Leaders of Hormel Strike Arrested; International Holds Trusteeship Hearing
For four hours on April 11, 400 members and supporters of United Food & Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local P-9 shut down the Hormel plant in Austin, Minnesota by blocking the main gate to the building. They were dispersed only after police dressed in riot gear began firing tear gas into the crowd.
Seventeen people, including Corporate Campaign head Ray Rogers, were arrested. A warrant was issued for Local P-9 President Jim Guyette on charges of aiding and abetting a riot, and Mower County District Attorney Fred Draft said he planned to order the arrest of the entire P-9 executive board as well.
The next day, over 5,000 P-9ers and unionists representing hundreds of locals and organizations from at least 25 states across the country marched through the streets of Austin in a massive show of support for the eight month old strike.
The arrests, tear gassing, and a threat to use fire hoses on peaceful demonstrators reminded many of the civil rights movement of the 60s. Guyette told a rally, “[The civil rights activists] had to face tear gas and mace and we have to face tear gas and mace. But they were not moved, and we will not be moved. We intend to keep rising to the challenge and to keep fighting. We must, can and will win this struggle.”
The events came only days before the UFCW International was scheduled to hold hearings on whether to put the local into trusteeship. A decision on trusteeship was not expected for several weeks.
April 11 was the third day in a row that demonstrations had been held outside the plant, but it was by far the largest. At 4:00 am, 400 demonstrators blockaded the entrances leading to the Hormel plant to prevent scabs from entering.
They were met by 100 police who, after two hours, warned the protesters to disperse or face arrest. The crowd responded with chants of “No Scabs, No Retreat, No Surrender.”
Police then moved into the crowd and made several arrests as demonstrators responded by throwing coffee, dirt and gravel and setting off two smoke bombs.
About twenty minutes later, after another attempt to disperse the crowd, police fired about a dozen canisters of tear gas at the demonstrators. The police were somewhat inept at handling the tear gas, which in addition to engulfing the demonstrators, blew back at the police, into the surrounding community, and was sucked into the plant through the ventilation system. The Austin Daily Herald reported that of the nine police officers injured, eight were treated for tear gas burns.
However, the gas did have the intended effect of disorganizing the demonstrators. After the gas, police swept the demonstrators away from the plant, arresting about 10 more. At about 8:20 the police opened the plant gate and allowed scabs to enter.
The day after this confrontation demonstrators began arriving early for the national march and rally which were highlighted by a sense of militancy and disgust with the UFCW International.
The marchers began at the union hall, in view of the Hormel plant, and paraded through the streets of Austin chanting, “We’re fired up. We’re not going to take it anymore.” Many wore gas masks or kerchiefs around their necks, ready for another confrontation with the police.
At the Mower county courthouse, where those arrested the previous day were being held, the demonstrators paused briefly and chanted, “Free P-9” and “Let Them Go.”
Throughout the march, the support that the strikers still have from the residents of Austin was clear. The streets were lined with P-9 supporters from the town who clapped and honked their car horns as the marchers passed.
At the end of the route the marchers filled the city’s ice arena where they were welcomed by David Foster, the grievance chair of USWA Local 7263 in St. Paul and chair of the National Rank and File Against Concessions (NRFAC), the organizer of the event. Foster quickly introduced Jim Guyette.
“Yesterday’s events were a success,” Guyette told the clapping, chanting crowd. “I feel that these people [those arrested] are leading the charge and I know their efforts were not in vain.”
Guyette announced a continuation of the national boycott against Hormel and said that Jesse Jackson would be in town the next day to talk with both P-9ers and the company to try and find a resolution to the conflict.
Wanda Carlow, a Minnesota teacher, announced that the 40,000 member Minnesota Education Association had endorsed the boycott against Hormel and plans to bring a resolution to that effect to the NEA convention.
On the platform were also leaders from other struggles who spoke of the link between P-9 and other fights against concessions. A striking member of the Independent Federation of Flight Attendants told the crowd to “Boycott Hormel and Don’t Fly TWA” and that, “In the fight against Big Business, the only way for unions to win is to struggle together.” A member of Teamster Local 912 on strike against the Watsonville (California) Canning Company explained the similarities between P-9’s struggle and the Teamsters strike.
Not all of the speakers were from unions. Bobbi Polzine of Groundswell, a Minnesota organization that helps farmers fight foreclosures, said that the only way to fight big business is with a unity of farmers and labor.
The biggest and most emotional response was reserved for the growing number of UFCW members who have put themselves and their jobs on the line by directly confronting their International union on the question of support for P-9.
Mike Dudley, a “terminated member” of UFCW Local 431 in Ottumwa, Iowa, fired the crowd up, saying, “Unions must now stand up and say ‘That’s it! No more!’ Now is the time to fight Big Government, Big Business, and Big Internationals.” Dudley announced that on April 16 the workers at Ottumwa would march to the plant and demand their jobs back form the company. The Ottumwa plant remains open with about 300 of 800 workers.
A speaker from UFCW Local P-6 at the Farmstead Plant in Albert Lea, Minnesota, said his local was taking up plant gate collections for P-9. He told the strikers, “Your fight is our fight, your struggle is our struggle, your victory is America’s victory.”
WE SHALL OVERCOME
Lula Ward, a member of P-40 in Cudahy, Wisconsin, brought the crowd to its feet with the announcement that because the members of her local are dissatisfied with the International’s position on P-9, they voted 291 to 73 to withhold per capita payments to the International until the strike is re-sanctioned. “We’re going to tell the International that you must stand by us or we don’t need you. We’re going to stand together, fight together and we shall overcome.”
The crowd stood and cheered when it was announced that UFCW Local 100 from Chicago was sending a petition to the International, signed by its leaders and members, demanding the restoration of strike benefits to P-9.
After the rally, over 300 unionists met for two hours to set up a national P-9 support organization which would publicize the strike and help build support for the boycott nationally.
On April 13, Jesse Jackson met with both company officials and strikers. He told Hormel officials that he would be willing to mediate between the local and the company.
Jackson’s appearance in Austin electrified the town and kept the strike in the national spotlight. Jackson spoke at a rally for over 1000 and repeated the comparison of P-9 to the civil rights movement. “What Selma, Alabama was to the voting rights movement in 1965, Austin, Minnesota has become that to collective bargaining in1986,” he declared. Jackson also met with the prisoners in the Mower county jail, linked arms with them, and sang “We Shall Overcome.”