Main Document Index  |  ETOL Home Page


A Program for U.S. Labor: Debate and Lessons from the Hormel Strike

by Frank Lovell

Last July, after losing control of their local union (P-9 of the United Food and Commercial Workers) to the International officialdom, the strikers at the Hormel plant in Austin, Minnesota, formed a new union — the North American Meatpackers Union (NAMPU). They petitioned the National Labor Relations Board for a certification election. The NLRB received their petitions, but they are still waiting for the election. No date is yet set.

On August 28, the International officials of the UFCW announced that they had reached a settlement with Hormel, covering workers in eight of the company’s plants. The contract is company dictated and conforms in wages to the industry pattern, reaching $10.70 per hour in September 1988. (In 1980, workers at the Austin, Minnesota, plant were making $10.69.)

Debate Over the Strike

In the wake of the settlement, the debate about the merits of the P-9 strike built up steam. This debate is not limited to the various groups in the radical movement or the left wing in the unions that initially supported the strike. The employing class continues to take a keen interest in the strategy and tactics of the strikers. In a Labor Day editorial, September 1, the New York Times comments,

Organized labor is in deep trouble on Labor Day 1986. For most unions, however, it’s still business as usual. The economy has been remade by deregulation, automation and imports. Rather than facing such realities, unions lunge for protectionist laws to hold back the tide or circle the wagons and battle it out to the end, as happened with the suicidal strike of Hormel meatpackers in Minnesota.

What the Times fears is the end which might come about if the union movement as a whole embarked on a course similar to that of P-9. It advises labor to take the route of the GM/Saturn concessions pact with the United Auto Workers; to endorse the School Reform Program, which eliminates teachers’ jobs and introduces incentive pay, following the example of Shanker and the American Federation of Teachers. “No less is required ... if labor is once again to lead,” says the Times. What they are talking about is the leadership of the Judas goat that leads the sheep to slaughter. That pretty well sums up the attitude of the employers today — at least those who are willing to sign contracts with the unions at all.

A senior vice president and chief lawyer for Hormel, Charles Nyberg, said Hormel was more willing to negotiate with the UFCW than with Jim Guyette, president of P-9, because the International had a more reasonable approach to the talks. “With the UFCW it was not an all-or-nothing proposition,” Nyberg said. “But they are hard bargainers. This is no sweetheart contract.”

The labor bureaucrats themselves are likewise anxious to dispel the notion that their “concession bargaining” is nothing more than the signing of sweetheart contracts. The AFL-CIO News (September 6) reported the Hormel contract in a story that was headlined: “UFCW recovers lost wages at Hormel and Oscar Mayer.” The story reports that the UFCW succeeded in “returning the base labor rate to $10.70 an hour by September 1988.”

It also says that the settlement carries with it “a guarantee that Local P-9 members who remained on strike after the plant reopened earlier this year will have seniority-based preference as jobs become available at the plant.” This is made up, a lie. There is nothing like this in the contract.

This same story reports that the UFCW has filed suit in Alameda, California, to block a buyout of Safeway Stores there. Safeway owes its employees $750 million in wages, vacation pay, and severance pay —according to the UFCW. They hope Safeway can become profitable again and pay the back wages. This deep concern for the financial future of the employers was expressed by Lewie Anderson, the UFCW vice president who negotiated the settlement at Hormel. He said, “There’s just so much you can do. We believe that as business expands, [the P-9 strikers] will get their jobs back. That Austin plant has the capacity for 2,000 to 2,500 jobs.”

The Bureaucrats’ Solution

This is one issue in the debate within the radical movement as well: can the union movement protect its members if the system cannot provide jobs? And if it can and should, how will it get started?

The AFL-CIO bureaucrats such as Lane Kirkland argue that concession bargaining is, and must be, labor’s basic strategic approach at this juncture. It is labor’s duty to help resolve the problems of the capitalist system.

But Kirkland hasn’t a clue as to what’s really wrong with the system: “Today we suffer from the consequences of one-way foreign trade — and the steadfast refusal of the Reagan administration to speak up for the interests of the American working people.” That’s what he told the Steelworkers’ convention on August 25. He went on: “Unions understand the need for cooperation where it is essential. We only ask that employers in turn cooperate with us. Unfortunately,” he said, “we find too few examples of the latter form of cooperation.”

This is true. Kirkland has been unable to find any segment of the employing class that will endorse his demands for protective tariffs. He pretends not to know that the “cheap goods” imported to this country are the product — in large part — of U.S. capitalist investment abroad.

The Communist Party

The so-called radicals — including the Communist Party and other Stalinoids — accept the premise that the well-being of the working class depends on the economic prosperity of the bosses, and that one of the ways to get this is through labor-management cooperation. The difference is that the Stalinists and the self-styled “labor left” argue, against the entrenched bureaucrats, that an aggressive campaign against givebacks, employing the proper strategy, will in the long run show the employers the evil of their ways and force them (once again) to collaborate with the unions.

In the case of the CP, they have carried this approach to the extreme so that they now find themselves in the camp of the UFCW against the P-9 strikers. The CP’s line is “labor unity at all cost.” A People’s Daily World staff writer, Bill Dennison, got so carried away with this that he wrote the following about the P-9 strike: It has exposed the “divisiveness of ’phony left’ organizations centered around a group called ’Rank and File Against Concessions,’” he said.

They used the legitimate struggle of the Hormel workers to launch a campaign to split and undermine other meatpacking locals, the UFCW and a number of other unions.

The ultimate aim apparently is to break away a section of the trade union movement. Coming at a time of unprecedented attacks against unions by the monopoly corporations and when unity is essential, many view their activities as suspicious at best and at worst a conscious part of the Reagan-era union busting.

This slander is a small reminder of what Stalinism really is and how it functions, an echo from the past when it was an influential political current in the union movement. This time it netted Dennison a temporary writing assignment on the new Unionist, put out in Austin by the UFCW.

Supporters of the P-9 strike — and the organizers of the North American Meatpackers Union — respond that far from “splitting the union movement” they are trying to prevent the atomization, the shattering, the disorganization of the union movement. This certainly does not mean that the new meatpackers union seeks to replace the present union movement, either. It is not a “dual” union. The program of this new union, if and when it is finally and properly formulated, can serve as an essential feature of a genuine class-struggle left wing within the AFL-CIO.

Time for a Program of Change

There are growing signs that the time is ripe for a program of change in the U.S. union movement. The year- long Austin strike and the broad support it received from workers across the country could not have happened four or five years ago. There is a general restiveness in the unions, and a growing dissatisfaction with the bureaucracy. Increasingly there is interest and participation in the affairs of the unions by their memberships. In Detroit this year 165,000 turned out for a Labor Day parade, and 50,000 marched in Chicago, where Lane Kirkland spoke. (Perhaps if Kirkland hadn’t been present, the Chicago turnout might have matched Detroit’s.) We also see, increasingly, genuine rank-and-file movements around important issues — such as union democracy.

These changing attitudes — the new militancy and advances in political consciousness — indicate that the North American Meatpackers Union has a chance to stay alive and make a valuable contribution. Its future will depend largely upon the kind of program it develops for the union movement as a whole. This can evolve in collaboration and consultation with other left-wing forces in the unions, such as New Directions in the UAW, or Teamsters for a Democratic Union. The NAMPU has a chance to begin to influence the development of a genuine class-struggle program for U.S. labor’s left wing.

Basic Planks

Most of the discussion within the unions—in particular during strikes like that of the P-9 workers or the Watsonville Cannery workers in California — has been about strategy and tactics. This, of course, is essential for any union leadership engaged in strike action. But beyond this there is the basic social program of the union movement. What should it be?

There are a few, main points which become very clear in light of what has happened in Austin and in the course of other battles over the last few years:

* Democracy in the unions. The better understanding of what this means in practice may be the most important contribution of the P-9 strike. There the membership not only made the decisions but mobilized their own forces to carry out those decisions. This is the essence of union democracy (working-class democracy as opposed to the bourgeois variety).

* Independence of the workers from the bosses. The P-9 strike certainly contributed to a better understanding of this concept. In this respect the very first decision of the Local P-9 leadership and membership was the most important and far-reaching: to fight Hormel and not appeal to its good will; to organize the struggle and carry it through to its conclusion; to win back their rights as workers.

(Of course, they had to conduct this struggle according to the rules prescribed by the labor laws of this country, in particular by Taft-Hartley, and by the established practices of the union movement. But in doing this they advanced the consciousness of themselves and their supporters to the point where they can now challenge some of the unjust laws and most of the self-defeating union practices.)

* Mass unemployment dictates the demand for jobs. It is the responsibility of the union movement to present a program to create jobs, to put the unemployed to work at union wages. This can be done through a public works program to provide the many social necessities which are now sacrificed to the war budget, as well as through a reduction of the workweek with no loss in weekly pay, so the available work is divided equitably among those who need jobs.

* Defend the union movement. This means organizing legal defense committees to launch a major public campaign to defend workers and union leaders victimized in the courts and on the picket lines. But it also means the beginning of a campaign to educate — both the general public and the union movement — about the necessity for workers’ self-defense against police and national guard attacks.

* Working-class political action. The unions must begin to prepare the way for the organization of a labor party as the result of the struggle for jobs — a political struggle — and through running union-sponsored candidates as independents in elections. Again, a major campaign to educate and explain the need for a new political party, one which would advocate a government run by and in the interests of working people, a government which would not call out the national guard to protect scabs or break up picket lines, must be begun by the left wing of the labor movement.

This modest five-point program is a place to begin our discussion. Other points will have to be added as we go along. The militants who have today formed the NAMPU, who exist in a less well organized form in many other unions across the country, need to adopt and begin to advocate this program, or one like it, in order to meet the goals which they are setting for themselves and in order to live up to the promise which the current wave of militancy in the U.S. labor movement holds out.

Main Document Index | Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists' Internet Archive