Strike vote reopens old wounds in Austin

AUSTIN, Minn. (AP) -- Hormel Foods workers overwhelmingly rejected the meatpacker's latest contract offer on Sept. 7, raising the specter of the infamous 1985-86 strike that tore wounds into this southern Minnesota town that have yet to heal.

The vote enables union leaders to call a strike if future talks break down. Bill Hagen and his fellow Hormel Foods workers haven't authorized a strike in 18 years.

Hagen thought of the lives that strike shattered. He pictured the National Guard troops called in to keep order in Austin streets. But he still voted no.

"Nobody wanted to turn it down, to have the town go through that again," said Hagen, who works in shipping. "But you've got to take a stand sometimes, even if you're scared to death to do it."

Although strikes take a toll anywhere they happen, few towns have paid so high a price as Austin. It's been nearly two decades since what the locals call "The Great Conflict," but wounds inflicted then linger. Brothers still don't talk. Those who crossed picket lines are still scabs to some. Those who didn't cross still wear their blue caps, proudly proclaiming they were Local P-9ers who held their ground.


The strike authorization vote by the United Food and Commercial Workers union, which represents about 3,000 workers in Austin and at Hormel plants in four other states, has tapped into still-simmering emotions. Hormel workers and other townspeople say a strike is unlikely, but the vote has dredged up memories and feelings many would rather forget.

In some cases, it's already starting to divide the town along union and company lines.

"I think people are really scared that we're even this close to a strike," said Larena Bartholomew, whose husband was a Local P-9 member who struck. "It just brings everything back. You go over and over it in your mind, wondering how things could have ended differently."

Joe Dieser, a grizzled P-9er who retired rather than go back to Hormel, said he doesn't have much sympathy for current Hormel workers, some of whom had crossed picket lines in 1986. "I wouldn't go over there and stand on the line with them. Union? They don't have a union."

The last strike started in August 1985 and lasted well into 1986. The bitterly fought struggle drew international attention as 1,400 Hormel workers took on a corporate giant without the backing of their union's national headquarters. An Oscar-winning 1991 documentary ("American Dream") chronicled the strike's unraveling as many financially exhausted workers eventually crossed picket lines to join replacements hired by the meatpacker, the largest employer in the southern Minnesota city of 23,000 and long considered its most benevolent.

Hormel and the UFCW are scheduled to return to the bargaining table later this month. A Hormel spokeswoman said Thursday that the company has a "media blackout" on the contract negotiations. Austin's current UFCW local president, Gary Morgan, who was one of the strikers in 1985, did not respond to interview requests.

Hormel workers also said they were told by local UFCW leaders not to talk to news reporters. But many said this week that the key issues are wages, pensions and health benefits.

Unlike 1985, when Hormel asked workers to take a pay cut, the meatpacker has offered an hourly wage increase of 30 cents in the first year and 85 cents over the length of the four-year contract. But it's also asking employees to pay higher health insurance premiums. A Hormel spokeswoman said earlier this month that workers' base wage is $13 an hour.


Hagen said he believes his health insurance premiums would double and the proposed wage increase wouldn't be enough to cover that.

"We'd be going backward," he said.

At the same time, other union members said Hormel's offer is close enough to being acceptable that a strike is unlikely.

"They just have to come up with something a little better," said Hormel worker Arlene Bastian, adding that if the offer is improved somewhat, she'd likely vote for it.

"I don't think we want to go through (a strike) again," she said.

Lynn Huston, who was the local union vice president during the 1980s strike, said there are some key differences in today's contract negotiations from the ones they oversaw.

One is that Hormel now employs many recent immigrants, who might be willing to work for less. But the union also has a crucial advantage, Huston added, because several Hormel plants at different locations are bargaining at the same time. In 1985, it was just Austin.

"This is a point in time when the union has more bargaining power than ever before in the last 30 years," said Huston, who still lives in the Austin area.


In Arizona, Hormel's former head counsel said he was sorry to hear that the company and the union had not yet agreed on a contract.

"I'm surprised to hear that there is this kind of disagreement again," Charles Nyberg said. "I would have thought what went on there would have had a lasting impression on management and labor, that they wouldn't let it happen again."

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