The foreshadowing, punctuated with the crash of shattered glass, came 52 years earlier. Frustrated workers in the hog kill department at the Hormel plant in Austin, Minn., went on strike in 1933.
When the company hired replacement workers to start up a sheep kill line, 400 strikers with clubs and rocks shattered glass doors and chased out the so-called scabs. Some of the militant strikers burst into a meeting and told Jay Hormel, "We're taking possession. So move out." Four days later, the plant was back in operation and the meatpackers' union was stronger than ever.
The more famous strike in Austin — 30 years ago this summer — was neither that quick nor effective for organized workers. Local P-9, a fiercely independent, 1,500-member pocket of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, clashed with company honchos and its own international leaders. The beyond-bitter clash tore apart families in the southern Minnesota town of 22,000. The National Guard and local police came in with dogs, Mace and tear gas.
But union leaders were more than the heads of a local: They were local. P-9 President Jim Guyette was born and raised in Austin and began working for Hormel in 1968 — 17 years before he led the strike.
"I look with sorrow at the atmosphere that engulfs our community," P-9 business manager Pete Winkels wrote in the Austin newspaper in the throes of the turmoil. "It has been with a lump in my throat that I have told people across the country not to buy the products that my family and friends and I had so much pride in making at one time."
The dispute focused on wages, safety concerns and slashed benefits. It became a two-front war as P-9 faced off against a profitable company and a parent union that was battling to hold the line against industrywide wage cuts in the mid-1980s and dismissed the passions of what it considered a rogue offshoot of rabble-rousers.
For years, there had been harmony between P-9 and Hormel, the city's anchor business established by the Hormel family in 1891.
The union had loaned the company money at no interest and agreed to $20 million in concessions to help finance a new $100 million plant that opened in 1982. In exchange, there were loose promises about no wage cuts.
While the new plant made meat processing more efficient, it heightened workers' problems. Ham-boners, for example, were required to perform their task 93 times per hour — a rate increase that allowed knife sharpening only on the upswing before a downward plunge into another ham. Rising rates of back, shoulder, nerve and carpal tunnel injuries — and severed fingers — were documented.
"This plant is a walking infirmary," Guyette said after his 1983 election.
To wit: There were 200 injuries for every 100 workers at the plant, and one-third of Austin workers lost time because of injuries in 1984.
When the company demanded a 23 percent wage cut — from $10.69 to $8.25 an hour — to match cuts imposed by other big meatpacking companies, tensions boiled over. An arbitrator six months later told Hormel to raise wages 50 cents to $8.75 but allowed the company to impose retroactive benefit cuts to company-run health insurance plans.
"In some cases this amounted to thousands of dollars, in others many hundreds … the company deducted this, chunk by chunk, from the already mangled paychecks," Fred Halstead wrote in "The 1985-86 Hormel Meat-Packers Strike in Austin, Minnesota."
More than 90 percent of P-9 members voted to strike Aug. 7, 1985, though their international union bosses urged them to accept concessions. The strike dragged on through the winter, lasting 10 months.
"P-9 quickly came to symbolize democracy and membership participation, a willingness to oppose corporate demands for concessions, regardless of international union agendas or strategies, and a form of 'horizontal' solidarity that threatened the vertical, bureaucratic hold that international unions exercised over their locals," said Macalester College labor historian Peter Rachleff, who wrote "Hard-Pressed in the Heartland."
After six months on strike, including pickets at Hormel plants in Iowa and at Hormel's lender, First Bank System, P-9's solidarity began to crumble and national union leaders ordered the local to surrender.
In January 1986, Hormel reopened the plant with the threat of hiring replacements, and new protests broke out on the picket line. Gov. Rudy Perpich sent in the National Guard — a move that outraged strikers who had vowed to adhere to nonviolent means. When P-9 still refused to surrender, the parent union placed it in receivership and sent in national union trustees.
"The actual military, the National Guard, comes in, exerts its authority, and blocks off half the town," Winkels recalled five years after the strike. He said the troops in town showed the absolute power Hormel exercised in Austin. "It really heightened everyone's consciousness. They could understand what it was like in Korea or Central America or Poland when someone voiced dissent."
Curt Brown's tale on Minnesota's history appears each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org