Brooke Gladstone: This is the OTM midweek podcast. I'm Brooke Gladstone. This week, we're bringing you another story from our colleagues at The Experiment, a show produced by WNYC and The Atlantic. They're currently running a series called SPAM: How the American Dream Got Canned. We shared the first episode with you last week. The second installment, which we're airing today, explains how the tinned pork mix is central to one of the longest and most contentious labor battles in US history.
In 1985, workers at the Hormel Foods plant in Austin, Minnesota, went on strike, demanding better working conditions and stable wages. SPAM boycotts spread to cities and towns around the world. The strike went on for almost two years, pitting neighbor against neighbor and turning violent. In this episode, you'll hear from Gabrielle Berbey, a producer at The Experiment, and Julia Longoria, who hosts the show.
Julia Longoria: Before coming to Austin, we'd read in history books about the famous 1980s Hormel strike. We wanted to understand how it felt for the people here. First up was the home of Rayce Hardy, the son of a meatpacker. Hi. I'm here for Rayce.
Female Speaker: [unintelligible 00:01:32].
Julia: Hardy? Is this the road? Did I get the wrong address? I'm sorry. Apparently, he lived at Southwest, not Southeast. What, we knocked on the wrong door. Eventually-- There's Rayce. There he is. We found him.
Rayce Hardy: Come on in.
Julia: Thank you.
Rayce's Mom: Thank you. [unintelligible 00:01:49].
Julia: He offered to give us a tour to help orient ourselves to Austin since, clearly, we needed it.
Rayce: My mom wanted to come with us.
Julia: His 88-year-old mom tagged along. Hi. How are you?
Rayce's Mom: Where do you live?
Julia: I live in New York.
Rayce's Mom: In [unintelligible 00:02:02]? Poor thing. [laughs]
Julia: They were great tour guides because they've spent most of their lives in Austin. Rayce teaches economics at Riverland Community College there.
Rayce: I'm trying to convince Riverland to just have me a class, my economics class just on Hormel Foods.
Julia: He's an unofficial historian of the Hormel Corporation.
Rayce: The layers of this, well, I think you can get a degree in SPAM, a SPAM degree.
Julia: Part of the reason Rayce knows so much about Hormel is because his family worked at the company for generations.
Rayce: You can see a graveyard there in the cemetery?
Julia: We drive by the cemetery where three generations of Rayce's family are buried, all of whom worked at the Hormel Corporation. Hormel was founded in Austin, Minnesota in 1891. Hormel Foods is to Austin what General Motors was to Detroit, or what Hershey was to Hershey, Pennsylvania. The founder, George Hormel, wanted to create a family company, one that would provide for generations of Austonians. Rayce's grandfather started working there in 1930. Where is your dad buried? His dad, who passed away a few years ago-
Rayce's Mom: Sweet little Kelly, we used to call him.
Julia: -worked there while he was raising Rayce.
Rayce's Mom: We are going to pick on the Hormel company area.
Julia: Pick on them?
Rayce's Mom: Yes.
Julia: For generations, Hormel was good to families like theirs.
Rayce: To the north here of us is the whole Hormel Austin plant, 15 football fields of factory. It's got a barbed wire, eight-foot fence around it.
Julia: Is that a truck full of pigs?
Julia: Oh my God.
Rayce: This whole area is a livestock area.
Rayce: Now, you can smell the bacon.
Julia: We can?
Julia: Can we roll down the window?
Rayce: Yes. We used to sneak in there when I was in high school just to see, "Wow, look at this place."
Julia: What did it look like?
Rayce: It was a dump. We went down. It was just like there are rats running around in the bowels of the plant.
Julia: Inside the factory, the work of making SPAM was intense.
Rayce: It's a sensual overload, so orchestrated and choreographed.
Julia: It's an assembly line or disassembly line. Each worker had a piece of the puzzle.
Rayce: When you whacked a pig in the head, it was stunned. Whacked it with a sledgehammer. Now, someone's got to get the skin on. Rigor mortis sets in. A job called snatching guts, you reach into the pig carcass. Pull up the stomach as the stomach still operates. You got to get it out of there or it's going to burst and destroy the carcass.
Julia: The workers themselves who were doing the slaughtering.
Rayce: 99% male at that time just doing stupid stuff.
Julia: One former meatpacker told us that when he visited the factory as a kid, he saw a worker slit a cow's throat.
Linn Houston: I remember a guy taking a little tin cup off the wall and filling that sucker up with blood and taking a drink, and looking at us and smiling and all.
Julia: We did run the story by Hormel's current VP of Quality Management who called it bar room talk at best.
Linn: That was his thing to [unintelligible 00:05:25] you know that.
Julia: This, by the way, is Linn Houston.
Julia: He has an amazing laugh.
Linn: The things you get used to in a packing house, huh?
Julia: The reason the men did this tough, gruesome and exhausting work was because it gave their families a way of life.
Rayce: My mom and my siblings and I were going to be taken care of financially and healthwise.
Julia: That's son of a meatpacker, Rayce Hardy, again. Meatpackers at the plant were all part of the local union that had been in place since 1933. That meant meatpackers did well. In the early '80s, the minimum wage was $3.35. Starting salary at Hormel was three times that much. Rayce's dad, who worked in the plant for decades and logged overtime, made even more than that.
Rayce: My dad had an $886 weekly check in 1974. That's thousands of dollars now.
Julia: The equivalent of a six-figure job today.
Rayce: That's why he did that job. The insurance that I grew up with, we had full eye and full dental besides full health insurance.
Julia: It wasn't just health benefits, a home with multiple kids where the sole breadwinner was a meatpacker.
Rayce: He had a sense of pride that he could take our whole family and just head out on a two-week vacation, and then have a week hanging out in Hawaii and you're a factory worker? That was the dream. You can get a house, go on vacation, and your kids can do activities.
Julia: It wasn't just the meatpackers at Hormel that lived this dream. Union power was strong in post-war America. Into the '50s and '60s, the middle-class grew. The wealth gap between worker and management was a lot smaller than it is today. To give you some perspective, in the 1960s, workers made only 21 times less than CEOs. Today, workers make 351 times less. Back then, a single-earner family could own a home, take the family on vacations. It was the American dream.
Ronald Reagan: Good evening. I'm speaking to you tonight to give you a report on the state of our nation's economy. I regret to say that we're in the worst economic mess since the Great Depression. A few days ago I was--
Julia: Moving into the 1980s, we began to see a shift. The dollar weakened. American jobs moved abroad. We saw globalization, automation.
Ronald: It's time to recognize that we've come to a turning point. We're threatened with an economic calamity of tremendous proportions.
Reporter 1: The government announced today that there are now more Americans out of work than at any time since the Great Depression. The major cause--
Julia: To adapt, American corporations started cutting jobs and cutting pay.
Reporter 1: American Airlines, yesterday, asked all its employees to accept a 5% pay cut for three months.
Reporter 2: Workers at the company are protesting what they say are poor working conditions, inadequate health benefits, and low wages.
Reporter 1: Chrysler, workers agreed to give up more than a billion dollars in wage and benefits. Ford has asked workers at one plant to cut their pay in half. General Motors is reported to have begun a campaign to convince workers-- Steelworkers at the AO Smith--
Reporter 3: Today, the industry is struggling and so are the workers who must sometimes choose between lower wages or going out on strike.
Julia: Unions pushed back against these changes using the best tool that they had, a labor strike.
Participant: The right of men to leaves their jobs is a test of freedom.
Julia: Strikes had been breaking out across the country for years with mixed results. One strike in particular-
Reporter 3: Air traffic controllers walked off their jobs this morning.
Julia: -sent a clear message to workers and signaled a shift in the American workplace.
Reporter 3: This morning at 7:00 AM, the union representing those who man America's aircraft control facilities called a strike.
Julia: In the summer of 1981, over 12,000 air traffic controllers violated federal law by going on strike. They'd been out for just two days when the President of the United States himself stepped in and did what no President had done before.
Ronald: If they do not report for work within 48 hours, they have forfeited their jobs and will be terminated.
Julia: 48 hours after making his speech, President Reagan fired over 11,000 air traffic controllers on strike.
Rayce: President Reagan at the time in the '80s changed the rules of the game. The rules of the game are against the worker. The rules of the game are for the corporation.
Julia: This was the environment, that in 1984, Hormel, the family company, started making some changes.
Linn: They cut people's wages way down. They just cut everybody's wages and benefits.
Julia: They announced to keep pace with the rest of the meatpacking industry. They would also need to cut wages and benefits. This is pay that had been stable or growing since Hormel started. They cut it by over 20% from 1,069, an hour to 825.
Rayce: If you think you've earned something, especially through your body, that's a really tough thing. It was something being taken that people thought they earned.
Julia: On top of that, workers and historians we interviewed, told us the company was changing the way that packers worked in the plant.
Jim Guyette: Chain speeds were increased, significantly increased, and so people were working harder and faster and getting hurt more.
Linn: Boy, if you didn't work out and work up to speed in a gang, they made sure you got kicked out of there.
Jim: Workers who had once had a lot of control over the pacing of their work, were now being forced to work at a breakneck speed.
Julia: Workers reported they were getting injured more often.
Jim: You had women who worked in the plant who couldn't pick up their children anymore. They had to pick them up by their elbows because their wrists were shot.
Julia: The union that represented these workers got together and made a plan. They would resist. Of course, they knew about the strikes across the country and that the strikes were failing. They knew that the deck was stacked against workers, but Austin wasn't like the rest of the country. Austin was a family town.
Rayce: This was Dick Norton's house. He was the president at the time of the strike.
Julia: When Rayce drove us around Austin, he pointed out that workers and management in the plant were close.
Rayce: Relatively bigger house for the neighborhood, but there are some houses bigger. It's a two-story. I was friends with his daughter, so I've been in there several times. Then my mom and dad's, and my dad was a laborer, it was just right here.
Julia: Oh, wow. Oh yes. That's your parents' house right there. We just drove a block and a half away, and now we're at your dad's house and he worked in the factory.
Rayce: Yes. Was good friends with Dick.
Julia: In Austin, worker and management took each other's kids to school. They sat in the same pews at church. In other disputes, like if you were Ronald Reagan or the CEO of Chrysler or American airlines.
Rayce: You didn't have to worry about going to church and having somebody spit on the back of your head. Other strikes were out in Philadelphia or Pittsburgh. They were in metropolitan urban areas, but none of those other strikes were in a place like this. All of it just came to a head and it didn't come to a head in an urban area or a metropolitan area. It came to a head in the middle of bunch of cornfields in the last county on I-35 in Minnesota, came in Austin.
Julia: If the workers at the Hormel plant wanted any chance of protecting their wages, their families, and their way of life, they were going to need a truly capable leader, someone who could navigate a very tricky political situation. They found that leader in a man named Jim Guyette. Tell me where you grew up.
Jim: Austin, Minnesota, middle of a cornfield. My father worked at the plant and my grandfather worked at the plant.
Julia: Jim comes from a long line of Hormel Meat Packers. He'd been working there since college. From the beginning, he had a strong rapport with other workers. He told us a story from early in his time at the plant.
Jim: I had gotten married. We were trying to have children. Nothing was working.
Julia: He and his wife couldn't get pregnant. The doctor told them they had to try at a certain time of the month.
Jim: I would have to get time off to go home and procreate
Julia: Jim's foreman allowed him to go home, but the other workers found out about it. When he went on his special leave--
Jim: Ready, go. These guys were yelling and screaming and cheering. Oh my gosh, it was quite the show.
Julia: The production line stopped and workers gave him a standing ovation on his way out. He and his wife succeeded, by the way, and had three kids. It was this family man, Jim Guyette, who was elected the president of the local Meat Packers Union.
Jim: I think a lot of times, things are deliberately complicated when they don't have to be. It's not that hard. I feel my job is to break it down into simpler pieces that people can understand.
Julia: For him, the situation was black and white, corporations were taking too much, and workers needed to fight back. Jim's vice president at the union was Linn Houston. The one with the laugh.
Linn: Jim was such a good thinker and talker, very honest, straight shooter.
Julia: With Jim Guyette and laughing Linn at the helm, the local union tried to negotiate with the company to at least keep their wages and benefits as is; not asking for a raise, just keep the status quo.
Linn: We took it to arbitration. We tried to negotiate with them on it.
Julia: The company offered them a deal. It was better than the original proposal, but they still insisted we have to lower wages and cut benefits. The way the national economy was headed, many people, including the big dogs at the International Union, thought that Jim and Linn should take the deal. The local union voted and said no way.
Linn: Finally, it was the regional director at that time said, "You know guys, you got no choice. All you can do is go on strike."
Jim: We just went down to the plant and said we were going on strike. That's what we did.
Julia: What did it look like? Was that you in a microphone or what was [inaudible 00:16:49]?
Jim: No. That's made for TV stuff. No, it wasn't made for TV. There's real deal.
Julia: Workers at the Hormel Plant hadn't been on strike since the great depression. Now, in the summer of 1985, hundreds of workers went down to the meatpacking plant, gathered at the entrance, and displayed the posters they made with the message to management.
Jim: Cram your SPAM.
Reporter 4: Wait, what does that mean?
Jim: Well, cram your SPAM like just shove it up your anus. There are signs all over town when they were on strike.
Julia: 1,500 workers didn't go to work that day. Hormel had to temporarily shut down the plant. Jim made sure this wasn't your average strike that the country had seen so many up by this point.
Jim: If you want to win, you need to do more than just stand on a picket line. You need to involve the family.
Julia: From the very beginning, Jim understood who the real players of the strike were going to be.
Jim: The pressure on the spouse and the children is real. It was something that affected everybody.
Julia: Jim invited them all down to the Austin Labor Center to be a part of the strike, which transformed the place into a hub of activity.
Linn: They made twice for kids.
Jim: We had a clothing exchange.
Julia: They handed out food to families.
Linn: We had dances at the Union Hall and highered bands. Everybody brought their kids. We had a good time.
Julia: The Union felt like a family?
Jim: Without a doubt.
Julia: Linn said a song that was playing often was--
Linn: Queen, we're the champions.
Julia: This was the '80s.
Linn: Come out with boombox and start playing that song [laughs] and just get everybody fired up.
Julia: You make it sound like it was fun.
Linn: It was. [laughs]
Julia: By January of 1986, the strikers had fanned out around the country, calling workers across industries to their cause.
Jim: Rochester and Albert Lee and Owatonna and Faribault.
Julia: First, in the Midwest, to other Hormel plants, urging workers there to strike.
Jim: Fremont, Nebraska and Ottumwa, Iowa, Waterloo, Iowa, Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Madison, Wisconsin. We mapped out the entire cities.
Julia: Then, they spread the word of the strike to the far stretches, like to the coasts.
Reporter 5: Next tonight, a focus report from Austin, Minnesota about an unusual labor campaign.
cheerleader: What have you got?
Cheerleader: That's what we're talking about here today is power. How you can get it and how you can use it.
Reporter 6: What may appear to be just another union dispute maybe the birth of a new trend in American labor relations?
Rayce: It's weird because Austin is just this little town in the middle of nowhere. Then all of a sudden, the New York Times is here, and ABC, NBC, CBS, and not the local affiliates around the area, but the national ones.
Reporter 7: Reverend Jesse Jackson stepped off the plane in Austin this morning, bringing a ray of hope to the bitter eight-month meatpackers strike.
Linn: Jesse Jackson was here a number of times.
Jesse: In many ways, what Selma, Alabama was to the voting rights movement in '65, Austin, Minnesota has become that to collective bargaining in 1986.
Linn: Once we got on the national news every night, it went all over the world.
Julia: One historian we talked to told us a South African union organizer came down to Austin and later said, he'd managed to smuggle a "Cram Your Spam" t-shirt into Nelson Mandela's jail cell.
Jim: I went to England, got a resolution to boycott Hormel products.
Linn: I think we got donations from something like 70 countries.
Julia: What do you think resonated with people in 70 countries?
Linn: I think it was just because we were just working people like them, and we were willing to stand up and say, "This is enough."
Jim: At some point, you got to ask yourself, "How much is enough?"
Julia: With Jim and Linn's strategy, the strike had become an international phenomenon with money starting to pour in from all over the world. Because of those donations, the strike was able to keep going. At a time when the workers seemed to be failing around the country, this strike was a ray of hope.
Rayce: What Jim Guyette did, he worked as rear end off. He was relentless. He was honest.
Julia: That's Rayce Hardy again, the son of a meatpacker.
Rayce: He was honest. People thought he was-- No, he was honest. He was transparent. He was consistent, but he was ignorant of global phenomenons. There was nothing jolly about this. This was a strike, and with every strike, there's only two things that are going to happen: You're going to win, or you're going to lose.
Julia: That's after the break.
I'm Julia Longoria. This is The experiment. We're 10 months into the Hormel strike.
Reporter 8: 1986 has been another year of pain and discontent for the organized labor movement.
Julia: The strikers in Austin were unique. For one, the town was small, small enough that the effects of the strike were personal, both for workers and for management. The union organizers had gotten creative in that they made the strike a family affair. Spouses and children were all brought in to be a part of the strike. We heard this over and over from the people we talked to. Family was the how of the strike and also the why. Hi, are you Dedee?
Julia: Hi. We went to visit Dedee Bergstrom and her husband, former striker, R.J Bergstrom at their home in Austin.
- J Bergstrom: The goats even got names up there.
Julia: Where they showed us their stable of goats.
Dedee: Little female goat is Maggie. That's his mom. They've all deceased.
Julia: Do you name all your goats after deceased family members?
Bergstrom: Well, I don't think they would mind. I got goosebumps. I think they would get a kick out if anything.
Julia: Before they started a family, RJ and Dedee began dating as teenagers.
Dedee: I just thought he was handsome, which he was very. Had big muscles.
Bergstrom: Oh, God.
Dedee: Come back tan from the Vietnam.
Bergstrom: What about you?
Dedee: I had big boobs. That's why you liked me.
Bergstrom: Hey, this is going to air, maybe.
Dedee: Well, they'll deduct it. I don't know.
Bergstrom: Gee whiz.
Julia: When they got married, RJ was the sole breadwinner.
Dedee: Well,I always wanted to be a cartoonist, but then I got married, got pregnant and had a child. I was just a stay-at-home mom. That's what I was. Then the strike came and that was a tough thing for the family.
Julia: RJ knew it was tough for his family. At the peak of the strike, there were fights on the picket line. Police used tear gas. The National Guard even got called in to control the chaos, but he had this conviction that if the strikers just held out, his family would be better off.
Bergstrom: I had a picture of my family on my chest and I walked-- National Guard were standing almost at attention, just looking straight ahead in line. I said, "This is what we're fighting for, our families, and just trying to give them all we can." You were there for your family.
Julia: When we asked Dedee about what the strike was like for her,-
Dedee: I was worried. I was scared.
Julia: -she paints a very different picture than the one strike leaders, Jim and Linn talk about.
Dedee: I was a young mom with three kids. I don't know. It was just scary.
Julia: Could you understand what he was fighting for at this time?
Dedee: I don't know. I think I was mad at him most of the time. Emotionally, he would come home and he'd be upset. I called it 'kick the cat' syndrome. He'd yell at me. I'd yell at the kids, and the kids would go out and kick the cat. There was a lot of tension all the time. I went to my mom and dad's a lot. I think the main thing was going to rallies. I didn't want to do that.
He would complain, "You're not like, so-and-so's wife. They're down there. They're stuffing envelopes. They're doing this." It was a real rocky time because you wanted to keep it as normal as you can. I hated going in the line and getting the free food. Sometimes it was outdated or whatever.
Bergstrom: We didn't like going to Salvation Army and getting that block of cheese and then the box of powdered milk.
Julia: RJ told us that he thought what he was fighting for was family.
Dedee: Oh yes. He was fighting for the family. Well, I was protecting the family.
Julia: As the months went by, the reality of the situation became bleak.
Bergstrom: Then after you're out a while and you're only getting $40 a week for strike pay, that don't go very far. You got behind on house payments, and the sheriff would come out and give you a notice or whatever. The banks weren't really too fond of the strikers.
Julia: Did you guys have discussions about him crossing the picket line? Did you want him to?
Dedee: I knew he wouldn't. Inside, yes I did, but I couldn't express it because I knew he wouldn't go back.
Julia: You mean cross the picket line?
Julia: Did you ever think about crossing?
Bergstrom: No. No, I never was going to cross.
Dedee: No, I knew he wouldn't go. He's kind of a stubborn guy once in a while.
Julia: RJ never did cross the picket line and go back to work, but as months wore on, the pressure to cross was growing for families. Management wasn't budging and some of the families started to wonder if it was all worth it. Could they last? RJ's brother, Ron, had worked with him at Hormel and been part of the strike, but 10 months in, his brother broke. He crossed the picket line.
Reporter 9: Brother was pitted against brother. RJ is very bitter about his brother who crossed the picket line.
Ron: My mom called me the other day and said, "Why don't you go in and get your job back?" I said, "Well, one stab in the family's enough."
Julia: No one from the two families, the brothers, their wives, and the cousins, no one saw each other for years. RJ and his brother's parents had to hold separate Christmases for their grandkids.
Dedee: It was just a sad time. That's all I can remember. I think I probably cried a lot. That's probably why I don't cry now because I cried so much back then and I don't cry now. All my tears are gone.
Rayce: There was nothing rosy in my dad's eyes about it at all. There was nothing rosy.
Julia: Rayce Hardy again.
Rayce: This was Dick Nolton's house. He was the president--
Julia: He's the one who gave us a tour of Austin. Rayce came home from college to watch as the strike wore into the winter.
Rayce: I got to go with my dad and just be front row and watch it.
Julia: What did it look like?
Rayce: It was ugly. It was painful. People were hurt. People were just-- first of all, they were angry, but then it started being-- They got desperate. That's what happened. It went from anger to desperation. To me, that's not fun to watch
Julia: The tight-knit town of Austin where the lines between worker and management were blurred and their families lived side by side, that dynamic changed. Around Christmas time, Rayce ran into Mrs. Nolton, the wife of Hormel's CEO who used to drive him to school as a kid.
Rayce: I said, "Oh, it's Mrs. Nolton."
Julia: Rayce approached Mrs. Nolton to say hello.
Rayce: She turned and those two guys just pounced on me for attacking Mrs. Norton. She said, "Oh, Rayce, Rayce. No, no, no," and gave me a hug. I said, "I didn't attack her. Didn't you see her hug me?" It's just like, "Holy buckets." Mrs. Norton had to have two bodyguards to go grocery shopping. Come on. You go to be kidding me, but she had to. Constant death threats.
Julia: We tried to reach out to Mrs. Norton and the families of corporate leaders to hear their memory of the strike but we didn't receive any replies. Many of them have since moved away from Austin. As the winter of 1986 wore on, tensions just grew higher and higher but Rayce's dad kept going out on the picket line.
Rayce: He wasn't going to cross that picket line. He cared about workers. That's why he stood out there when it was 35 below windchill, with a sign that said, "On strike." He did that for months. He had hope. Maybe it will work out, because Dick Norton, all of the executives, that too, at that time, grew up in Austin. All started in the factory and work their way all the way up through and they're finally going to say, "You know what? Let's compromise here and we'll give too. We won't just take." That was the hope, but then the writing on the wall started getting-- It was blurry at first, but it became very distinct that this is not going to end well.
Julia: By this point, Rayce's dad had spent one year working odd jobs, trying to support his four kids. One of them was sick.
Rayce: My little sister has epilepsy.
Julia: It all got to be too much. Then one night, that summer of 1986, Rayce's dad got a call from a friend in corporate.
Rayce: He called my dad late at night, the last possible day to get a job, and said to my dad, "I have a job for you, but if you don't go tomorrow morning, you're done." When that happened he told my mom, "I'm going in." He went in.
Linn: There was a number of people I told to cross that picket line.
Julia: Linn, the vice president of the Union eventually encouraged people to cross.
Linn: A couple of them, their wives were diagnosed with cancer and they had no medical. They came into my office and say, "Geez, I don't know what to do." I said, "I'll tell you exactly what to do. You get up early tomorrow morning and you go ahead and go into work." That's the best thing you can do for your family. I don't hold that against anybody.
Julia: We asked the union president Jim Guyette about this.
Jim: During the strike, people that I thought were tough were very tough.
Julia: Was there a part of you that could empathize the people that were saying, "I'm behind on my home payments?"
Jim: No. No. No, not at all. You either stand for something or you don't. Everything else is an excuse. The only thing that will beat the union is if the union beats itself. The only thing that will beat the union. No, I don't buy their argument whatsoever, no. A lot of people made sacrifices.
Julia: What sacrifices did you feel you had to make?
Jim: Well, I think it was hard on my children.
Julia: Jim says he would be in union meetings and then run home to put his kids to bed and then go right back to the Labor Center. All this war on his marriage. After the strike, he and his wife ended up getting divorced.
Jim: I was excommunicated from the Lutheran Church for doing the devil's work on the strike, according to them. My ex-father-in-law and my ex-brother-in-law were leading the charge on that.
Julia: Would you say that the strike ending and all that, is that what ended the marriage for you guys?
Jim: I think so. I think she had a hard time figuring out what her family was. Was it the one she came from or the one she has now?
Julia: The beginning of the end came when the big dogs at the International Union, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union came in and took over the local union. Jim and Linn were pushed out.
Jim: the International Union program was, "You got to take these concessions. This is the way of the world. You got to do it. There's just nothing else we can do."
Julia: The new union leaders made a deal with the company. They accepted the lower wages and benefits that the company offered.
Jim: We would have gotten what we wanted had it not been for the International Union.
Julia: The International Union ended the strike on September 13th, 1986. Of the 1,500 workers on strike, around 500 of them went back to work in the end. No matter which side you are on, the strike stayed with people. There are people who still don't talk to each other. RJ who didn't cross and his brother who did are speaking to each other again. His brother, though, didn't reply to our requests for an interview. Linn Houston is still in Austin. He left me packing altogether, and he now drives dump trucks around Minnesota. Jim Guyette, the leader of the union, ended up leaving Austin, Minnesota entirely. He couldn't stand being there after the strike ended. He lives in upstate New York now. What do you do now?
Jim: I'm in insurance. I do health insurance for seniors. I explain Medicare to them and how it works.
Julia: Rayce's dad who did cross, was shunned for years by people in town because of his decision.
Rayce: He's 90 years old, and he knew he was going to die. He had stage four cancer, so he knew the end was really close.
Julia: Even on his deathbed, Rayce's Dad was still talking about the strike.
Rayce: He said, "God, sometimes I just wonder, what if I wouldn't have gone back. What would have happened? What have I done? What would have your mom and I done?" He was still thinking about it.
Julia: Why do you think that it weighed on him?
Rayce: Well, they said in his head, it was a small bit, but in his head was, he thought that, "Yes, I am being a traitor to all these workers."
Jim: We all said we were all going to go back or none of us were going to go back. You had people who went back to work and they left their brothers and sisters hang out to dry. I guess they were more comfortable being in bed with the company than they were with their union brothers and sisters.
Julia: For Jim Guyette, the union bonds were thick as blood. Do you think in your philosophy, should work aspire to feel like a family? Should that be the goal that they treat you like a family would?
Jim: Sure, it should. Sure, it should. It should absolutely be the goal.
Rayce: Work isn't family. Work is for family. That's what these workers it was about, and that's why there was such a disconnect. Who chooses this snatch guts to pass time? You got to be kidding me. Seriously, whose hobby? Have you ever heard of a hobby, "Well, what do you do for a hobby?" "I snatch guts." That's absurd. To me, that's an absurd statement. Work is not about family. Work is for. If you're going to work in a packing house, you're working for your family.
Julia: Another thing that Jim told us and that what they were fighting for, is the dignity of the worker. Everything you're saying-
Rayce: No doubt. No doubt he was fighting for the dignity of the worker. Wholeheartedly, that's what he was fighting for. I believe he believed it in every ounce, but when profit is number one the dignity of the workers is out the window. If nobody went back to work, workers wouldn't be paid more today. They wouldn't. It didn't matter. Really, that's the weird thing about this, is that the strike didn't matter. The worker lost in the '80s. They lost.
Julia: Isn't that an argument to have more Jim's of the world saying, "Employers should have the obligation"?
Rayce: Yes, but in the meantime, I've got a bill to pay. I think Jim's fighting made a difference. He wasn't going to win but he didn't lose his bat.
Union President: They had pool tables. They got the bowling machine.
Julia: That’s an old bowling ball.
Union President: It’s wooden. Then the--
Julia: We wondered what was left of the Austin Labor Center, where strikers and their spouses and kids would hang out, play games, and hold rallies and dances in the '80s.
Union President: This was the main hall where they held all the rank-and-file meetings and stuff.
Julia: We got a tour from one of the former union presidents.
Union President: This is the room. This is where it all happened.
Julia: It gives me chills. It looks like a time capsule.
Union President: I’ve taken time to make sure that nothing’s changed. I couldn’t see it go to waste. I just could not allow it to go to waste. I think you’re going to see the pendulum swing back to the labor side. It’s about a 30-year swing back and forth, and people are already sick and tired of being sick and tired.
Julia: There was one thing in the Austin Labor Center that seemed new. It says, "A Voice for Working America, UFCW." Then, "Una Voz Para Los Trabajadores." I bet that wasn’t there in the '80s.
Union President: No, none of that was there but that one burner was across--
Julia: After the strike failed, many of the white, middle-class strikers whose families had worked at Hormel for generations left Austin, Minnesota, altogether. The meatpacking plant stayed open and a new workforce came to town.
Julia: That’s next week on The Experiment.
Natalia Ramirez: This episode of The Experiment was produced by Gabrielle Berbey and Julia Longoria. Editing by Kelly Prime, Emily Botein, and Katherine Wells, with help from Jenny Lawton and Scott Stossel. Special thanks to Peter Rachleff and Philip Dawkins. Fact-check by Michelle Ciarrocca. Sound design by David Herman and engineering by Joe Plourde. Music by Tasty Morsels and Alexander Overington.
Our team also includes Peter Bresnan, Tracie Hunte, Salman Ahad Khan, and me, Natalia Ramirez. If you enjoyed today’s episode, please take the time to rate and review us on Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen. Next week, make sure to listen to the final installment of our three-part series, “SPAM: How the American Dream Got Canned.” The Experiment is a co-production of The Atlantic and WNYC Studios. Thank you for listening.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.