AUSTIN, Minn. — Hundreds of Minnesota National Guard troops shut down all public streets near the strife-torn Geo. A. Hormel & Co. meatpacking plant here early Wednesday, enabling the company's newly hired and returning workers to enter the plant unhindered by the kinds of huge crowds of protesting union workers that had blocked the gates earlier in the week.
On their first day in town Tuesday, guardsmen had helped close the plant to restore order.
But Wednesday, directed by local law enforcement officials, the guard kept all traffic off the roads leading to the plant, opening their lines only for Hormel employees going to their jobs.
With the heavy security in the area, there were only scattered reports of vandalism and harassment of those driving to the plant, and Austin police reported only one strike-related arrest, for tire slashing.
Hormel officials refused to say how many workers entered the plant Wednesday, where about 1,500 members of Local P-9 have been on strike since Aug. 17. Union leaders insisted that only about 70 employees went to work.
But company officials did say that they had been able to resume partial production at the facility, which processes pork products.
"We now have a working nucleus of people, the plant is open and running, and it will continue to operate from this point forward," said Charles Nyberg, a Hormel senior vice president.
"I cannot compliment the guard and the local police enough for the job they did this morning," added Deryl Arnold, general manager of the Austin plant.
But the actions of the guard and the local law enforcement agencies drew immediate criticism from Austin's mayor, residents of the neighborhood around the plant, and from union leaders who called on Gov. Rudy Perpich to remove the peacekeeping force. Perpich refused.
"The National Guard is being used as Hormel's private security force," charged Jim Guyette, president of Local P-9 of the United Food and Commercial Workers, which represents the striking Hormel workers. Guyette and other union leaders also blasted the guard for closing public streets, limiting the ability of residents to get in and out of their homes.
"This has the semblance of another Poland, where the government cracked down on Solidarity," Guyette said. "This is a company town, and the company wants not only to run the plant, but the private lives of all the people in the town as well."
Austin Mayor Tom Kough, who had initially joined with local law enforcement officials in asking Perpich to send the guard into town, said Wednesday that he opposed the decision to use the troops to help Hormel reopen. Kough, who is also a striking member of Local P-9, had wanted the troops to keep the plant closed at least for several more days.
But Kough said his objections were overruled by Mower County Sheriff Wayne Goodnature, who has authority over the guard while they are in town.
At a press conference, Goodnature said he ordered the heavy security measures Wednesday to protect public safety and to comply with a court injunction requiring Hormel's entrances to be kept open. However, he did not say how long he would keep the troops in town.
New Workers Hired
The bitter contract dispute has turned uglier since Hormel first tried to reopen the plant last week with newly hired replacement workers and union members who have agreed to cross the picket lines.
Perpich called the National Guard into Austin--a south-central Minnesota town of 23,000 whose economy is almost entirely dependent on Hormel--on Monday after local law enforcement officials requested help when the threat of violence along the emotion-charged picket line seemed to worsen.
Early Wednesday, the National Guard--with 800 troops in town--had cordoned off several heavily traveled roads around the plant. Hormel workers had to show their company identification cards, or tell the police that they were newly hired workers coming to Hormel for the first time, to pass through the National Guard lines.
Although Perpich rejected the union request to pull the guard out of town, he did agree Wednesday to send an independent fact-finder to Austin to clarify the bargaining issues in the long-stalled contract talks in the five-month strike.
Worst Injury Record
But neither side in the standoff held out any hope for an early agreement on a new contract. The company is demanding that the workers accept a pay cut from $10.69 to $10 per hour and is seeking substantial changes in seniority rights and grievance procedures. The union has rejected those demands and, in turn, has demanded a greater emphasis on safety in the plant, which Guyette says has the worst injury record of any facility in the meatpacking industry.
Nyberg, apparently confident that the plant can now operate despite the strike, said Wednesday that the company will meet with the fact-finder but that Hormel will not back down from any of its demands and will no longer bargain with the union. He said the union is rejecting a contract offer that has been accepted at other unionized Hormel plants across the nation.
"We've said until we are blue in the face that we've gone as far as we can go," Nyberg said. "We won't sit down and talk if they just say we want more and more."
Union leaders promised to continue fighting despite Hormel's successful reopening Wednesday. They said a group of farmers sympathetic to the union were driving tractors from the Minneapolis area to Austin Wednesday afternoon for a protest outside the plant, and they vowed to try to shut down other Hormel plants with roving picket lines.