Peter Rachleff: 25 Years on, Still P-9 Proud

Roundup: Talking About History

[Peter Rachleff is a professor of history at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota. In 1985-1987, he served as chairperson of the Twin Cities Local P-9 Support Committee, and in 1993 South End Press published his book on the strike, Hard-Pressed in the Heartland: The Hormel Strike and the Future of the Labor Movement. He can be reached at]

From the late summer of 1985 into the early spring of 1986, the small town of Austin, Minnesota, figured prominently in the national news. The dramatic themes and issues, twists and turns, of a labor conflict there captured the national imagination. This interest was not merely passive, as more than 30 support committees formed across the U.S. and aid for the strikers came from nineteen countries. This strike touched a raw, deep nerve.

In August 1985, 1,700 meatpacking workers, members of United Food and Commercial Workers Local P-9, struck the flagship plant of George A. Hormel and Company in Austin, Minnesota. They had taken a wage freeze in 1977 as part of a bargain to get Hormel to build a planned state-of-the-art plant in Austin, which had been the center of their operations since the 1920s. Corporations made so many threats in the later 1970s and 1980s to relocate production facilities—and followed through on so many of them—that the best-selling labor books of the era carried titles like Capital Flight and The Deindustrialization of America.

Local and state governments, as well as workers and unions, were challenged by such threats, and they often responded with tax breaks and infrastructure development along with the pay and benefit cuts or freezes that workers provided. Despite these concessions, millions of manufacturing jobs were exported from the U.S., relocated by corporate employers to low-wage, minimally regulated sites from Mexico and Central America to China, Vietnam, Thailand, and Singapore.

In the case of Hormel in Austin, the company received new exit and entrance ramps to I-90, new service roads into and around the plant, tax breaks, and that wage freeze. Workers had also agreed to shift the structure of their wage payments away from a system which, since 1933, had provided them with stable earnings in a notoriously seasonal industry, to a more conventional hourly wage system. This shift also undermined the controls that workers had long exercised over the pace of production. On the basis of these concessions, Hormel built its new plant in Austin....

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