The Austin Hormel Strike Revisited

Against the Current, No. 39, July/August 1992

Roger Horowitz

IT HAS BEEN more than five years since United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local P-9 in Austin, Minnesota, lost its struggle against George A. Hormel & Co. Yet, this strike by less than two thousand workers remains controversial.

The union’s dramatic resistance to contract concessions attracted support from workers across the country who identified with P-9’s struggle against “corporate greed” and the rapid erosion of the middle class standard of living for America’s industrial workers. Dramatic plant gate confrontations, as well as sharp public disagreements between leaders of the international union and Local P-9, attracted considerable media attention, unlike many union struggles.

The struggle to define the lessons and legacy of the P-9 strike is well underway. The awarding of the 1991 Best Documentary Film award to “American Dream” (directed by Barbara Kopple) has propelled that film into an important element in the debate over P-9’s legacy.

Books by Dave Hage and Paul Klauda, No Retreat, No Surrender, Labor’s War at Hormel (New York: Morrow, 1989), and Hardy Green, On Strike At Hormel: The Struggle for A Democratic Labor Movement (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990), have weighed into the debate with claims to draw clear–albeit different–lessons from the P-9 strike.

This article will review these three works on the P-9 strike, and assess the extent to which they have captured the meaning of that dispute.

Both books cover similar ground: the structural changes in the meatpacking industry in the 1970s and 1980s, events in Austin leading to the 1985 strike, the evolution of the strike between August 1985 and April 1986, and the strike’s aftermath. Hage and Klauda, in “;No Retreat, No Surrender,” portray P-9’s strike as a quixotic but inevitably doomed struggle against powerful institutions and economic trends.

Two Minnesota newspaper reporters who covered the strike closely, they deny that P-9 contains any positive lessons about the labor movement’s ability to resist concessions or to regain its strength. “The showdown at Hormel, for all its poetry, did not symbolize labor relations during the 1980s….It was not even a symbol; it was an aberration” (389). Hage and Klauda thus echo the conclusion of the official labor movement that P-9 was an ugly incident that is best forgotten.

As his title indicates, Hardy Green’s On Strike at Hormel:

The Struggle for a Democratic Labor Movement sees the P-9 strike as a significant example of working people’s desire to preserve hard-won gains. A member of Corporate Campaign, Inc., the company led by Ray Rogers that assisted the P-9 local, Green emphasizes the responsive chord P-9 struck with workers all over the country.

“You are doing a fine job and I do not want to see your efforts go for nothing,” an unemployed worker from West Virginia wrote to P-9. “We are maybe discovering the solidarity we should never have let slip” (288).

Green suggests that P-9 showed what the labor movement was capable of–and how union leaders had no intention of allowing P-9’s militancy to infect their membership.

The Power of Principles

The difference between the two books is evident in their assessment of the source of the strike’s resilience against seemingly impossible odds. Hage and Klauda credit P-9 president Jim Guyette for imparting to the strike the tenor of an “evangelical crusade” (266). They attribute P-9’s extraordinary level of internal organization and popularity in the labor movement to the “savvy direction” (200) of outside consultant Ray Rogers.

While expertly chronicling the high level of membership participation in the strike, the authors frankly admit they don’t understand why union members repeatedly rejected compromises that made good economic sense. To them, the geographic isolation of Austin and the years of stable labor-management relations rendered the union membership “naive” and deluded about the nature of their opposition and support, a misperception irresponsibly encouraged by Guyette and Rogers.

Green also credits Guyette and Rogers for shaping the strike’s direction and tenacity, but he is far more effective at delineating the interaction between the anger and aspirations of the rank and file and their leaders.

At the opening of the book, Green carefully assesses the “larger social vision of P-9 members,” their “contradictory” aspiration to preserve a “middle-income way of life” and a deep “resolve” to make “a better future for all American workers, to roll back `corporate greed,’ and to reform a labor movement that had grown bureaucratic, insensitive, and pro-corporate” (8-9).

He effectively points out that neither Hormel nor the UFCW appreciated the depth of that resolve among union members or the attraction of P-9’s “ethical principles and communitarian practices…for the country’s rank-and-file labor community” (298).

These differences between the two books are reflected in the way they use sources to depict rank-and-file union members. Hage and Klauda’s seductively engaging account, replete with interesting anecdotes and dramatic confrontations, is almost devoid of direct quotes from P-9 members and supporters. Instead, they paraphrase the statements and attitudes of rank-and-file members, while quoting at length from Hormel officials and UFCW leaders and occasionally from P-9 leaders like Guyette.

Thus, the Hormel workers are rendered faceless and reduced to a mob of several hundred “blue-caps” who follow Local P-9 president Jim Guyette and consultant Ray Rogers until the bitter end.

Hage and Klauda’s use of evidence raises questions about the extent to which events related in the book actually happened, and how much of their account is a semifictional reconstruction. Sources are neither cited nor identified; nor is there an appendix indicating where information came from, listing the individuals interviewed.

At one point Hage and Klauda charge that P-9 members who disagreed with the Guyette leadership were assaulted and shouted down at a union meeting on January 7, 1986 (252-253). Yet, the authors neither indicate the sources of their account nor if they checked the accusations (presumably made by staunch Guyette opponent John Morrison) with others who attended the meeting.

Hage and Klauda repeatedly use the technique of recounting the presumed “thinking” of a person to convey opinions. How, for example, did Hage and Klauda know what John Morrison said to himself when he got out of bed on August 17, 1985 (180-1)? Or what Morrison “sensed” while performing picket line duty on January 17 (269)? While an effective dramatic device, it is inappropriate for a historical work to employ a device more appropriate to fiction.

Who Broke Union Solidarity?

These problems weaken Hage and Klauda’s account of a critical issue in the P-9 dispute: who broke the solidarity of the various Hormel locals, P-9 or the UFCW? This complex dispute lies at the heart of the controversy over P-9’s strike.

For many years, meatpacking firms signed the same master contract with all local unions in their plants. To conduct these negotiations, the UFCW’s predecessor unions formed “chains” of local unions in the plants of the same firm to develop contract demands and to conduct negotiations.

These chains were strongest in the old “Big Four” firms of Armour, Cudahy, Swift and Wilson; there was no Hormel chain until the early 1960s. And unlike other chains in major packing firms, the Hormel locals never signed a common agreement covering all plants, providing all Hormel workers with similar wage levels, fringe benefits, work rules and seniority provisions.

As these facts are omitted from their account, Hage and Klauda provide an incorrect and misleading endorsement of the UFCW’s position that P-9’s refusal to accept lower wage levels “fractured forty years of chain bargaining” (87).

Indeed, by their own account, the Austin local granted numerous concessions in the 1960s and 1970s without consulting other Hormel locals. And they also show that a year prior to the P-9 strike, the UFCW had weakened the chain by allowing the Ottumwa Hormel local to accept substantial concessions–over the strenuous objections of Guyette and P-9.

It is useful to contrast Hage and Klauda’s account with the description of the same events in Green’s, On Strike At Hormel. Whereas Hage and Klauda simply state that P-9 president Guyette “wasn’t interested” in joining with other locals in a strike against Hormel during a critical moment in negotiations in 1984 despite Guyette’s alleged opposition to concessions, Green takes great care to allow Guyette to explain his actions his own words.

“I could hardly `guarantee’ that P-9 would strike in December, when no strike vote had been taken,” he later told Green, especially if “such a strike might be illegal” as it violated an 1978 agreement with management to not strike for seven years (55-56). By summarizing Guyette’s “attitude,” rather than quoting his words, Hage and Klauda make the P-9 president seem impossibly stubborn, “detached from the reality of events around him” (86).

By letting Guyette speak for himself, Green shows him to be a responsible union leader reluctant to commit his membership to a potentially illegal strike without consulting them first.

There is a similar difference in the two books’ account of P-9’s dramatic caravans to packinghouses in Iowa and Nebraska. Typically, Hage and Klauda summarize the events and downplay the significance of the “chautauqua,” which “got a mixed reception just about everywhere” (186). The only person they quote is a South Dakota UFCW official, who attacked P-9.

Green, however, intersperses descriptions of the caravan with quotes from P-9 members and other packinghouse workers, including a debate between skeptical union members at the Fremont, Nebraska Hormel plant and Guyette. Green’s technique makes understandable some workers decision to respect the picket lines established by P-9 at other plants in February 1986, despite the risk this posed to their jobs.

Ottumwa worker Larry McClug explained, “A lot of people said, `We’ve been screwed for ten years, and now’s our chance to get back'” (148). Hage and Klauda inadequately explain the same event as the actions of a “young and embittered” workforce (291).

On balance, Hage and Klauda do a better job than Green outlining the larger economic and political context that constrained P-9’s options. But their poor use of evidence makes their book unreliable, and their conclusions should be taken with a grain of salt.

Their conclusion is typical. Hage and Klauda argue that their calculations (which are not explained or reproduced) show that Hormel could not afford to satisfy P-9’s demands. Hence, even a successful strike would have been a “Pyrrhic victory,” to be followed in a few years by wage cuts or bankruptcy (377). Perhaps if they produced their evidence I would have been more swayed by their conclusion.

Green’s account, on the other hand, provides a superior description of the strike itself and the attitudes of P-9 strikers and strike supporters, which made for such a tenacious struggle. His conclusion assesses the significance of P-9 in the context of subsequent developments in the labor movement.

Green points out that the UFCW’s strategy has failed to stem the decline of wages in meatpacking, and how other more militant unions, such as the United Paperworkers, have adopted some of the strategies employed by P-9.

While Green never refers to the Bruce Springsteen song that gave Hage and Klauda their book title, his account more effectively explains why P-9 members made the song’s refrain their motto: “We made a promise we swore we’d always remember/No retreat, no surrender/Like soldiers in the winter’s night with a vow to defend/No retreat, no surrender.”

American Dream

Barbara Kopple’s brilliant but flawed documentary on the P-9 strike echoes in many ways the interpretation of Hage and Klauda. However, the extraordinary presentation of rank-and-file arguments and key events in the dispute sheds important insights on the strike, and some of the controversies discussed above.

“American Dream” opens with Jesse Jackson telling a P-9 rally, “Austin Minnesota is not just about Austin Minnesota,” and moves quickly from the heady days of Local P-9’s preparation for its 1985 strike, through the climactic picket line confrontations of January 1986, and to the strike’s collapse in the spring.

As a film, it is outstanding and fully deserved the 1991 Academy Award for Best Documentary. However, as a work of history, “American Dream” has serious limitations.

Rarely has a documentary film probed so intimately into labor-management conflict and working-class motivations. Workers pour their hearts out to Kopple in their homes; union members engage in free-wheeling debates in union meetings; representatives of the UFCW and meatpacking firms clash in contract bargaining sessions; P-9 dissidents and UFCW leaders scheme in secret strategy sessions; strikers confront strikebreakers and National Guard troops on the picket line. The arresting kaleidoscope of images and voices is breathtaking, and leaves one marvelling at Kopple’s ability to gain access to these scenes.

The primary historical contribution of the film is the forum it provides for rank-and-file packinghouse workers, as they articulate their “American Dream.” Beneath the cacophony of opinions on the P-9 strike emerges a heartfelt picture of elemental working-class aspirations. “I don’t begrudge anybody that’s making $30, $40, $50,000,” one wife of a striker says, “but let us live in our house, our $32,000 house.”

A Hormel worker justifies crossing the union picket line because “a person takes a whole lot of pride in being a breadwinner and providing for your family. But when you can’t do that…” and fails to finish as tears fill his eyes. The sense of pride, and aspiration for a secure family life emerge from partisans on all sides of the dispute.

“American Dream” also reveals the simmering anger of workers struggling against the dramatic erosion in their working conditions and living standards.

“If we’ve got to give up twenty-three percent in wages and thirty percent cut in benefits when the company is making $30 million, what are we going to have to give them when they show a loss for a quarter?” a Hormel worker asks a Local P-9 meeting. “I busted my ass for you guys for over eighteen years on production and all of a sudden you put the goddamn hammer down and we go from $10.69 to $6.50 when you walk back into that plant on a Monday with the production gone up,” shouts an angry Wilson Food worker at a company representative during a break in negotiations.

“We can’t afford to go backwards anymore,” a huge, gaunt Swift Independent worker says to Lewie Anderson, who is recommending a concessionary contract. “I just say, fuck `em. If they want to close it down, let them close it. We can find something else.”

The film also provides important information on two critical interpretive issues mentioned earlier: who broke the Hormel chain, and the extent of democracy inside Local P-9. Kopple devotes considerable time to the appearance of Ray Rogers and the Local P-9 executive board before the UFCW’s Packinghouse Committee in December 1984, when the UFCW refused to endorse P-9’s resistance to concessions.

While Guyette’s statements stress the rank and file’s rejection of concessions, Rogers argues that each local union should do as well as it can with each employer, rather than try to establish an industry-wide wage rate. As the camera pans the faces of the union leaders, we see their negative reaction to Roger’s comments; and we hear Anderson angrily denounce the notion that wages should depend on the profitability of a company, rather than what the job is worth.

This scene substantiates Green’s account of Guyette’s motivation. But Rogers’ statement also suggests that P-9 did not sufficiently appreciate the importance of establishing standard wage rates throughout the industry.

“American Dream” also shows the dramatic union meeting on January 7, 1986, where Hage and Klauda claim P-9 suppressed dissenting opinions. Kopple shows clearly that union dissidents John Morrison and John Anker had ample opportunity to present their views; moreover, when union members start to grumble during Anker’s comments, we hear the gavel, wielded by Guyette, quiet the meeting.

Chaos erupts when Morrison and other dissidents, implementing a plan they had developed in a secret meeting with Anderson, began to speak out of turn, ignoring the order of speakers who are lined up at floor microphones. Clearly it was the dissidents who were at fault, not the P-9 leadership.

Key Issues Obscured

As these descriptions suggest, the drama in “American Dream” is gripping; but Kopple falters when she presents the actual issues in dispute between Local P-9 and Hormel, and the strategic differences between the Austin union and the parent organization. The film portrays the P-9 strike as a struggle over wages–Hormel offers $10 an hour and the union strikes for $10.69.

This is puzzling to the viewer and an incorrect portrayal of the actual historical account. How, one asks, is a demand for 69 cents enough to provoke all the stirring rhetoric we hear in the movie? Hence the lofty “American Dream” of Hormel workers ultimately remains murky and insubstantial; what they concretely wanted out of their struggle is never clear. In this, she makes the same error as Hage and Klauda.

In fact, the P-9 dispute was over more than money. Hormel wanted not only to freeze wages, but also to virtually eliminate seniority as a principle of job assignment and to terminate long-established contract provisions, such as a 52 week notice for layoffs. The company also rejected union proposals to correct a spiraling injury rate.

P-9 members struck to halt a slide back towards the pre-union era where management’s control over wages, working conditions and job security were unchecked by labor organizations.

It is troubling that “American Dream” slights the non-wage issues in the Hormel dispute. Local P-9 members repeatedly emphasized in public and private statements that the dispute was over more than sixty-nine cents. Kopple must have chosen not to incorporate their interpretation of the conflict into the movie. “American Dream” thereby implicitly endorses the depiction of the strike promoted by the Hormel Company and the UFCW, as one simply over wages.

As a result, “American Dream” repeats Hage and Klauda’s mistake of making Hormel workers seem quixotic and idealistic, and inexplicably following union leader Jim Guyette and labor consultant Ray Rogers to a disastrous climax. Twice we hear Guyette summarize the spirit of the strike by reciting the refrain from a Bruce Springsteen song, “No Retreat, No Surrender”; yet we never see him explain in concrete terms how more than wages were at stake.

In contrast to the charismatic but cardboard figure of Guyette, Kopple sympathetically portrays UFCW Packinghouse Division head Lewie Anderson as a militant, but hardheaded unionist who correctly predicts the disastrous end to the P-9 struggle. Yet the UFCW’s–and Anderson’s–significant culpability in the failure of the strike is never explored.

Kopple surprisingly ignores several visual opportunities to convey important information about the strike’s aspirations and appeal. The content of the Hormel worker’s “American Dream” could have been made clearer by showing viewers the huge mural painted on the side of the Austin union hall, which depicted a powerful female worker using a P-9 meat cleaver to cut off the head of a snake depicting corporate greed. The extent of national support could have been conveyed though a shot of a huge map on the wall of the union’s main meeting room which showed the locations of the 3,000 local unions donating money to P-9.

The other glaring weakness in the film is the way “American Dream” repeats Hage and Klauda’s error of crediting P-9’s high level of membership activity solely to labor consultant Ray Rogers. The film omits the role of Local P-9 spouses and retirees in the Austin United Support Group, which actually started the outreach campaign several months prior to the hiring of Rogers.

Wives who were central to the P-9 strike, such as Vicky Guyette, Barbara Collette, and Jan Butts occasionally appear, but are never identified by name. Their high visibility in the strike–and the recognition accorded them by the union–is not reflected in the film.

These omissions and inaccuracies can be attributed in part to the dramatic form employed by Kopple. “American Dream” is structured as a tragedy in which four protagonists–Guyette, Anderson, Rogers and P-9 dissident Jim Morrison–provide coherence to the narrative. But the focus on these four men relegates rank-and-file workers to the role of a greek chorus, commenting on circumstances beyond their control, rather than subjects who potentially shape the course of events.

Thus, “American Dream” ends on a depressing note, leaving the viewer doubtful that unions can struggle for, and achieve, the hopes and dreams of the U. S. working class.

P-9’s Influence Today

These three works on the P-9 strike all leave much to be desired, in part for reasons mentioned above. It also is too soon to see how the struggle of the Austin Hormel workers will fit into the slow re-emergence of militant working class struggles.

In the short time since the end of the Hormel strike, the seeds of P-9’s struggle have settled and sprouted in a number of contexts. In the Pittston strike of the United Mine Workers, the union employed the “”adopt-a-family” program pioneered by P-9, and occupied a processing plant at a critical point in the dispute to halt the company’s production–a tactic which P-9 discussed, but never employed.

Broad outreach campaigns similar to P-9’s have become relatively commonplace among unions in the airplane and paper industry, and by individual local unions. Meatpacking locals in the UFCW are at loggerheads with the international union, and are in a dissident formation headed by Lewie Anderson, dismissed as head of the union’s meatpacking division in 1989.

It is often the fate of unions who lose a strike that their example has a positive, long-term affect on the labor movement, even though the workers involved in the dispute are devastated. At this point, five years after the P-9 strike, there are signs that its slogan, “For Your Future and Mine, Support Local P-9,” was not in vain, and has contributed to the emergence of militant trends and tactics within American unions.

© 2020 Against the Current

July-August 1992, ATC 39