While the number of strikes and strikers plummeted during the 1980s and 1990s, most of
the major labor struggles that did take place were in resistance to management demands for
concessions. Three of the most important—and most revealing—occurred at the
Austin, Minnesota plant of the Hormel meatpacking company, the Watsonville Canning company
in southern California, and the Pittston Coal Company in Virginia. All three revealed a
base of potential solidarity for embattled workers that was rarely appealed to in other
conflicts of the period.
At the start of the 1980s, the meatpacking industry was almost completely unionized
with a master agreement providing a $10.69 wage rate. However, in the mid-1980s, the major
packing companies initiated an extreme version of the offensive against labor taking place
throughout American industry. Wilson filed for bankruptcy and cut wages from the
negotiated $10.69 to $6.50. Can-Agra bought Armour, closed 13 plants, then reopened them
with non-union workers earning only $6.00 per hour. Swift slashed wages as well.
In spring 1984, the United Food and Commercial Workers appeared ready to take a stand
against further concessions at Hormel. UFCW National Packinghouse Division Director Lewie
Anderson ordered that no locals consent to concessions. But shortly thereafter, UFCW
agreed to reopen the contract at Hormel’s Ottumwa, Iowa plant. Ottumwa workers voted
overwhelmingly to refuse to reopen the contract. Then Hormel laid off 444 workers and
announced it was considering closing the plant unless concessions were granted. The local
voted again against reopening the contract. Hormel laid off another 114 workers. In a
third vote, workers accepted concessions cutting wages from $10.69 to $8.75. Then the laid
off workers were recalled.
Hormel next demanded the same cuts from the rest of the UFCW locals. Local P-9 at
Hormel’s Austin, Minnesota plant rejected concessions by a vote of 92 percent to 8
percent and other locals in the chain followed suit. The UFCW then called a meeting of
Hormel local union officials, who agreed to the concessions their members had just voted
to reject, bringing the wage rate at Hormel plants to $9.00.
Meanwhile, Oscar Mayer cut wages to $8.25. Hormel responded by cutting wages at Austin
23 percent, to the same level as Oscar Mayer, based on contract language pegging wages to
industry norms. Wages fell so low that some full-time workers became eligible for food
Throughout this series of cuts, Local P-9 in Austin became increasingly disenchanted
with the leadership of the UFCW. In December 1983, it elected Jim Guyette president on a
platform of opposition to further concessions. Local P-9 began looking for alternative
ways to resist Hormel’s offensive.
In September 1984, wives of P-9 workers began meeting in an Austin park and standing
with signs at the plant gates once a week for all three shifts. By October, 400 women were
coming to the meetings in the park. They called themselves the United Support Group, and
soon began meeting in the Austin Labor Center. They organized a food shelf and a clothing
exchange. Peter Rachleff, a labor historian who helped organize support for the strike,
wrote, "The United Support Group transformed the Austin Labor Center—once the
location of a local union that could not draw a quorum to its monthly meetings—into a
beehive of activity. In so doing, they transformed Local P-9 from a trade union into a
Local P-9 also began working with Ray Rogers and his consulting firm, Corporate
Campaigns, Inc. Rogers proposed that P-9 mobilize its members and supporters to put
pressure on First Bank Systems (FBS), Hormel’s banker and the largest outside
shareholder of Hormel stock. The local established a communications committee and began
reaching out to union, church, and community groups across the Midwest. Nightly meetings,
dances, and other activities developed at the Labor Center.
But conflict with the UFCW also escalated: its president William Wynn warned Rogers it
would be "regrettable" if P-9 launched a campaign without approval from the
national union. But in January 1985, P-9 members voted to assess themselves $3.00 per week
to hire Corporate Campaigns, Inc. Hundreds began picketing Hormel offices and plants and
First Bank branches. Hormel and First Bank complained to the National Labor Relations
Board (NLRB), which held that the campaign was an illegal secondary boycott violating the
Taft-Hartley Act. This put a serious crimp in Rogers’s strategy of focusing pressure
on First Bank. In August 1985, Austin workers voted to strike by a 93 percent margin. They
also initiated a boycott against Hormel. The UFCW officially sanctioned the strike.
The P-9 strike rapidly became a symbol of resistance to concessions and the focus for
support efforts nationwide. Speakers and caravans from Austin traveled around the country.
Union stewards at the General Electric plant in Lynn, Massachusetts passed out a leaflet
that articulates why the P-9 struggle struck such a responsive chord: "Working men
and women in Minnesota have scratched a line in the cold hard ground and declared that
they will give up no more of their pride, wages, or benefits…. Their victory will be
hailed as the turning point against concessions bargaining, or their loss will be another
crushed union. What stands between their victory or loss is the resolve of all of
Support came not only from unions but also from farmers, peace and justice activists,
poor people’s organizations, and environmental groups. Members of the peace group
Women Against Military Madness conducted workshops in civil disobedience in Austin.
Hundreds of workers and supporters subsequently participated in civil disobedience.
Governor Rudy Perpich sent 300 National Guard members into Austin to protect the
strikebreakers who entered the plant across union picket lines. In early April, 6,000
labor activists from around the country came to Austin to attempt to shut the plant down
with mass pickets and obstruction. An impromptu rally was met with tear gas, police
attacks, and arrests on serious felony charges (all eventually dropped). Jesse Jackson
flew into Austin and said, "What Selma, Alabama was to the struggle for civil rights
in the 1960s, Austin, Minnesota is to the struggle for economic rights in the 1980s."
According to Rachleff, "Rallies, parades, dances, picnics, food caravans,
Christmas parties, picketing, and plant gate demonstrations attracted the greatest
outpouring of labor solidarity [in the United States] since the 1930s…. More than 3,000
local unions sent material assistance. Tens of thousands of rank-and-filers and local
union officers visited Austin and offered help of one kind or another."
But the strike, originally sanctioned by the UFCW, met increasing resistance from union
officials. At the annual convention of the Minnesota State Federation of Labor, the
federation’s president ordered P-9’s information table shut down on the grounds
that P-9 literature advocated a secondary boycott of First Bank and was thus illegal. Just
before Thanksgiving in 1985, UFCW International President William Wynn wrote to AFL-CIO
officers and affiliates condemning the "Adopt-A-Family" program P-9 had
established. When a Minneapolis-St. Paul International Association of Machinists Lodge
voted to send $10,000 to adopt several families, IAM President William Winpisinger
intervened to block the payment. (In response, the local convened an "emergency"
meeting, paid out a $35 per diem to those present, adjourned the meeting, and signed the
$10,000-plus in checks over to P-9.) As official trade union support was increasingly
blocked, 42 independent "P-9 Support Committees" were organized around the
In March 1986, Wynn ordered P-9 to return to work unconditionally. Eight hundred P-9
members met and voted overwhelmingly to ignore the order. Three weeks later, supporters
poured into Austin and rallied at the plant gates in violation of an injunction. Seventeen
were arrested on "felony riot" charges. Guyette and Rogers were charged with
"aiding and abetting a riot" for having "mailed posters and leaflets"
for the rally.
The UFCW put the local into trusteeship on the grounds that it had disobeyed the UFCW
order to call off the strike. Backed by a court order, the UFCW sent in its regional
director to take control of P-9’s office, bank account, and postbox. He ordered
members to abandon all boycott activities and accept a new contract.
The UFCW-imposed contract allowed individuals to be fired for advocating a boycott of
Hormel products or handbilling any business buying from or selling to Hormel. Under the
contract dozens of workers were fired or refused recall rights for such crimes as having
"Boycott Hormel" bumper stickers on their cars. One worker was eliminated from
the rehire list for having a driver’s license ID photo taken with a "Boycott
Hormel" sticker on his forehead. When P-9 members continued the boycott, the UFCW
sent out a mailing to local unions across the country urging them to buy Hormel products
"made by union brothers and sisters."
In 1985, the Watsonville Canning company demanded a wide range of concessions,
including a wage cut from $6.66 to $4.25 per hour. The 1,000 employees, members of
Teamsters Local 91, who were mostly Latino women, struck. The strike was marked by strong
roots in the Mexican-American community and culture. When opponents of the strike tried to
provoke a riot, for example, the strikers responded with a traditional Mexican pilgrimage
on their knees to the local Catholic church, where they prayed for justice. The workers
stayed on the picket line for 18 months without a single defection.
Wells Fargo Bank provided Watsonville Canning $23 million in loans during the strike.
The strikers’ committee organized an informational picket at the local Wells Fargo
branch, but canceled it when Teamsters officials objected. When the central role of the
bank became ever clearer, the strikers voted to publicly protest the bank’s support
for Watsonville and to ask the Teamsters to withdraw $800 million in funds from the bank.
As the strikers began making preparations for a campaign against Wells Fargo, the bank
foreclosed on the $23 million in unpaid loans it had made to Watsonville Canning, forcing
the company out of business.
Teamster officials negotiated a contract with the new operator of the company, but
workers, dissatisfied that many would be denied medical benefits under the new contract,
voted to postpone ratification. The Teamsters announced that the strike was over, cut off
strike benefits, locked the strikers out of the union hall, and threatened to put the
local in trusteeship. Six women then began a hunger strike in front of the cannery;
hundreds of strikers and supporters surrounded the plant. That night negotiations resumed,
and two days later workers voted overwhelmingly to accept a new contract with medical
benefits for all workers.
In November 1988, the Pittston Coal Group, Virginia’s largest coal operator and
the second largest coal exporter in the country, demanded a long list of concessions,
including cuts in health and pensions, work rule changes, and the right to open new
non-union mines. The company demanded Sunday work and abandonment of the eight-hour day.
When miners objected, Pittston Coal Group president Michael Odum said, "The world
works seven days a week" and asserted that miners were only "using church as an
excuse" to avoid Sunday work.
United Mine Workers of America President Richard Trumka called the company’s
proposals "an economic death warrant" for Appalachian communities and decided to
stake the future of the union on resisting them. The union combined a strike, mass
non-violent civil disobedience, mobilization of solidarity nationally and internationally,
a corporate campaign, and a workplace occupation into a winning strategy.
After working for more than a year without a contract, 1,700 UMWA workers struck
Pittston on April 5, 1989. No union members crossed the lines. Pittston was not able to
offer permanent replacement jobs to strikebreakers because the National Labor Relations
Board found the company had engaged in unfair labor practices.
The UMWA brought in experienced peace activists to conduct non-violence training. Then
strikers and their families, often dressed in the camouflage outfits that became the
unofficial uniform of the strike, began blocking mines, roads, and coal trucks. More than
1,000 strikers and supporters were arrested the last week of April. A group of women
organized "The Daughters of Mother Jones" and occupied the company’s
regional headquarters overnight. Jesse Jackson told a rally of 12,000, "The tradition
of John L. Lewis and the tradition of Martin Luther King, Jr. have come together in your
Even before the strike, Pittston had imported strikebreakers and Vance Security guards
to protect them. Virginia’s governor called out several hundred state police to
protect strikebreakers and arrest strikers. Injunctions forbade most strike activities. At
one point, driving too slowly was interpreted as a violation of a federal injunction.
Federal marshals accompanied the state police who arrested the drivers, some of whom were
sentenced to as much as 90 days for this traffic misdemeanor. Fines against the union
exceeded $60 million.
Officials of the mineworkers presented the strike as a struggle against the courts and
federal labor laws. UMWA Vice-President Cecil Roberts told a rally, "This is class
war. The working class versus the corporate rich and their allies in state and federal
government." When Judge Don McGlothin, Jr., issued fines of more than $30 million
against the union, miners organized a write-in campaign and elected a strike leader to
replace his father in the state legislature.
To protest fines, injunctions, and other government union-busting efforts, 46,000
miners in 11 states joined wildcat sympathetic strikes. The UMWA briefly sanctioned such
strikes as contractually permitted "Memorial Days," but thereafter discouraged
them. Hundreds of miners and sympathizers also picketed and closed down several coal-fired
factories and non-union mines.
In summer 1989, the New Jersey Industrial Union Council voted to ask the AFL-CIO to
call a "one day union work stoppage" in support of Pittston and other strikers.
But the AFL-CIO circulated an advisory letter to state federations and central labor
councils discouraging sympathetic strikes: "[T]raditional responses such as food
banks and coverage of the strike story in labor newspapers are certainly appropriate. This
strike presents a specific issue where the strike has spread to other than Pittston mines.
In some cases AFL-CIO affiliates are signatory to labor agreements at those facilities
[to] which they remain legally bound.
"As an AFL-CIO state or local labor council you are advised to support the UMW in
those areas of activity which do not conflict with the legal obligations imposed by the
court on the UMW or by existing labor agreements with AFL-CIO affiliates."
Rank and file support for the Pittston strikers went considerably beyond food banks and
newspaper articles. An estimated 30,000 supporters came to Camp Solidarity between June
and September 1989, including not only labor but religious and peace activists. "If
you’d told me a year ago all this would happen, that I’d meet people from nearly
every state in the union, from Denmark and Pakistan, from Italy and Germany, come here to
help us, I’d have almost said you were a liar," said a miner who had worked 32
years at Pittston. A roof bolter from an Exxon mine in Southern Illinois who came to Camp
Solidarity explained, "I don’t want this at home. We’ve got to stop it
here." The president of a Pittston local said: "We’ve got people suffering
badly here. So let’s go ahead and fight the fight here. There’s no use in
letting some other groups somewhere else suffer. Let’s just have it all out right
here while we’re at it. Maybe this will show these large companies that we’re
going to stick together."
One of the camp directors commented, "We’ve come to the point where we
don’t even call it a strike anymore. It’s a people’s movement. We’re
telling our people, ‘Hey, if this thing ends tomorrow, we’ve got people out
there who need our help’."
A corporate campaign put further pressure on Pittston. In Boston, a support committee
targeted William Craig, a vice president of Shawmut Bank and picketed the bank. Trumka and
50 strikers spoke before the Boston City Council, which voted to withdraw city funds from
Shawmut. Ultimately Craig was forced to resign as vice president of the bank.
International support also played a role. A delegation from the International
Confederation of Free Trade Unions, the largest global trade union confederation, visited
the coalfields and protested the repression being imposed on the miners. At a time when
the Reagan administration was trumpeting its support of Polish democratization with the
slogan "Solidarity with Solidarity," the delegation included a representative of
the Polish Solidarity union who said he was "shocked to see what is happening in the
great democracy." The ICFTU delegation met with Pittston’s chief executive
officer and helped persuade Labor Secretary Elizabeth Dole to visit the strike. Dole then
appointed a supermediator to encourage a settlement.
On September 17, 98 miners and a clergyperson (all owners of at least one share of
Pittston stock) filtered around state police and arrived at Moss No. 3, Pittston’s
key coal treatment plant. UMWA leader Eddie Burke recalled: "There were two Vance
Security guards there. I told them, ‘We are an unarmed, nonviolent inspection team of
stockholders coming to inspect our investment. You will not be harmed.’ The two Vance
men left hurriedly. There were no weapons drawn."
The miners called the occupation "Operation Flintstone" in memory of the
1936-1937 Flint sitdown strikes.
A court ordered the occupiers to vacate, but they refused to do so. The next day, a
crowd of 2,000 lined the road in front of the plant to protect the occupiers. Soon 5,000
supporters surrounded the plant. The state police withdrew to a distance, while workers
directed traffic. The occupiers remained for four days, waited until a few hours after the
court’s September 20 evacuation deadline had passed, then marched triumphantly out of
The strike-plagued company lost $25 million on its coal operations in the fourth
quarter of 1989. In October, Pittston returned to the bargaining table for the first time
since July. Negotiators reached a settlement December 31, 1989, which included few of the
concessions Pittston had demanded and required the company to meet the contract pattern
established in the rest of the mining industry. U.S. News and World Report said
miners "appeared to score a major victory" in "new job security
provisions" limiting subcontracting to non-union firms. "Pittston’s
attempts to shed some of the burden of financing health care benefits" proved
These struggles illustrate the revamped tactics the labor movement developed in the
1980s, from community support to mass nonviolent civil disobedience, and from corporate
campaigns to international labor solidarity. They show national union leaderships in roles
varying from militant strike leadership to outright strikebreaking. They demonstrate the
powerful institutional constraints that labor law and union contracts put on the action of
workers and unions. They reveal often unexpected reserves of commitment and solidarity
among workers directly subject to employer attack and among a wide swath of supporters.
Next installment: Organizing the Workforce