AUSTIN, Minn. — At Austin's packed City Council meeting last Tuesday night, this small, heartland community began to tear itself apart in full view of the national news media and the outside world.
The National Guard had just arrived to intervene in the bitter, five-month strike at the Geo. A. Hormel & Co. meatpacking plant, by far Austin's largest employer, and hundreds of frustrated strikers wanted to vent their anger at their local public officials.
The City Council was a convenient target--two council members who are also Hormel workers had decided to cross their union's picket lines to return to work, while the mayor, also a striker, had called for the National Guard to comply with a court injunction mandating that Hormel's plant gates be kept open.
As the overflow crowd of Hormel strikers began to shout "Scab! Scab! Scab!" at the two council members, the meeting was quickly adjourned and the politicians made a quick exit through a side door. "There's no way those two will be on the ballot (for reelection) this year," vowed one striker as the meeting broke up.
"This strike has raised a lot of hell for the town," added Vernon Shamp, a 56-year-old striking Hormel worker. "It's really sad."
Caught in Cross Fire
Austin is a town caught in the cross fire by the sometimes violent conflict raging at Hormel, where 1,500 union workers have been on strike since Aug. 17, protesting Hormel's demands that they accept pay cuts of 69 cents per hour and other non-wage contract concessions.
Although the company and Local P-9 of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, which represents the strikers, are now at least holding negotiations with a state-appointed fact-finder, the long dispute seems to be loosening the traditional bonds between Hormel and Austin, where Hormel had previously been viewed as a locally oriented, paternalistic employer.
One of the favorite posters carried by the Hormel strikers says simply--"Jay Hormel Cared." Jay, the son of Hormel's founder and a past president of the firm, is still viewed by union members as having been far more committed to Austin than the professional managers who now run the company.
"This town is getting fed up with Hormel, and the people are getting ripped off," complained Don Allen, a 28-year-old Hormel worker whose parents both worked at the company before him. "It'll take a long time to cure the wounds in town from this strike."
Feelings run so deep over the dispute because Austin and Hormel have been synonymous since the 1890s, when George Hormel came out from Chicago to open his first slaughterhouse here. Over the years, Austin, a town of 23,000 in south-central Minnesota, has prospered along with Hormel, which still has its corporate headquarters here, as well as the strike-bound $100-million pork slaughtering and processing plant, now the largest meat-processing facility in the world.
Traditionally, Hormel was Austin's security blanket; high-paying jobs at Hormel have been passed down from grandfather to father to son in hundreds of Austin families, and, until 1985, Hormel had suffered only one, brief strike here in more than 90 years. Everyone seems to know everyone else here, and many have friends or relatives both in the union and in management. "Jobs at Hormel have really been hand-me-downs," said Bruce Lindquist, managing editor of the Austin Daily Herald.
But the close ties that bind Austin and Hormel have turned the ongoing labor battle into a fratricidal conflict that is forcing friends and family to take sides against each other.
'I'm Dying Inside'
"This is like a terrible nightmare," said Wayne Goodnature, Mower County sheriff, who is in command of the National Guard while it is in town. "I've lived here all my life, and I know all these people. I'm dying inside. These people are our friends and our family. We want this to end--our children are watching this thing unravel."
On Friday, talks among the company, union and an independent fact-finder, appointed by Gov. Rudy Perpich, continued in St. Paul, and one indication of progress came when the local union's leadership ordered its members to delay mounting further protests around the plant, where newly hired replacement workers and some returning strikers have been able to get to work under the protection of guardsmen and local law enforcement officials. The fact-finder, Arnold Zack, a Harvard professor and labor arbitrator, said Friday that the talks were going smoothly, adding there was a possibility of an early settlement.
On Thursday, by contrast, nine people had been arrested near the plant, including eight who tried to blockade the interstate highway leading to the plant. Police smashed the car windows of two protesters to pull them out of their cars. Charles Nyberg, a Hormel senior vice president, said earlier this week that Austin was a "town under siege."
Roads Sealed Off