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The 1985 Hormel strike was one of Minnesota’s most contentious labor disputes

photo of strikers picketing hormel
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
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 ten 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 few large-scale strikes.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.

Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Richard Parker on 08/12/2019 - 04:09 pm.

    Tom Kough was mayor of Austin at the time and a 32-year employee of Hormel. He faced some very tough decisions about security and public safety, including whether to ask for the National Guard, which Gov. Perpich settled for him. Eventually, Kough was fired. He was a licensed steam engineer and moved to the Twin Cities with his wife and found a job at the heating plant near the Metrodome. He also was elected to the Roseville City Council. I met him in 1995 when he enlisted me to help form a banjo band — Tom, also a competitive high diver, knew a few banjo chords and wanted to get active musically. Pretty soon the Banjo Bandits had plenty of work, albeit for not much money. We played many small gigs, and others including the State Fair, several county fairs, the Winter Carnival, cable-access TV, and a dawn-till-dusk Saturday in Austin where we played at five locations and on local TV. Tom was very warmly received in his hometown that day.

    The Bandits were active for about 10 years, and periodically Tom would enter diving events and usually win gold in his age category. I came to realize that it was a metaphor for how he led his life: Tom would just dive head-first into whatever interested him — politics, the music business, competitive sports.

    In 2007, Tom suffered a stroke as we played a concert in St. Louis Park. He insisted on finishing the gig before being driven to the hospital. There he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Over the course of the next year he fought the cancer and, against the doctors’ wishes, performed in at least one diving event, winning a medal. He died on March 30, 2008, at age 76.

  2. Submitted by Warren Park on 08/16/2019 - 08:29 am.

    The documentary film “American Dream” released in 1990 does a thorough presentation of this story. The film won the 1991 Academy Award for Best Documentary.

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