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When Gov. Orville Freeman declared martial law in Albert Lea during a packing plant strike, he didn’t just target strikers

Freeman also ordered the plant closed.

historical photo of national guard soldiers confronting strikers
Members of the National Guard confront striking meatpacking plant workers in Albert Lea. Printed in the Minneapolis Morning Tribune, December 12, 1959. Original caption: “National Guardsmen dispersed crowds at Wilson Gate early Friday morning.” Photograph by Charles Brill.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

In the winter of 1959–1960 a bitter packing-house workers’ strike against Wilson & Company in Albert Lea descended into such disorder that Governor Orville Freeman declared martial law. A federal district court later ruled his order unlawful.

Wilson & Co., with 1100 workers in a city of 17,000, was one of Albert Lea’s major employers. It was also the most anti-union of the nation’s four major meat-packing firms, and bad blood between the company and union workers had been building for weeks over forced overtime.

When the national collective bargaining agreement with the United Packing House Workers of America (UPWA) expired on September 1, 1959, the differences between the two sides centered not on wages but on power. The union demanded the rehiring of seventeen union men fired in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and the creation of a union-controlled fund as a hedge against job losses caused by automation.

Wilson would not budge on either issue—it considered them management territory—and so a strike began on November 3. This was a national strike against Wilson in Albert Lea and six other plants in cities around the country: Omaha, Cedar Rapids, Memphis, Kansas City, and Los Angeles. The company kept the Albert Lea plant open, with much lower production, using, at first, mostly management workers.

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Tensions rose dramatically the first weekend of December when the company announced that it would hire permanent replacement workers and not rehire strikers. Many of the roughly 500 replacement workers it hired were local farmers, idled by winter and in need of money due to low farm prices. Acts of violence began to pop up—tires slashed, corn cribs damaged, cars stoned. On December 9 a thousand picketers crowded the plant entrance, intimidating the replacement workers. The Albert Lea Evening Tribune called the incident “a violent three-hour siege.” Freeborn County law enforcement officers wrote Governor Orville Freeman that they feared an explosion of violence.

Freeman had the power to call out the National Guard to keep the plant open and separate “scabs” from strikers. He reasoned, however, that this would do nothing to diminish the resentment felt by union workers who feared permanent loss of long-held jobs. So on December 11 Freeman declared martial law in Albert Lea and moved in the National Guard. In his proclamation he repeated words from a plea he had received from Albert Lea and Freeborn county officials:

Night prowling and acts of vandalism away from the plant area and extending into the surrounding countryside, with danger and damage occurring to innocent persons…cannot be stopped, so long as the plant continues operation…

And so he also ordered the plant closed. Soldiers with bayonets drawn appeared in Albert Lea. This had the desired effect of reducing tensions, but it also moved the Wilson Company to take Freeman to federal district court.

The hearing was held December 16 in Minneapolis before a panel of three veteran judges (all Republicans): John Sanborn and Edward Devitt of St. Paul, and Gunnar Nordbye of Minneapolis. Attorney General and future federal judge Miles Lord argued the case for Freeman. The court found that “mob rule” existed in Albert Lea, but that Freeman had exceeded his authority in declaring martial law and closing the Wilson plant. The strikers had the right to strike, but the company also had the right to keep its plant open: Freeman had gone too far. The standard for the extreme measure of martial law (implied but not expressly authorized by the Constitution of Minnesota) was “dire necessity,” and that standard had not been met. The plant reopened December 28.

Contract negotiations reopened too, and closed, and opened, back and forth for six more weeks, with plenty of friction between the union and Wilson, before a new contract was finally signed. The union did not get its automation fund, but all but a handful of the striking union members in Albert Lea were rehired without loss of seniority.

Governor Freeman probably paid a price for his martial law decision. He sought a fourth term in the elections of 1960 but was defeated by Republican Elmer Anderson. President John F. Kennedy appointed him secretary of agriculture in early 1961.

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