AUSTIN — On Aug. 17, 1985, union workers at Hormel Foods in Austin voted to go on strike, a decision that led to a long and bitter strike that made national news.
Today marks the 30th anniversary of that vote, beginning the protest of the company's demands for wage cuts, effectively dividing the town — and families.
Hormel announced in 1975 that it wanted to build a new plant to replace one that was 90 years old at the time. The local union of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, known as Local P-9 because it is the ninth local in the UFCW's Packinghouse Division, sought to keep 1,500 jobs in Austin and made concessions during labor negotiations to make sure the jobs stayed in Austin.
P-9 agreed to a wage freeze and not to strike until the contract expired in 1984.
Hormel Foods Corp. was the exception. Ever since founder George A. Hormel's son, Jay, took over leadership of the company in the 1920s, Hormel had guaranteed wages and employee profit-sharing. Its Austin plant was an industry leader in wages, paying workers $11.69 an hour at the beginning of the 1980s.
But by 1984, Hormel had rolled back wages by 23 percent and cut benefits, stating that it needed to keep costs down to avoid closing and to absorb the cost of building the new plant, while its profits grew by 31 percent. A number of larger meatpacking companies had closed or gone bankrupt around the same time because, Hormel argued, they failed to control costs.
After negotiations with Hormel failed and talks with international union leadership broke down, the members of local P-9 voted to go out on strike on Aug. 17, 1985, a Friday. On that day, 1,500 members of Local P-9 walked off their jobs. Many of them never returned.
When the Austin plant reopened on Jan. 13, 1986, 500 union members went back to work and 540 non-union members were hired to bring the Austin plant back to full production. An additional 550 people stayed on a recall list and were called back to their jobs according to their seniority with the company. In some cases, workers had to wait five years for a call-back letter. The call-back ended in 1992.
Strikers got support from national civil-rights leaders and TV stars. It was so bitter that former Gov. Rudy Perpich called out the National Guard, which was dressed in full riot gear to let newly hired workers into the plant.
In June 1986, the national union told the local P-9 to go back to work, but members refused and the local was put in receivership, its leaders ousted.
The strike ended just over a year after it began, and it failed to get Hormel to agree to strikers' demands. Ultimately, the company succeeded in hiring new workers at significantly lower wages.