AUSTIN, Minn. – About 1,000 people marched through this meatpacking town for over an hour in 90-plus degree weather, blowing whistles and drumming on plastic buckets. Some chanted "Respect us! Protect us! Pay us!" while others sang out "Hormel! Escucha! Estamos en la lucha!" (Hormel, listen! We're in the fight!)

Meatpacking workers in Austin say they need a raise from Hormel Foods Corp. to keep pace with inflation and potentially avert a strike. The Labor Day march aimed to rally support as the local United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) bargaining team and Hormel leadership are running out of time to negotiate a new four-year contract.

Many carried the memory of the bitter 1985-86 strike against Hormel, one of the most infamous episodes in modern U.S. labor history.

Workers stopped at the Spam Museum, raising as much noise as possible while onlookers took video on their phones, then went north to Hormel offices and the Spam Museum's former location, before returning to the Austin Labor Center just a few blocks west of the Cedar River.

As of last week, workers are seeking $6.50 wage increases by September 2025, while Hormel is offering $2.15 over four years. The two sides are also split on insurance increases, bereavement and pension increases, among other issues.

The UFCW's current contract runs out Sept. 10. Union officials say they meet with Hormel leadership on Wednesday.

"Our members have literally worked throughout the pandemic, and sacrificed and gotten sick," UFCW president Rena Wong said, noting a production line worker died because of COVID-19. "We want that sacrifice to be respected."

The contract talks come as Hormel profits, and the prices of bacon, turkey and other commodities, dip as markets adjust to post-pandemic conditions. The company recently lowered its financial forecast for the rest of 2023, estimating its sales will decline as much as 4% or remain flat compared to 2022.

Hormel officials said in a statement Friday afternoon the company has had strong working negotiations with the UFCW for decades.

"Our representatives will continue to negotiate in good faith, and we remain optimistic that we will reach agreements with the UFCW in the near future," company officials said.

Workers say this is the hardest-fought negotiation in years, one that should have happened before COVID. Turnover at the plant remains high as workers seek better-paying jobs in other nearby towns — some as high as $28 per hour to start, while meatpackers on average make about $20 per hour.

"We support our community," German Munoz said. "We go to restaurants, pay our bills here. My mortgage is here, my home."

Munoz said he moved to Austin from Texas for better pay, but wages haven't kept up with inflation.

When Robert Fisher was growing up in Austin, Hormel was the place to work. Now the 10-year meatpacking veteran says it's difficult to stay there.

"We need to be able to pay our bills," he said, noting the wage increase the UFCW proposed would help his family stay ahead of expenses.

Many workers say they're concerned talks could break down into a strike at the plant, reminiscent of the last strike in Austin over wages in 1985.

At the time, company officials proposed lowering meatpacker salaries by 23%, from $10.69 to $8.25 an hour. Hormel officials, led by then-CEO Richard Knowlton, himself an Austin native, said the cuts were necessary to remain competitive among other meatpacking companies.

That strike lasted 10 months and made national headlines after Hormel reopened the plant with new workers in January 1986. Protests broke out anew. Gov. Rudy Perpich sent in the National Guard to keep the peace. The strike ended after the Local P-9 union was placed in receivership and national union trustees were sent in.

The strike tore the community apart, with families not speaking to each other and neighbors bearing grudges — some to this day. The strike also spawned an Oscar-winning documentary and to this day is used as a case study in labor and economic classes.

Several workers said they don't want to see the community at odds like it was in the 1980s, but they're willing to strike if Hormel doesn't increase wages.

Monte Thurman, who has worked at Hormel for four years, said the company should recognize that there's a different workforce under a different economy than during the last labor dispute.

"The way things were 30 years ago, it doesn't count today," he said.