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Hormel local persists in strike

A bitter and lonely strike by 1500 Minnesota meatpackers has reached a new level of confrontation. On Tuesday -- eight days after George A. Hormel & Co. reopened its Austin, Minn., plant -- the facility was closed down again after reports of violence. According to police, a bullet struck a pickup truck which was leaving the plant and a company photographer was kicked Monday as strikers jeered and heckled new workers replacing them. Minnesota Gov. Rudy Perpich called in the National Guard to try to ease the situation.

``If the governor wants to use the National Guard, I would recommend that he employ it to protect workers from this arrogant, greedy, and immoral company,'' said Jim Guyette, president of Local P-9 of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW). He charged Hormel with trying to precipitate violence.

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The company, saying mob psychology had taken over, told workers to stay home until the plant area was safe.

Such flare-ups are not uncommon in long and bitter strikes. But the Austin situation is unusual: For five months the union local has carried on its strike with virtually no outside support. Theirs is a lonely campaign against wage concessions that the rest of the industry has already accepted.

Wage concessions have become so widespread that even the union's national leadership has all but urged the workers to accept the company's offer of $10 an hour. That is less than the $10.69 wage that prevailed nationally in 1980. But it would keep the workers at the top of the current wage-scale for pork packers and represent a 75-cent-an-hour boost to wages the company was paying at the time workers struck Aug. 17. The local has twice rejected the offer.

Although the local is carrying on alone, the outcome of the strike could have implications for the packers at Hormel's seven other plants, whose contract expires next summer. By reopening the plant on Jan. 13, Hormel effectively introduced a two-tier wage scale -- offering returning workers $10 but new workers only $8.

If few strikers return to work -- and so far only a few have crossed the picket line, according to the union -- then the company's flagship plant could end up operating with a large $8-an-hour workforce.

Those wage levels at the pork-packing industry's most modern and automated plant could produce calls for cuts at other Hormel plants, says Al Zack, spokesman for the UFCW. ``It really would be a major wedge in pushing the two-tier [scale].''

After four years of substantial concessions in the troubled industry, the national union had hoped to put the pay cuts behind them. The average hourly wage for most of last year was $8.50 to $8.75, Mr. Zack says, and companies such as Hormel and Oscar Mayer were already back up to $10.

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