormel's other workers are under contract. Hormel, with the aid of National Guard troops, has continued production in Austin by replacing strikers.
Kirkland said at a news conference he supported the national union's strategy of attempting to maintain a single "pattern" contract throughout the industry, a strategy that is undermined by a local union breaking away.
"The labor movement has been able to overcome . . . some bad situations," Wynn said. He called the strike a "setback" for labor's image, "but we will overcome it."