Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Peter Shapiro

Hormel, labor unity and the role of the left

First Published: Unity, Vol. 9, No. 3, February 21, 1986.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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Since January 20, 1,200 striking Hormel workers in Austin, Minnesota, have been fighting a desperate battle with hundreds of National Guardsmen who have occupied their town, broken up their peaceful picket line and escorted hundreds of scabs into their strike-bound plant.

It’s one of the most blatant cases of government strike breaking in over a generation, and it carries ugly echoes of the days of 50 and 100 years ago when workers’ struggles were routinely attacked with the full power of the state.

Kirkland attacks P-9

On February 17 the AFL-CIO Executive Board drove another knife into the strikers’ backs. Meeting in Bal Harbour, Florida, the board endorsed the efforts of United Food and Commercial Workers’ (UFCW) President William Wynn to crush the strike.

The strikers, members of UFCW Local P-9, balked at Wynn’s efforts to impose wage reductions on workers throughout the Hormel chain. With a strong democratic local, innovative tactics and the ability to cut Hormel’s production in half by closing the Austin plant, the strikers figured they were strong enough to put up a fight. They also felt a responsibility to other Hormel workers angry about making concessions to the most profitable company in the meat-packing business but less able to resist.

They weren’t asking for the moon. They had made givebacks in the past. They wanted to keep their seniority and grievance protection. They wanted some safety provisions in a plant which has become a slaughterhouse for human beings as well as livestock. For five months, they kept the heat on Hormel with an effective, resourceful, well-run strike.

Charges of ’outside manipulation’

Yet in the last month they’ve been hit with every weapon in the capitalist arsenal. With virtually no provocation or violence by strikers, the Guard has been called out. Hundreds of workers have been fired at Austin and at least two other Hormel plants. Labor consultant Ray Rogers, hired by P-9 to help with strike strategy, has been jailed under a “criminal syndicalism” law last used by the capitalists to bust unions during World War I.

With each turn of the screw, organized labor’s high command has stepped up its efforts to isolate P-9. Wynn promised to back P-9’s strategy to spread the strike to other plants, then denounced it as “suicidal” and blocked it at every turn. He discouraged unions from sending aid to the local, claiming Rogers would pocket the money. His report to the AFL-CIO Executive Board claims P-9 leaders “successfully manipulated a democratic institution.” Wynn portrays Rogers as an “outside agitator” and the strikers as his dupes. Such statements recall the 1950’s, when top union officials urged the federal government to break strikes that were supposedly led by communists.

The truth should be obvious to the rest of us. Austin is a battleground today because the whole U.S. is becoming a battleground. Workers are being attacked wherever and whenever they try to defend their living standards.

Each struggle must be seen in the broadest terms. The working class needs leadership that understands the reasons for the capitalist offensive, has an overall strategy to meet it and has the commitment and dedication to carry it out.

It won’t come from the poolside at Bal Harbour and we shouldn’t be shocked or disappointed when it doesn’t. In the 1930’s, organized labor’s high command was just as helpless to meet the terrible hardships of the Depression and the capitalist attacks which had reduced most unions to empty shells. It is not widely known today, but it was through the active participation and leadership of communists in the working class movement that workers built unions that, for the first time, brought a decent standard of living to a large section of the U.S. working class.

Broad united front needed

The communists didn’t do it alone. A broad united front which included many liberals and progressives was forged which made possible the successful formation of the large industrial unions of the CIO. But without the communists it is doubtful that this would have come about.

The left must play such a role again. While the left is weaker today than in the 1930’s, the situation demands that the left take the lead to build the broadest front against the present onslaught against workers and unions. We should struggle for unity. We must be flexible enough to find allies wherever we can and firm enough not to sacrifice workers’ interests in order to “gain influence.” We should fight each fight to win but also to keep an eye to the future, to the building of the kind of unity and front which will enable everyone to win.

We have more immediate tasks, too. Unity has talked to local union officials around the country who are appalled at what is happening in Austin. But many have done far less to support the strikers than they should. Some disagree with the way the strike has been run, or feel it’s a lost cause. Others are reluctant to meddle in an “internal dispute” between the UFCW and a dissident local. Still others fear the consequences of bucking William Wynn or other top AFL-CIO officials.

We have to get these people off the fence. If the Hormel strike is defeated, every worker and every union will pay.