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Hormel Strike, 1985–1986

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Striking Hormel workers on April 10, 1986

The nation watched the Hormel strike on the evening news and read about it in newspapers while union leaders across the world watched, waiting to see how long Local P-9 could hold its position. Minneapolis Star Tribune negatives collection, box 596 (Hormel strike images).

On August 17, 1985, about 1,500 Hormel Foods Corporation workers went on strike at the meat-processing plant at the company’s headquarters in Austin, Minnesota. The strikers, members of United Food and Commercial Workers’ Local P-9, cited a wage freeze, dangerous working conditions, and a wage cut as the reasons for the strike, which continued for thirteen months. New non-union workers were hired and the National Guard was called to protect them, drawing global attention. The conflict is heralded as one of the most contentious and longest-running strikes in Minnesota history.

In the mid-1980s, a national recession deeply impacted the economy and, subsequently, the workforce. Companies commonly froze and cut wages, which hit economically disadvantaged communities, like Austin, especially hard. Prior to the strike at Hormel, workers in the hog-slaughtering plant were distraught over a wage and benefit freeze and dangerous working conditions. When Hormel management imposed a 23 percent wage cut, P-9 members voted to strike. However, the strike was not supported by the parent union, United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), leading to deep resentment and turmoil among P-9ers and the community of Austin.

Hormel management was left with no immediate option but to close the plant temporarily. Meanwhile, both sides of the picket line strategized to hold their position. When Hormel offered 300 eligible employees retirement benefits if they stopped striking, thirty of them accepted the offer. Additional proposals from Hormel to resolve the strike were shot down by P-9ers. Striking employees staged protest activities like a roving picket line and rallies. P-9ers also mobilized Hormel retirees and community members to attend rallies and show their support. As the strike picked up momentum it gained national attention, leading to a widely publicized boycott of Hormel products.

In January 1986, Hormel reopened the plant and asked the striking P-9 members to return to work while also accepting applications from non-union workers. Around 500 union members returned to Hormel, causing a divisive split in the Austin community. Additionally, about 540 non-union employees—most of them Mexican migrant workers—were hired to bring the plant back to full production. Even though the strike was peaceful at this point, Minnesota Governor Rudy Perpich sent in the National Guard to protect non-union workers.

As the strike dragged on, tension continued to mount between strikers and Hormel management. Protesters organized a massive blockade of several hundred cars to keep workers from getting into the plant. Hormel management retaliated by firing many of the strikers. Another blockage staged on an exit ramp of Interstate 90 led to the arrest of twenty-five demonstrators.

Despite the ongoing protests and growing animosity, the National Guard was dismissed because it was determined that the local law enforcement could handle the protesters. Shortly after, violent clashes at demonstrations led to more strikers’ arrests. On April 10, 1986, a riot broke out outside the plant. Police used tear gas on strikers and nine police officers were injured during the riot. More protesters were arrested, including some from out of town.

Soon after the riot the Reverend Jesse Jackson arrived to mediate between Hormel and the P-9 strikers. When the strikers met him at Austin Municipal Airport and welcomed him to Minnesota, he delivered an impromptu sermon. Later he met with jailed protesters, leading them in a chorus of the gospel-turned-protest anthem “We Shall Overcome.” Jackson mediated with both sides but was unable to help them reach a resolution.

Throughout the strike, the UFCW sided with Hormel management, eventually leading them to order Local P-9 to end the strike in June. When Local P-9 refused, the UFCW suspended P-9 officers, forcing the local union into receivership as it was taken over by the parent union. The action essentially ended the strike, although it did not officially end for several more months.

By fall, union workers ratified a new contract with Hormel, but only about 20 percent of striking employees got their jobs back. While the strike was unsuccessful for P-9, it succeeded in raising awareness of the plight of factory workers and effecting positive change in unions across the United States. Parent unions viewed the Hormel strike as a cautionary tale for the entire labor movement, evident by parent unions showing greater support to union members during negotiations with employers, resulting in fewer large-scale strikes.

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“25th Anniversary of the Hormel Strike.” Austin Daily Herald, August 17, 2010.
https://www.austindailyherald.com/2010/08/25th-anniversary-of-the-hormel-strike

“30 Years Since Beginning of Hormel Strike.” Post Bulletin, August 17, 2015
https://www.postbulletin.com/news/local/years-since-beginning-of-hormel-strike/article_31cc1eee-a017-5e9c-a8a3-be3e29d6b27a.html

Baier, Elizabeth. “25 Years Ago, Hormel Strike Changed Austin, Industry. Minnesota Public Radio News, August 17, 2010.
https://www.mprnews.org/story/2010/08/17/austin-hormel-strike

Boyce, Steve, Jake Edwards, and Tom Wetzel. “Slaughterhouse Fight: A Look at the Hormel Strike.” Ideas & Action 7 (Summer 1986).
https://www.iww.org/about/how-iww-differs-business-unions/TWetzel1

Drewelow, Rachel. “P-9 Proud, 25 Years Later.” Austin Daily Herald, August 14, 2010.
https://www.austindailyherald.com/2010/08/p-9-proud-25-years-later

Fahey, Micahel T. Packing It In!: The Hormel Strike, 1985-86: A Personal Perspective. St. Paul: Kirwin & Sons Publishing, 1988.

Green, Hardy. On Strike at Hormel: The Struggle for A Democratic Labor Movement. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990.

Hage, Dave. No Retreat, No Surrender: Labor’s War at Hormel.
New York: W. Morrow, 1989.

“Historic Photos: Hormel Strike in Austin (1985–86).” Post Bulletin, May 5, 2016.
https://www.postbulletin.com/gallery/historic-photos-hormel-strike-in-austin/collection_ece99ca6-0017-11e6-8ffb-6b9da12844fc.html

“Hormel Strike Aug. 1985—June 1986: The Two-front Labor War in Austin.” Star Tribune,
July 11, 2015.
http://www.startribune.com/hormel-strike-aug-1985-june-1986the-two-front-labor-war-in-austin/313924351/

Kopple, Barbara, dir. American Dream. 1990; Santa Monica, CA: Lionsgate, 2013. DVD.

Mewes, Trey. “Former P-9’er Calls for Worker Equality at Hormel Shareholders Meeting.” Austin Daily Herald, January 29, 2014.
https://m.austindailyherald.com/2014/01/former-p-9er-calls-for-worker-equality-at-hormel-shareholders-meeting

“A Piece of Austin’s History.” Austin Daily Herald, August 15, 2010.
https://m.austindailyherald.com/2010/08/sunday-section-to-touch-on-hormel-strike-history

“Play on Hormel Strike to Premiere at Children’s Theatre Company.” Austin Daily Herald, February 23, 2019
https://www.austindailyherald.com/2019/02/play-on-hormel-strike-to-premiere-at-childrens-theatre-company

Rachleff, Peter J. Hard-pressed in the Heartland: The Hormel Strike and the Future of the Labor Movement. Boston: Sound End Press, 1993.

Rose, Mike. “‘American Dream’ Still Rings True Today.” Austin Daily Herald, August 14, 2010.
https://www.austindailyherald.com/2010/08/%E2%80%98american-dream%E2%80%99-still-rings-true-today

Schleuning, Neala. Women, Community, and the Hormel Strike of 1985-86. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1994.

“A Timeline of the Hormel Strike.” Austin Daily Herald, August 14, 2010.
https://m.austindailyherald.com/2010/08/a-timeline-of-the-hormel-strike

Related Images

Striking Hormel workers on April 10, 1986
Striking Hormel workers on April 10, 1986
Striking Hormel workers march with signs
Striking Hormel workers march with signs
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Supporters of striking Hormel workers
Hormel protester
Hormel protester
Protest march and ride
Protest march and ride
Nation’s labor movement takes center stage in Austin
Nation’s labor movement takes center stage in Austin
Protest against Hormel policy of non-union hires
Protest against Hormel policy of non-union hires
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Police release tear gas on Hormel protesters
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Hormel strikers' picket line
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Hormel Boycott T-Shirt
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Hormel strike sign
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Hormel strike button
Hormel strike button
Hormel strike button
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Hormel strike button
American Dream movie poster
American Dream movie poster

Turning Point

On January 20, 1986, Minnesota Governor Rudy Perpich calls in the National Guard to protect Hormel non-union workers from striking union employees.

Chronology

August 7, 1985

The vast majority of P-9 members vote to strike against the wishes of the parent union, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW).

August `5, 1985

With an official strike looming, Hormel stops buying livestock as the company prepares for the Austin plant shut down.

August 17, 1986

Hormel employees in Austin walk off the job.

September 4, 1985

Thirty of 300 eligible Hormel strikers opt for retirement with benefits.

November 25, 1985

Hormel announces record earnings in the fourth quarter, despite shutdowns.

December 20, 1985

Picketers start blocking the Hormel plant’s gates.

January 13, 1986

The Hormel plant re-opens with many non-union workers as employees. Governor Rudy Perpich calls in the National Guard.

February 21, 1986

Perpich dismisses the National Guard.

March 9, 1986

Violence erupts at a demonstration outside of the plant.

March 10, 1986

115 demonstrators are arrested.

March 14, 1986

The UFCW orders the members of Local P-9 to end the strike. They refuse.

April 10, 1986

Police use tear gas on protesters and arrest seventeen of them. Nine police officers are injured.

April 12, 1986

The Reverend Jesse Jackson arrives in Austin to serve as a mediator.

May 18, 1986

The UFCW gains control of Local P-9.

July 3, 1986

The UFCW evicts the Local P-9 from the Austin Labor Center.

August 27, 1986

Hormel and UFCW announce a tentative contract deal.

September 13, 1986

All parties accept the proposed contract agreement, and the strike is declared over.