No Retreat, No Surrender

Austin, Minnesota (pop. 23,000) is a classic example of a company town, almost entirely dependent upon a single industry. Hormel had always displayed a paternalistic attitude towards its workers and the townsfolk; by the 1980’s, however, various economic pressures were altering that relationship. These pressures included inflation, foreign competition, and the wave of take-overs sweeping the land. Under the auspices of the Reagan administration, American organized labor had been suffering setbacks which threatened to cancel out everything it had gained since the time of Franklin D. Roosevelt. When Hormel began demanding big wage cuts and other concessions, the local branch of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (U.F.C.W.) resisted. The leaders, who displayed the spirit of the Spartans at Thermopylae, felt they had a strategic advantage in the fact that Hormel could not move its operations overseas, as so many other American corporations were doing. The company executives, on the other hand, saw themselves as struggling for their own survival as well as the revitalization of American corporate enterprise, which was being outstripped by hungry foreign competitors.

The strike captured national media attention because it looked like a showdown between big business and organized labor. The U.F.C.W. asked the Austin local P-9 to throw in the towel, stating that labor and management had a common interest in making American goods more competitive in a global economy. Instead, P-9 leaders, enthusiastically supported by the rank and file, escalated the conflict by organizing nationwide boycotts of Hormel products and staging guerrilla-like demonstrations at other Hormel plants. The strike finally ended with the defeat of the union and a legacy of bitterness which nearly destroyed the moral fabric of the little Minnesota town.

Dave Hage and Paul Klauda are Minnesota journalists who covered the strike for THE MINNEAPOLIS STAR TRIBUNE and THE NEW YORK TIMES. They have produced an interesting book by focusing on the personalities of the people involved on both sides of the issue. They are to be commended for their thoroughness and objectivity.