An article by Larry D. Engelmann about the 1933 Hormel strike, organized by the IWW-influenced Independent Union of All Workers (IUAW).
Jay Catherwood Hormel boasted brazenly in early 1933 that his unchallenged and unchecked power over the policies and personnel of George A. Hormel & Company packinghouse in Austin, Minnesota, was a “benevolent dictatorship.” Laborers for the Hormel Company conceded that Hormel’s rule was dictatorial, but they disagreed with his use of the adjective “benevolent.” More often the term “sheer tyranny” was used often by workers to describe their take on Hormel’s labor policies within the giant meatpacking plant.
Yet in the opinion of many outspoken local business leaders Hormel’s “benevolent dictatorship” was both economically wise and just. Meat packing – the slaughter and processing of cattle, hogs and sheep – was the industry of Austin. And the town's businessmen agreed with Jay Hormel that what was good for Hormel was good for Austin. And so when things were going relatively well for the town and the company, the benevolent dictator of the company best not be provoked or challenged.
The Hormel company employed 2700 of the town’s 17,000 residents in 1933 and four years later Fortune magazine observed that should Austin ever lose the Hormel payroll “the town would wither away to a few roadside stands and retails stores for farmers.” The very thought of Hormel moving even a part of his family enterprise from Austin haunted local businessmen. As a consequence, the town’s business establishment and civic leaders provided uniform and enthusiastic approval for Jay Hormel’s theories and policies on labor relations. If Hormel wanted to be a benevolent dictator within his own plant, they agreed, that was his right. And if some worker didn’t like it, he had the right to leave town.
Many of Hormel’s thoughts concerning company management came directly from his father, George Albert Hormel, who founded the meat packing enterprise in Austin in 1891. George Hormel served as president of the company during the next thirty-eight years and directed its expansion from a local meat market partnership into a corporate enterprise serving a world market. During that period Hormel’s good business sense enabled him to weather the depression of the 1890s, survive the competitive onslaught by the Big Six meat packers intended to drive the small independents in the Midwest out of existence, and reorganize financially following massive embezzlement by one of his own trusted officers. Even during his own lifetime, Hormel’s reputation as an extraordinary businessman assumed legendary proportions in Austin. As early as 1896 a local newspaper attributed the company’s “phenomenal growth” entirely to “the well-directed efforts of Mr. Hormel, whose energy, enterprise, and ability as a thoroughgoing businessman is well known.” People talked of Hormel’s passion for efficiency and quality and of his eagerness to work in the plant beside his employees. For many years, Hormel insisted on doing the most important butchering operations himself. In fact, not until after the 100,000th hog had been slaughtered in the plant, in 1901, did he trust anyone else with the difficult task of splitting carcasses.
George Hormel attributed his success to his personal surveillance over every phase of the slaughtering process and to his intimate knowledge of every aspect of marketing his products. His passion for perfection inclined him towards the use of instructional meaty maxims for his employees whenever he observed them wasting time or materials. On one memorable occasion, Hormel was upset at finding a piece of meat on the floor of the plant. He gathered together several workers from the immediate vicinity of the transgression and tore up the facsimile of a dollar bill. He then explained how the act of destroying money symbolized what workers did when they dropped meat on the floor. Hormel said he never “flew off the handle at an honest mistake in judgment. But a scrap of meat on the floor was something else again.”
Major labor relations difficulties were not among George Hormel’s management problems. A principal reason for this was Hormel’s friendship and openness with many of his workers who in turn did not hesitate to discuss their grievances and problems personally with him. He shared the humble origins of many of his workers. He himself had been forced to quit school at the age of eight in 1873 in order to work as a delivery boy and then as a construction worker to help support his father’s large family in Toledo, Ohio. At the age of twelve George Hormel began working in a Chicago packinghouse. He knew what it was like to be poor, to be a working man, to wade ankle deep in warm hog’s blood twelve or fourteen or sixteen hours a day and to stand endless hours in the refrigerated storage rooms of the plant only to face the withering humid heat of the Midwestern summer at the end of each working day. He was able to use his own experiences in convincing workingmen of his sincerity and concern for their welfare.
Hormel not only came into close contact with his employees in the plant but also with their families and relatives in the community outside the facility. He married a local girl, Lillian Belle Gleason, and bought a house near Austin’s central business district. He brought three of his brothers to Austin to work in the plant and a fourth became the minister of Austin’s large Presbyterian Church. Lillian Gleason Hormel became the church organist. With so many sources of information readily available to him, as long as the packinghouse remained a relatively small enterprise Hormel was able to deal with employee grievances on a personal level without resort to mediators or bargaining agents or a Human Relations expertise. For many years he was truly the “benevolent dictator” of the company, but he never used those words to describe his position.
Despite his efforts to maintain personal supervision and control over all aspects of his business, as the company expanded it became increasingly apparent that George Hormel was losing the intimate contacts he valued with his employees. Two incidents marked changes from the early days in the plant. The first sign that all was not well between Hormel and his workers came in 1915. Disgruntled workers in the plant that year attempted to go beyond personal conferences with the owner and to establish a collective bargaining agreement with him. This initial effort at organization in the plant came from the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen of North America. The local branch of the union was organized in 1915 and languished for more than six years without a formal collective bargaining agreement with the company. Sources of information on the local activities of this union are nearly nonexistent, but it appears that when the Amalgamated union called for a nationwide strike in 1921 for the maintenance of high war-time wages, the local in Austin was extended permission by officers of the International headquarters to continue working while the rest of the industry was picketed. This unusual concession was doubtless influenced by both the precarious existence of the local union in Austin and by the uncertain financial structure of the Hormel Company at a time when a strike might easily have destroyed Austin’s only significant industry. Consistent with his former liberal labor relations policy, nevertheless, Hormel agreed that any raise made by the Big Six packers would also go into effect in Austin. After the strike collapsed in early 1922, enthusiasm for the local in Austin rapidly declined. The Austin local disappeared in mid-1922. The lesson learned from the experience, it seems, was that under Hormel’s management, workers could receive the benefits of unionization without any of its obligations.
Another indication that control of the company was slipping from the grasp of Hormel came in 1922 when it was discovered that one of his most trusted officers, Ransome J. (“Cy”) Thomson, had embezzled nearly $1,187,000 from the company over the previous six years. Thomason went to prison for his crime and Hormel went to a special meeting of the company creditors in Chicago to bargain for a special credit extension. Hormel succeeded in securing a $1 million loan from the First National Bank of Chicago. Upon his return to Austin with the desired financial agreements, Hormel “cleaned house” by firing most of his top executives. These men were replaced with younger and more competent executives while a significant portion of the company’s control was delegated to Jay C. Hormel. In November, 1922, Hormel floated $1.2 million in bonds through an investment house in Minneapolis and used the money raised to pay off his company’s existing debt to the Chicago bank. Rapid expansion of the Hormel enterprise continued under this new leadership and in 1924 the company graduated into the category of slaughtering one-million hogs a year.
In 1929 George Hormel stepped down from the presidency of his company and was replaced by his son Jay. George assumed the newly created position of chairman of the board and retired to the more comfortable climate of Beverly Hills, California.
Jay Catherwood Hormel, the only child of George and Lillian Hormel, was born in 1892. He grew up experiencing all of the expectations, pressures and pleasures of being the heir apparent of a successful, powerful and prosperous family enterprise. In his later years Jay confessed that he had always been somewhat awed by his father’s achievements and by the duties he was expected to assume when his father stepped down as president of the company. Unfortunately, despite the nearly unanimous acknowledgement that he would someday lead the family enterprise, Jay was given little training for looming responsibility. At an early age he was sent away to a Shattuck School for Boys, a private military academy in nearby Faribault, Minnesota, rather than to the local public schools where he might have gotten to know the children and families of workers in the Hormel company. After graduating from the military academy, Jay attended Princeton University for three years and “had a very good time” as a student. While his father hoped Jay might study law and someday become an attorney, Jay had distinctly different interests and became manager of the university’s laundry service. Disturbed by his son’s lack of serious academic effort at Princeton, George Hormel concluded that tuition was a poor investment in his son and Jay was brought him to Austin and the packinghouse. [Sometime before his return to Austin from Princeton, Jay decided he would rather be a musician than a meatpacker. He told his father of his desire to become an orchestra leader, but the elder Hormel forced his son to give up any hope for a career as a professional musician. Eventually Hormel did preside over a small orchestra consisting of himself, his wife and his three sons. Jay was musically talented and was known locally as a virtual one-man band. His eldest son, “Geordie,” left the family business to pursue a moderately successful career as a jazz pianist. Geordie also became known throughout the country for his brief marriage (1951-1954) to actress, dancer and singer Leslie Caron, 1951-1954. Jay’s most successful professional musical enterprise was his organization of an all-girl song and dance group called ‘The Hormel Chili-Beaners,” which barnstormed the Midwest performing and advertising Hormel Chile Con Carne in the mid-1930s] He began working in the plant where his father expected him to learn first-hand every operation of the meat-packing business from the bottom up. Jay worked in the plant for two years. The First World War provided a temporary respite for Jay away from Austin and the family business. He served as an officer with the American Expeditionary Force and was made supervisor for an ice plant unit at a supply base in Gievres,France. There he met and courted Germaine Dubois of La Vernelle, an auburn-haired daughter of a miller. Jay returned to Austin at the war’s end in 1918 but continued his contact long-distance with Germaine. He was clearly smitten by the girl. Shortly after the reorganization of the company in 1922 he returned to France and married Germaine. When the couple returned to Austin, Jay isolated his family from the local community by building the first of seven installments of a rambling white-brick red-roofed French chateau on 177 wooded acres outside the town [George A. Hormel had lived with his wife Lillian Gleason Hormel and their son Jay in a large house a few blocks from Austin’s Main Street in the heart of the community. Upon moving to California in 1927, Hormel donated his home to the local YWCA.] The new Jay Hormel home was surrounded by a dense forest and all entrances into the estate grounds were guarded by a private security force.
Despite all of the hard work and the well-laid plans of his father to place the Hormel plant on a permanently sound financial and productive foundation and to keep peace with his work force, Jay had not been president of the company for a full year before a series of crises began that resulted in revolutionary alterations of the company’s relationship with its employees. Little did Jay suspect upon inheriting the presidency of the company in 1929 that within four years his little benevolent dictatorship would come crashing down in a sudden and frightening manner.
Jay’s initial problems with plant management stemmed from the collapse of the national economy starting in late 1929, the subsequent decade-long Great Depression and the subsequent militant organization of the company’s employees who decided to throw off the autocratic rule of the Hormel family and its appointed functionaries and to assume some degree of responsibility for making policy in the plant. These two events, depression and unionization, were closely linked, but most likely had economic difficulties not hurt the company after 1929, it is quite certain that some serious internal readjustments would have shaken the Hormel Company before the end of 1933. With or without hard times, several unwise company decisions were almost guaranteed to provoke the ire of Hormel workers.
In the months following the stock market crash in October 1929, and with the decline in consumer demand, manufacturers throughout the country started to cut back production and lay off workers, initiating what appeared to many as a grim spiral of declining prices, declining wages and rising unemployment. In Austin Jay Hormel sought to alleviate growing anxiety and concern of his employees by struggling to keep as many workers on the company payroll as possible, despite the rapidly shrinking market for Hormel products. Hormel’s initial “spread the work” was tagged by some workers as a “spread the misery” policy as it resulted in a major reduction in the number of hours worked by each employee. Laborers in the plant fortunate enough to maintain their jobs even on a part-time basis were “requested” to tax themselves on a sliding scale and contribute to a fund for the purchase of coal and groceries for the needy and the unemployed in Austin. But dissatisfaction with the semi-voluntary system increased as more and more Hormel works, many with only the semblance of a job in the plant, joined the ranks of the working-needy because of drastically reduced hours and paychecks.
The depression crisis in Austin was aggravated by a major company marketing error for which many employees of Hormel suffered. In 1929 Hormel experimented with a new product – canned chicken. At first the demand for the new product was surprisingly responsive, but after only a few months the market dried up. Hormel was forced to lay off the men he had hired for the new division. Many of those laid off were embittered because only a few weeks earlier they had given up lesser-paying but ore-secure positions in Austin and the neighboring communities to accept the $20 per week that Hormel offered in his new department.
Partly as a result of the anger engendered by the layoffs and partly because of his concern with losing men permanently during prolonged seasonal layoffs, Hormel sought a solution to the problems of rapid labor turnover and the associated necessity and expense of constantly training new workers. In a plan designed to ease the shock on both labor and management from seasonal ups and downs in employment, Hormel decided, without conferring with any representatives of his workers, to place a portion of his company’s emp0loyees n a “straight time” basis. His plan was designed to elevate some of his workers to a pay status similar to that of foremen. Their weekly wage was set and did not depend on the actual number of hours worked. Previously, all Hormel workers were paid by the hour and were laid off when business was slack. But workers complained regularly of the prospect of going for weeks with small paychecks or none at all and Austin’s merchants worried over the necessity of arranging credit for seasonally unemployed Hormel workers. The company could profit from the new arrangement, Hormel assumed, by keeping a larger portion of its workers permanently on the job.
Hormel proposed his new straight-time scheme in 1931 and planned to adopt it in selected departments for one year of work based on the average output of product for that department over the previous ten year period and the number of man hours necessary to produce it. The contracted laborers were in turn to receive fifty-two paychecks of equal size each year without regard to the number of work hours available for them in any given week. The plan was first incorporated in the smokehouse where the seasonal variation of employment was greatest. Two more departments were brought under the plan in 1932 and still another in 1933.
Despite the good intentions he clearly had for his workers and his company, Hormel did not deem it necessary to put any effort into selling the new arrangement to his employees. It was imposed with a minimum among of explanation to the men and women working in the plant. As a result, the initial adoption of the plan in the smokehouse aroused both the distrust and the jealousy of other workers for those selected for this first stage of the reorganization. To make matters even worse, wages in general in the meatpacking industry were in rapid retreat in 1930, 1931, 1932 and 1933. Although the Hormel Company was among the last of the meatpackers to adopt across-the-board wage reductions, it finally fell into line in 1931. In that same year the company suffered its first annual net loss since incorporation in 1901. Yet Hormel still prided himself with the fact that his company had never accepted the lowest industry-wide wage rates during the lingering depression. In fact, while Hormel was experimenting with his own straight-time program, numerous other businesses abandoned similar schemes because of its unexpected and unbearable expense.
Hormel’s overwhelming concern, despite his sunny statements to local business organizations, was with the company rather than with the community. He had assumed over the years that what was good for his company was good also for the community and he had successfully convinced the Austin business community of the truth of that assumption. In addition to uncritical local businessmen, Hormel successfully surrounded himself with a corps of unusually insensitive and often narrow-thinking foremen and straw bosses who seemed to take particular delight in attempting periodically to damage the self respect and sense of security of company laborers. The plant managerial staff, not unlike some packinghouse Pinkerton organization, was given broad powers in hiring and firing workers as well as determining the conditions of work in each department of the plant. The policies of many foremen and straw bosses undermined the encouraging words and benevolent intentions of Jay Hormel for his workers. Unlike his father, Jay simply ignored reports of intolerable practices by middle and lower-echelon plant managers, apparently assuming that those in command in each department could best assess what measures were required to exact efficient and competent labor efforts from other employees.
Foremen “traded” workers back and forth between departments – one of them laying off a worker and the other hiring him back at a lower wage. Temporary absences due to personal and family obligations were approved or denied by the foremen. Throughout the plant there were grumblings about denials of requests for a day off to attend the birth of a child or a funeral of a friend or family member or to care for an ill spouse or child. Foremen temporarily shut down entire departments in order to instruct workers on how to vote in local and national elections and threatened them with layoffs whenever Democratic or Farmer-Labor candidates emerged victorious from an election. “The boss was king of his castle,” one worker remembered of 1933, “and your continued employment depended upon his good graces and ulcers. Seniority was unknown, job advancements depended upon doing favors for the boss. Wage raises were only granted to the boss’s friends and, of course, those with the proper attitude. Overtime payments didn’t exist…grievances were unknown. If you had a complaint, it was met with an answer, ‘If you don’t like it you can quit. There are fifty other guys across the tracks waiting to take your job for less than you are being paid.’” Another worker remembered, “Supervisors and foremen bossed you around. One day it was very hot. The foreman said, pointing at various people, ‘You have a new cap tomorrow…and you have your mustache cut off.’ The foreman pointed at an old fellow who had a torch in his hand and was sweating all over. Next day he had his mustache cut off, you bet. You were a dime a dozen. There were hundreds of people outside the plant waiting for work. When you didn’t like something, you were told, ‘Get out of here!’”
“I felt like a dog,” another worker said. “I could be transferred or fired. The boss could fire you if he did not like the way you parted your hair or if he didn’t like that you had no hair!”
Jay Hormel’s spread –the- work scheme produced its share of dissatisfaction also. Wages in the plant in 1933 started at 25 cents an hour, but weekly hours ranged from six to ninety. Scores of children were employed in many departments of the plant at 25 cents an hour – some of them the sole support of an entire family.
In the spring of 1933 the numerous grievances of the workers produced persistent angry whispers and open rumblings of discontent throughout the plant. Among the workers there was more and more talk of the need for a union to bargain collectively with the plant management. But few workers knew how to get a union started. One man with union experience, however, eventually emerged from several secret discussion groups as a leader in the movement to organize. Frank Ellis was a company foreman in the casing room in the autumn of 1933. A short (5 feet 4 inches) dark-haired, ruddy-complexioned part-Cherokee Indian, Ellis, 45, had been raised in St. Joseph, Missouri, and had worked in packinghouses since he was eight years old. Ellis’s father had died as a result of an accident in the Swift Packing Plant in Oklahoma City and when the family received no compensation for the incident, Frank and his brothers were forced to go to work. Ellis participated in the 1904 nationwide packinghouse strike and ten years later participated in the organization of the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen, an American Federation of Labor affiliate in Oklahoma City. But Ellis was too radical and too dissatisfied with the status of packinghouse workers to be pleased with the limited successes of the AFL unions, which consisted only of skilled workers. He became a member and organizer of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), an organization that recruited both skilled and unskilled laborers, and he was instrumental in establishing a “Wobbly” branch in Omaha, Nebraska. Ellis rose rapidly through the ranks of the IWW as he traveled throughout the country organizing local branches of the organization and listening to the grievances of working men and women. He attended a national IWW General Council in Chicago as an Omaha delegate. Talented, charismatic, conscientious and very radical, Ellis represented an unnerving threat to the apostles of unfettered capitalism and the open shop as well as to benevolent industrial dictators and their many defenders.
Anti-union forces seldom hesitated to use violence against Ellis and men like him. During the First World War Ellis was accused of disloyalty by the state government and was jailed in Nebraska under a criminal syndicalism statute. He recalled later that he had been thrown into almost every jail from Texas to Minnesota for organizing for the IWW. He had been run out of towns by vigilantes, sheriff’s deputies and company thugs. In northern Minnesota he was beaten and left for dead by vigilantes. Yet Ellis remained an unreconstructed and unapologetic radical. He survived the beatings and jailing and ignored the persistent threats and continued the struggle to organize common working people.
In 1928 Ellis took a job with the Wilson Packing Company in Albert Lea, Minnesota, 20 miles west of Austin. He quit that job because he felt he was not being paid enough and he came to Austin and was hired by the Hormel Company. Because of his experience in the meatpacking industry and because company officials failed to check his background carefully he was hired to ferment casings in the plant casing room. In a short time he was made foreman of the casing room. In December 1932 the company wanted to make Ellis a supervisor but the promotion did not receive approval because of the outspoken animosity for Ellis by another Hormel supervisor.
In the fall of 1933, Ellis was the right man in the right place and at the right time in Austin. As foreman of the casing room he was able to hire and fire workers. For several months Ellis had been hiring former union members from the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and the IWW from throughout the Midwest. These men worked with him in the casing room first and when they were ready he sent them to other foremen with a good reference. In that way he was able to place potential organizers throughout the plant between 1929 and 1933.
As the depression deepened in 1933, workers naturally became more concerned about their jobs and also more sensitive towards mistreatment by plant foremen. Ellis began pulling workers aside in the plant and questioned them about their grievances and about their attitudes toward organization. Some of the men regularly stepped outside the plant onto the spiral staircases of the smokehouse for a noon cigarette. Ellis began going out for a smoke too and discussed unionization with the group. Ellis gained more and more attention from the men as they sensed the tone of authority in his voice and they listened with interest as he related for them his own experiences in union organization. Larger and larger groups of men came to listen to Ellis during the secret noon hour meetings and he began to suggest to them that there was a solution for their common grievances. Organization! He said he was personally willing to take a chance to organize a union if they would work with him. He needed their help and the men needed to work together, he told them. Ellis found the strongest sentiment for organization in the Hog Kill and he began meeting regularly with workers form that department in the tank house during the noon hour to discuss the formation of a union. The official history of the Austin union (Frank W. Schultz, “Historical Sketches of the Packinghouse Union in Austin, Minnesota, 1933-1939,” unpublished MS in the possession of the United Packinghouse Workers of America, Local 9, Austin, Minnesota) states that the union was born in the hog kill as a result of those meetings.
Despite the meetings, nobody seemed ready to take the first important step towards organization then suddenly Jay Hormel himself inadvertently provided the spark that started a real union fire. The specific incident that transformed the informal discussion groups into a union organization was Hormel’s proposal of a new insurance program. Hormel’s fanciful image of himself as a benevolent dictator asserted itself once again in his conception of a plan that was supposed to help the workers. This new scheme was to cost each worker only $.20 a week, yet that small amount became the stumbling block leading to the sudden dramatic decline of Hormel’s power within the company. Workers who learned of the plan were upset by the additional reduction in their take-home pay accompanied by the fact that once more they were being they were being presented with a plan about which they had nothing to say. But according to company management, passions were inflamed primarily by misunderstandings of the nature of the plan due to the policies of some commercial insurance companies who warned of the dangerous competitive precedent in the Hormel sponsored program oh foreman were instructed to “sell” the old age retirement plan to the employees when they took up collections for the local community chest. Given the friction and outright animosity that existed between many of the foremen and straw bosses and the workers, it is safe to assume that neither the retirement plan nor the community chest contributions were presented as options to each worker. To keep his job, a worker did what his foreman told him to do. One worker remembered, “One day the company collected for the community chest for the poor people and they set up an insurance plan at the same time. A fellow could not live on what we got, and they wanted to take more money out of our paycheck. We were the poor people. My gosh, that is human nature if a fellow can take so much and no more…. My gosh, there comes a time when something snaps in him.”
On Thursday, July 13, 1933, something snapped on the floor of the hog kill. Three men working in the department were told by their supervisor to sign up for the deduction for the company insurance plan. One of the men signed but a large group of protesting workers gathered around the supervisor and the killing floor was shut down. The supervisor was told to give the signer back his pledge card and to let him tear it up. Some workers threatened to shut down the department again if the supervisor tried to make anyone else sign up for the plan. This dramatic demonstration had been planned in advance and several of the protestors in the hog kill agreed to stick together in their opposition to the plan even though they had no union yet. Confused and angered by the display of unity among the workers, the supervisor gave the signer back his card and the killing floor, which had been shut down for ten minutes, resumed operations.
Word of the Hog Kill incident spread like a flash fire throughout the plant. The call immediately went out for a meeting of all Hormel workers that evening in Sutton Park. No sooner had the Hog Kill completed its shift in the afternoon than a group of about twenty five men met in another nearby park to discuss the agenda for the evening meeting in Sutton Park. All of the men and women present signed a pledge written on a tab le stating that they would “stick together” in their demands.
The response of the Hormel workers to the call for the Thursday night meeting was overwhelmingly enthusiastic. Sutton Park was jammed that night with workers milling around exchanging complaints about the company and about Hormel the man and demanding action but at the same time uncertain as to just what action might be possible. Also not unnoticed by many of those at the meeting were the foremen and supervisors hiding behind nearby trees and writing down the names of the leaders and the speakers present at the meeting.
After a brief initial discussion, a group of men left the meeting to locate Frank Ellis and bring him to the park. Ellis had not been at work during the day and had not yet heard of the spontaneous actions of the workers and the call for the Sutton Park gathering. Ellis was found at his home and asked to come to the meeting and was driven to the park by one of the workers. Ellis immediately took control of the meeting. He stood on a park bench and detailed for the men and women the numerous grievances against the Hormel Company. Then he said that what was needed was not simply a union of the workers in the Hormel Company but a union of all of the workers in Austin. Organize the entire town, he shouted. Organize all of the producing classes. After that, bargain with Hormel. Following Ellis’s speech several other men addressed the assembly from a park bench. Before the meeting adjourned due to darkness, six hundred workers had signed up for the union and paid an initiation fee of one dollar.
There were no firings or discharges in the plant on Friday morning, but Jay Hormel called some of the speakers from the organization rally into his office, including Ellis, and asked why they were not satisfied with the way they were being treated by the company. Hormel had not been caught unaware by the union movement but he was surprised that his employee welfare measure were not considered more favorably by the workers, since he believed that the company had done a great deal already to assist workers in the difficult economic times. Finally, he conceded that he was pleased with the unionization movement in the company and said he would give the new union a meeting hall right in the company’s offices. But Ellis was quick to reject the offer and told Hormel that the union would get its meeting hall somewhere else in Austin. On that note the meeting broke up.
On Friday July 14th, the day after the Sutton Park meeting, Ellis, Harold Harlan, Soren Cardell and Helen McDermott met with a local attorney to prepare a charter for the new union. The organization was to follow the IWW pattern of grouping all laborers together into one big union without regard to craft or individual occupation. Membership was to come from all laborers in Austin and in the surrounding rural area. A certificate of incorporation was drawn up and signed by the three men and one woman naming the organization the Independent Union of All Workers (IAUW).
On Saturday, July 15, at a second meeting in Sutton Park an additional $1000 was collected in dues and initiation fees for the union. On Wednesday July 19 the union sponsored an enthusiastic mass meeting on the lawn of the county courthouse on Main Street. After mid-July hardly a day passed without an enthusiastic union gathering and everywhere in Austin “the air seemed filled with talk of union,” one of the new union members recalled. By the end of the summer, Ellis remembered, the IUAW had organized the entire town – store clerks, cooks, waiters, waitresses and even some farmers were in the new organization. By the end of the summer Ellis had quit his job in the plant to work full time for the IUAW.
That autumn the IUAW leadership decided it was time to press their demands further with the Hormel Company. At a special meeting on Friday, September 22, union members discussed striking in order to gain a solid collective bargaining agreement with the company that would include seniority rights. The measure passed and a strike was set for 8:30AM the following morning.
After the meeting, word of the impending strike was leaked to several company officials as well as to a few of the influential businessmen in the town. At 1:00AM on September 24, union officers were summoned from their beds to meet in an emergency session with 150 businessmen and company officials to discuss ways of averting the strike scheduled for later that morning. Hormel had threatened to close down his operations and leave Austin in the face of this new union challenge and local businessmen feared that the strike might ruin them. When no decision was forthcoming concerning collective bargaining in the plant, Secretary Harlan of the union brought Hormel and Ellis together at 6:00AM in another room for a private discussion. The two men stood and conversed, Hormel with his arms around Ellis’s shoulder. At 6:30AM no agreement had been reached and Hormel ordered a lockout at his plant. When workers congregated at plant entrances early that morning a few foremen and policemen were pushed and jostled but no major violence erupted. The meeting of company and business leaders with union officials lasted until 8:45AM when at last an agreement between the IUAW and the Hormel Company was signed. The agreement recognized the IUAW and its right to bargain collectively with the Company through representatives of its own choosing “in all matters pertaining to the interests and welfare of the members of the union” and recognized and agreed to “the provisions of the law regarding the right of labor to organize and the provisions of the new federal National Recovery Act.
The company agreed to the principle of seniority and to a provision that allowed for the submission of crucial grievances to arbitration. An arbitration board was to be selected by the union from “representative businessmen” of the town, and the board was then to be delegated the task of rewording the agreement between the company and the union and issuing a final draft to both sides.
During the early morning discussion with the IUAW officials, Hormel once again voiced his support of the “idea of having this local union here in Austin where the town is dependent on the plant and the plant dependent on the town and where the union is dominated and conducted by local people rather than by paid organizers from outside…. I will not be guilty of having anyone come here to take the place of these Austin people,” he said, “and to throw brick bats at other Austin people and cause friction and trouble. I am not going to get mixed up in a fight in my own home town.”
The IUAW waited only two weeks before pressing for more extensive agreements with the company. On November 8, IUAW president O. J. Fosso, presented Hormel with five union demands that would “help achieve the goals set by the NRA in bringing wage scales up to a point where they would equal the wage scales of a normal year. The demands included:
1. An increase in the hourly rate for all workers who are members of the union of 20 cents an hour over and above the rate of November 1, 1933.
2. An increase in pay for those workers on a scale other than the hourly rates so they might receive an increase in pay equal to those on the hourly basis.
3. The abolition of the bonus system and the rate of those affected by the abolition be set by an hourly rate plus a bonus.
4. That when females replace males in the plant, the rate of compensation be the same as that paid to the male workers.
5. An agreement whereby either company or union may present each other with formal requests in writing, the receiving party acknowledging receipt of the request and arranging provisions for a conference within 24 hours of receiving it.
Fosso concluded that the increases in living costs and reductions in per capita earnings caused union members to believe that the time had come for a readjustment of widening gap between living costs and wages. No mention was made in Fosso’s letter of the growing discontent among union officials because of the company’s failure to give the union a signed copy of the September agreement or of the failure of the arbitration board to produce a new corrected and reworded final copy of the agreement.
Hormel replied to the union demands in an open letter of November 10, 1933, explaining that the company prices in the open marketplace were determined by production costs. In order to protect jobs, he explained, production costs had to be kept in line with industry-wide figures. Only if better workers produced more and better work per hour or if new machinery or a new organizational plan provided increased production and efficient could the company afford to pay higher wages. Hormel also stated that while the average weekly wage in the meatpacking industry was just over $10.00, the experimental organization department of the company was at work on the development of a more efficient means of production that would allow the company to raise the average weekly wage to $13.00 in the near future. But such organizational alterations took time, he cautioned. And so he needed time.
When the union demanded arbitration of the 20 cent wage increase, Hormel absolutely refused, citing the company-union contract under which wages were not a proper issue for arbitration.
Following Hormel’s response to their demands, union officials called a meeting for Friday evening, November 10th. According to Ellis, union officials had no intention of actually striking, but instead hoped that a strike vote might intimidate Hormel and strengthen the bargaining position of the union, thereby creating a situation similar to that existing prior to the settlement of September 23red. An overwhelming majority of the men and women present at the meeting endorsed the strategy. But no sooner had the successful strike vote been counted and announced than a handful of men, misunderstanding the intentions of the union leadership, rushed from the meeting to the plant where they called out the night crew working in the sheep killing department and told them that a strike was in progress. Other night crews were also told of the union vote for a strike and were instructed to suspend all operations.
Foremen were permitted to finish processing sheep in the following confusion, but all other work in the plant was suspended. Workers organized picket lines at every entrance to the plant. Word quickly came back to the union hall that the workers inside the plant had left their jobs and were on the picket lines. In the confused and excited moments that followed, union officials concluded that the premature action of a few workers left them no alternative other than to refute the actions of those workers and thereby question and weaken the solidarity of the union at this crucial moment, or to endorse the action of the workers in the plant and join them in striking. After a brief and heated discussion, the union leadership called for an immediate strike.
At midnight on Friday, as five hundred workers milled around the main entrance to the plant, a table was carried to the front gate to be used by Jay Hormel as a speaking platform. Hormel was helped onto the table and from that platform he addressed the strikers. In a subdued and almost conversational tone of voice – surprising, given the excitement and the jeopardy of the moment – Hormel concealed his anger and pointed out that although the union had violated its agreement his company by striking before serving official notice of the action, he would nonetheless make no attempt to break the picket lines with other workers. There would be no work in the plant until a 24-hour notice had been given to the union, he promised. But he pointed out that some work still had to be done in order to clean things up in the plant and that the office force would have to be allowed to pass through the picket lines. Beyond that, he said, “There will be no slaughtering of livestock or any shipments out of the plant until I give you notice.” He then asked some of the union members to volunteer as deputies to protect the company property. If there were no volunteers from among the workers, he cautioned, it was uncertain what kind of men might be selected for the important guard duties.
After Hormel was helped down from the table, Ellis mounted stepped up onto it and addressed the strikers. He insisted that the workers themselves were not acting in violation of the agreement with the company. In fact, he said, Jay Hormel was guilty of backing out of the agreement with the union. “We met in his office yesterday and asked for a ten cent an hour raise,” Ellis recalled. “And he said he would consider it. You went on strike without the sanction of the union, but we are behind you. The officers have suggested we deputize some of our members. We don’t take action on this before we take it before the rank and file of our organization. I want to keep the peace. Form a solid picket line around the plant. Permit supervisors to take care of the sheep. They can take them out in no time. Let the foremen go in once. Give them until tomorrow morning and then allow no foremen in.”
When Ellis had finished his speech, Hormel spoke to the strikers again. “I said I couldn’t leave the decision on the wage increase to arbitration,” he pointed out. “I did not say I would not submit to arbitration. I would have given you the raise before if I could afford it…. But if you must strike, let’s have a friendly strike.”
Following Hormel, Sheriff Ira Syck told the strikers that he would have to deputize men in order to protect the company property. Mayor Hans Marcusen then addressed the crowd and asked the strikers to refrain from the use of violence. Despite the pretensions of neutrality, Ellis and other union officials were convinced that Syck, Marcusen and other prominent city officials were far more sympathetic to Hormel than they were to the workers. If any attempt was made to break the strike, Syck and his deputies could be expected to be in the vanguard protecting the replacement workers, Ellis believed, and Marcusen and other town officials would surely add moral and legal support for Syck’s actions. When no workers volunteered to be deputized, Syck began looking elsewhere for his men.
The strikers picketed peacefully until late Saturday morning. They heard of no action by company officials during the morning to give serious consideration to their demands. At 11:00AM, word spread along the picket lines that non-union workers were still inside the plant slaughtering sheep. These rumors both alarmed and enraged many of the pickets. Most were unsure as to what action should be taken. A few insisted that force be used to stop all activity inside the plant. After several minutes of heated discussion and debate among the pickets, several dozen of the men and women moved behind a few shouting leaders, toward the plant doors. As the strikers approached the plant entrance and as the company guards nervously braced themselves to confront the impending assault, all remaining sense of order that had characterized the picketing during the morning disintegrated in a moment. Pickets were transformed into a loud and disorderly mob and the advance on the plant doors became a full fledged charge. Four hundred men and women, many of them armed with clubs, sticks and rocks, crashed through the plant entrance, shattering the glass doors and sweeping the plants guards before them. Once inside the plant, the strikes ran through every department and floor to hunt down and chase out non-union workers. One particularly brazen group crashed through the doors to a conference chamber where Jay Hormel and five company officials were meeting. Hormel and the other men were told, “We’re taking possession here. So move out!” Hormel and the other company officials were roughly handled and pushed out the office door. But then, displaying a courageous presence of mind in a heated and chaotic situation, Hormel stood his ground and faced the strikers and in careful, measured tones told them that he wanted no trouble in his company. If the strikes would leave him and his executives alone for a moment, he said, he would see to it that all of them left the plant in an orderly fashion. One of the company officers with Hormel objected and argued that the management group should resist, but Hormel prevailed upon the executives to make a prompt and dignified exit. Hormel was the last to leave, locking the door to the office behind him, then proceeding toward the plant entrance between lines of boisterous and delighted strikers.
As they spread out through the rest of the plant, the strikers found several foremen and supervisors. One foreman refused to leave and he was beaten and carried out of the plant. In the ensuing disorderly melee, several plant supervisors threw tear gas canisters into the ranks of the strikers. The strikers scattered in panic at first but then quickly and angrily reconverged on the guards and he supervisors. More tear gas was fired, on canister cracking the skull of a striker. Three men suspected of being non-union workers were beaten to the floor and dragged from the plant. Town policemen arrived at the plant to restore order and one of them was knocked down and kicked several times when he attempted to come to the assistance of a supervisor who was being beaten. Panic spread throughout the plant among non-union personnel. Most of the men working inside the plant at the time did not resist the strikers. They dropped whatever they were doing and rushed for the nearest exit or, in some cases, the nearest window. One supervisor, upon finding that all of the nearby exits from the company property were blocked by menacing pickets, commandeered an old rowboat tied up near the plant on the shore of the Cedar River. The craft proved unseaworthy and much to the delight of the strikers on the shore, sank half way across the river. The frightened supervisor managed to swim a short distance through the freezing cold river water to safety. Inside the plant the refrigeration engineer was confronted by strikers and was ordered to turn off the plant dynamos. He was given two hours to kill the fires in the plant boilers. When Sheriff Syck arrived outside the plant with a carload of deputies, maddened pickets surrounded the vehicle and prevented anyone from getting out. As Syck and his men struggled to push the doors open, several workers picked up the vehicle, passengers and all and turned it around so it faced the direction from which it had just come. With the doors held firmly shut, strikers told Syck to “get the hell out of here.” He made the wise choice to return to his office with his deputies and to consider an alternative strategy for protecting the plant.
One hour after the plant had been stormed by the workers, quiet and peace descended on the plant. A single company watchman was allowed to remain inside the building but otherwise there was no one in the facility. Ropes were stretched across all routes into the plant and squads of strikers were detailed to patrol them. The atmosphere was tense but order and control had been reestablished among the pickets. The principal difference from the previous day was of course that company officials and non-union employees were on the outside of the plant looking in.
When newspaper reporters approached Hormel for a statement regarding his ejection from the plant, he told them only that “we had intended to make a statement to our employees, but in view of this happening, I do not feel that we have any employees to whom I could address a communication.” Confident and resolute strikers, buoyed up by their conquest of the plant facility, told inquiring reporters that they would “fight it out along this line if it takes all winter.”
Following the seizure of the plant, union president Fosso remained in his office at the union hall issuing commands and conferring with his lieutenants, Charles Oots and Frank Ellis. Oots, a former US Army captain, was given “strategic command” of the pickets. The atmosphere inside the union headquarters, half a mile from the plant, was one of restraint and determination. Ellis, who had been through similar violent situations, was unworried. He felt that command of the situation was firmly in the hands of the union workers and that Hormel would buckle under within a matter of hours. Some of the younger and less experienced workers in the office and outside, however, seemed somewhat less confident and expressed concern about arrests, strike breakers and more violence.
In another office two blocks from the union headquarters the atmosphere was one of alarm bordering on outright panic. Here Jay Hormel and his top company officers met with city and county officials to discuss a strategy. Since his ejection from the plant and the shutting down of the plant refrigeration system, Hormel worried about the twenty million pounds of meat he believed was spoiling on racks inside the plant and the massive $500,000 refrigeration system itself that was threatened. The pipes of the refrigeration system would freeze solid and burst within twenty-four hours unless the dynamos were turned back on. “Those men don’t know what they’re doing,” the chief engineer warned Hormel. “If the pipes burst the plant will be tied up for two months. Then we’ll be out of luck.” Hormel told reporters from the Minneapolis Journal that the strike made no sense and that his workers were the highest paid in the industry, As to the future, he said, “the plant was now closed indefinitely.”
Early Saturday afternoon Hormel decided to make an unusual emergency call to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Because the federal government owned about one-million pounds of meat stored in the plant, Hormel wanted federal troops to intervene in order to save the government property. Hormel failed, however, in his attempt to contact the President and he spoke only with FDR’s private secretary who promised to bring the matter to the attention of the President.
But now Hormel’s frustration began to get the better of him. He spoke more seriously of packing up and leaving Austin and he told newsmen he was considering going on “an extended vacation.” Had the strike occurred only a few months earlier, Hormel might have sought an injunction against the strikers and the union could have been broken. Governor Floyd B. Olson, however, had requested and received from the state legislature a law making the use of injunctions illegal in labor disputes. Olson had also adopted a do-nothing policy towards strikers using violence in other parts of the state. Another of Olson’s pet projects that never made it out of the state legislature was a measure to place meatpacking plants in the Minnesota under state ownership (along with electric utilities, mines, oil fields and grain elevators.)
Hormel’s often expressed contempt for the radical Farmer-Labor governor was neither surprising nor secret. In 1932 Hormel himself had gone from department to department within the plant, stopping work and standing on a chair to address his workers concerning the state and federal elections. In 1930 Olson was elected governor and carried 82 of 87 Minnesota counties and 59 percent of the popular vote. Hormel told his employees he wanted to see Herbert Hoover reelected president but far more important for the company in Austin was the election of Republican Earle Brown as governor of Minnesota. If Olson was reelected, Hormel warned, he would be forced to lay off all of his workers and shut down the Austin plant. On November 8th, in a five-party race, Olson was elected to a second term with 50.6 percent of the popular vote. Brown finished a distant second with 32.3 percent of the vote. And in a way, Hormel had been correct in his prediction. One year after Olson’s victory the plant in Austin had been shut down.
By early Saturday afternoon, Sheriff Syck conceded that he had been unsuccessful in finding what he considered to be the necessary number of men to deputize in order to keep order in the town and county. Worried, Syck sent an emergency telegraph to the Governor:
SITUTATION HER SO UNRULY THAT DEPUTIZING OF UN-UNIFORMED AND POORLY-AREMED CITIZENS WOULD PRECIPITATE GUERILLA WARFARE WITH PITIFUL CASUALTIES ON BOTH SIDES, ESPECIALLY BECAUSE MEN HAVE BEEN TOLD LAW ENFORCEMENT AGENCIES WOULD NOT INTERFERE WITH THEM. THEREFORE IN ORDER TO AVOID NEEDLESS BLOODSHED I APPEAL TO YOU TO DISPATCH MILITIA TO TAKE SITUATION BEFORE NIGHTFALL AT THE LATEST.
Learning of the dramatic telegram, Ellis drove to the sheriff’s office shortly after noon to tell Syck that there would be no trouble at the plant if the sheriff would simply keep his deputies away from the facility. As Ellis entered the sheriff’s office, however, he overheard a prominent local attorney, Otto Baudler, speaking to Governor Olson on the sheriff’s telephone in the next room. Baudler’s back was turned to Ellis and so he continued discussing the situation in Austin with the Governor, asking that state troops be sent to Austin immediately to break the strike and to return the Hormel plant to its rightful owner. Ellis quickly left the office after giving his statement to Syck, aware now of the efforts being made to bring about intervention by the state militia and at the same time to prevent the Governor from coming to Austin personally to assess the situation.
Hormel and other officers of the company, meanwhile, undertook tentative moves to begin recruiting a force of two-hundred strike breakers in Minneapolis and bring them to Austin. The town’s streets were patrolled at that time by special deputies while the entire uniformed police force had been stationed among the strikers surrounding the plant. The police were allowed to mingle with the strikers but pickets and union leaders refused them entry onto the company property.
The Farm Holiday Association sided with the IUAW strikers who had recently backed their efforts to withhold perishable agricultural commodities from the market in order to raise prices. The Association volunteered to patrol all roads leading to Austin in order to stop both the shipments of livestock to the plant as well as to prevent farmers from coming into Austin to replace striking workers. The Associations efforts helped lift some important duties from the IUAW rank and file and added important moral support to the efforts of the union.
On Saturday morning Mayor Marcusen and City Attorney Burton Hughes made a secret trip to St. Paul to confer with Governor Olson. Finding the Governor at a luncheon they hastily outlined Austin’s critical situation but were unable, they late reported, to gain the Governor’s concentrated attention. They returned to Austin, found the pickets in possession of the plant and once more telephoned the Governor to report what they saw as a deteriorating and dangerous situation.
When Olson failed to respond favorably to Sheriff Syck’s frantic telegram and to the appeals of Baudler, Marcusen and Hughes, calls were broadcast over radio stations KSTP and WCCO in Minneapolis: “GOVERNOR OLSON, CALL AUSTIN 2334; GOVERNOR OLSON, CALL AUSTIN 2334” announcers repeated at regular frequent intervals throughout Saturday evening. Following several of these broadcasts Olson telephoned Jay Hormel. Hormel told him that the plant had been taken away from him by the union and that the city was in serious danger of a violent upheaval. Olson agreed to send Frank T. Starkey of the State Industrial Commission to Austin to confer with representatives of both the union and the company. Olson promised that Starkey would undertake a fair investigation and conceded that if it proved necessary, he would come to Austin himself to help settle the dispute, a move that Hormel very much wanted to prevent.
After speaking with Hormel, Olson dispatched Starkey to Austin and then secretly mobilized three hundred national guardsmen and stationed them in Owatonna, thirty miles from Austin, in preparation for their rapid deployment in Austin should there be a further breakdown of order in the community.
Late Saturday evening, while the bonfires of the pickets burned brightly around the entrances to the Hormel plant and while company officials anxiously awaited the results of their appeals for federal and state troops, union members gathered at the union hall for a Saturday night dance and discussion and took turns transporting coffee and sandwiches to the men and women on the picket lines. At the offices of the First National Bank on north Main Street, Hormel and Starkey met but could not find any common ground on what to do next in order to end the standoff and prevent further trouble in Austin. Hormel absolutely refused to meet with Ellis or to consider a 10 cent wage increase. During the discussion, Congressman F. H. Shoemaker, a radical Farmer-Laborite, drove into town. Shoemaker had been campaigning in the surrounding area for several weeks, making speeches sympathetic to the policies of the Farm Holiday Association. When he learned of the emergency meeting being held between Hormel and Starkey, he came into Austin and drove directly to the bank and offered his assistance in the negotiations. At one point, Shoemaker asked to speak alone with Hormel. Olson left the room and Hormel quickly described the situation to Shoemaker and emphasized the danger to the plant’s expensive refrigeration system. Shoemaker left the bank and drove to the union headquarters where he met with the union’s executive committee. Ellis disliked Shoemaker intensely and considered him both “a grandstander” and “an outright liar.” On this critical evening, Shoemaker succeeded in living up to the letter of Ellis’s evaluation.
Shoemaker found Ellis and other union officials at the union hall and succeeded in drawing them into a corner for a private discussion. He asked them to send someone into the plant in order to turn on the refrigeration system and keep in running. Only in this way, he said, could negotiations with Hormel move forward. Jay feared, he said, the destruction of the critical and expensive refrigeration system and should it be destroyed there was a strong likelihood he would opt not to open the plant again. But unknown to Shoemaker or to Hormel, Ellis had secretly sent engineers into the plant every few hours to turn the refrigeration system on and to monitor it carefully in order to keep the temperature in the plant high enough to prevent breakage of the system and low enough to prevent spoilage of the meat. Ellis was aware of the crisis that would develop with the destruction of a million pounds of government meat and he said he did not want the responsibility for that on the hands of either himself or the workers. Ellis was also aware, however of the pressure that might be brought to bear upon Hormel if he believed that the refrigeration system had been shut down. Yet even while Ellis listened patiently to Shoemaker’s appeal, one of the union engineers interrupted to tell Ellis that the temperature in the plant was getting fairly low and that the system should be switched back on once more. Ellis gave the man permission to go into the plant and turn the refrigeration system on. Hearing this exchange, Shoemaker excused himself and left the union hall and returned to the bank where he immediately told Hormel that he had prevailed upon the strikers to turn the refrigeration system on and to save the products stored inside the plant. Hormel telephoned the plant and spoke with the engineers who were supervising and tending the refrigeration system. He learned from them that the strikers were prepared to allow the shipment of 550 unweaned calves from the plant to some other facility.
Encouraged by what he learned about the maintenance of the plant’s refrigeration system, Hormel seemed to become even more adamant in his refusal to speak directly with union officials. After several more hours of deadlocked discussion with Starkey, Hormel once more telephoned the governor. Always unsure of Olson’s real sympathies, Hormel warned the governor not to come to Austin personally. “The temper of the mob here is such that it would be extremely dangerous for you to appear here unless you were accompanied by the militia,” Hormel told him. At the same time he asked Olson to place all of the children of officers of the company under special state guard and that they all be transported out of Austin on the following morning.
Despite Hormel’s alarming analysis of the situation, Olson told him that he had decided to come to Austin in person and without the state militia. A few minutes later there was an excited announcement in the union hall that Governor Olson wanted to speak to Frank Ellis on the telephone. Ellis had been a staunch and outspoken supporter of Olson and he was aware that Olson himself was a former IWW member and had legitimate radical credentials in politics. Olson asked Ellis about the trouble in Austin. “There’s nothing to worry about, nobody’s going to get hurt,” Ellis promised the Governor. Olson told Ellis he had just spoken with Jay Hormel. The man was extremely worried, Olson said, and as a result he felt in best to come to Austin to assess the situation himself and, he hoped, to facilitate a quick end to the strike.
Shortly after noon on Sunday, Olson, his personal secretary Vincent Day, and Adjutant General E. A. Walsh drove to Austin in the governor’s car. Olson telephoned Ellis from the Fox Hotel in Austin, and asked him to bring Fosso and other members of the union’s executive board to the hotel for a closed meeting. After nearly three hours of talks with the union group, Olson summoned Hormel to the hotel for what turned out to be a two-hour meeting. Olson then drew up a planned settlement for the strike and discussed it first with Hormel and then with Ellis and the union officials. A very concerned Hormel asked the governor about rumors he’d heard in Austin that regardless of what the strikers did inside the plant there would be no punitive action taken against them by the state. Olson told him that this was not true and revealed that he had mobilized troops of the state militia and stationed them in nearby Owatonna. Olson reminded Hormel of his pledge as governor to uphold the law and assured him that he had absolutely no intention of conveying the impression that he would condone violence by either side or let it go unpunished. Hearing this, a more relaxed Hormel explained to Olson his theory that the strike had nothing to do with the policies of the company but was instead caused by “outside agitators” who had been hired carelessly by the company – here he referred primarily to the policies of Ellis of inviting his radical friends to Austin to work in the plant. “Here in this community,” Hormel explained to Olson, “we feel an obligation toward one another, there is a feeling of dependence in the community and we desire therefore to give work to as many people as possible. We should never have employed about 200 of these people and more than likely we would then never have had this difficulty.” Hormel conceded that the difficulties that had arisen in Austin seldom occurred in metropolitan centers where closer statistical checks were kept on employees. The problem in Austin had been the more relaxed manner in which men and women were hired to work in the plant, he said.
From the Fox Hotel, Olson and Hormel drove to the home of John G. Hormel for a special meeting of the company’s board of directors. Finally, at 3:00AM on Monday morning Olson left the Hormel home with an agreement ready for approval by union officers.
The solution settled upon by Olson and Hormel involved drawing up a code of conduct by the State Industrial Commission for regulations and rulings between the Hormel company and its employees. Both parties would agree, under the Olson settlement, to accept the verdict of the Commission on all disputed issues.
Olson met a second time with the union officers. Olson discussed the proposed settlement with Ellis and Fosso and others for more than two hours. Two minor changes were incorporated into the original text of the agreement. In exchange for the company demand that the plant be turned back over to the owners immediately, company officers agreed to the gradual reemployment of all strikers without discrimination. Fosso and Ellis signed the amended compact subject to the approval by the union rank and file.
Olson then hurried back to John Hormel’s home. Jay Hormel signed the agreement as president of the company. Reporters watched Olson leave the Hormel home at 4:45 AM. For photographers, he paused to shake hands with Hormel at the door and remarked, “Jay, I think you have a lot of poise.”
Following the approval of the agreement by both parties, Olson met reporters in the dining room of the Fox Hotel and discussed with them the details of the strike settlement. Olson said he had been especially impressed by the willingness of both sides to submit their problems to arbitration by the State Industrial Commission.
There was no slackening of picketing around the plant during the hours of the conferences held between the governor and the union and plant officials. At the four plant gates pickets huddled around bonfires stomping their feet and swinging their arms occasionally to keep warm. At hourly intervals the wives of some of the pickets delivered hot coffee to the men and women suffering through the cold hours. In addition to the two engineers inside the plant controlling the refrigeration system, Ellis ordered the pickets to allow nine police officers inside the facility. At 5:15 AM word was sent to the pickets that a settlement had been reached and that a special meeting was scheduled for union members at 10:00AM in the city armory in order to discuss and vote on the proposed agreement. Reporters outside the plant reported at 5:30AM that the former pickets were busy cleaning out the driveways and other places where bonfires had been built.
At 10:00AM Olson addressed the union members in the armory. “Judging from the telephone conversations Saturday night there must have been a slight disturbance down here,” he said and smiled at the large assembly. He said he had been unable to believe stories that “good citizens would create any civil disturbances” in Austin and revealed that his greatest fear on Saturday had been that “somebody might organize a citizen’s army and march on the plant, resulting in the cutting of each other’s throats.
“To be frank with you,” he continued, “you were in illegal possession of the plant. You had taken over someone’s property and I suppose in the heat of the moment such things happen. I am a friend of labor,” he reminded his audience. “If you sign this agreement, I assume that you will use arbitration and that there will be no demonstrations such as Saturday. I can’t be in the position of defending labor when labor is in an illegal position. In other words, I can’t be put on the spot. Not only for the security of you and your employers, but for the destiny of Austin, I want to see peaceful relationships with machinery set up to settle all disputes in a peaceful manner.” Olson closed by repeating his warning to the workers. “I don’t want to b put on the spot because if I ha ve to choose between my proper duty and my sympathy I will be obliged to choose duty.”
Following his statements, Olson invited questions from the audience. Most inquiries centered on decisions of the Industrial Commission and assurances that the Commission would not reduce wags. “I can’t say what the Commission will do,” he said. “I know the Commission members will be fair. They are not going to create a condition worse than that which led you to strike.”
After Olson had finished speaking, Ellis addressed the gathering. “I am proud of the picket lines,” he said, “but I can’t agree with the offer submitted here. Your officers are not afraid of going to the penitentiary in your behalf because some folks right here in Austin have been on the verge of starvation in the past few weeks. It has been our objective to fight for the laboring class as a whole.” Ellis conceded, nevertheless, that Olson himself had been “absolutely fair to the mass.”
Following Ellis, Congressman Shoemaker provided his analysis of the events of the previous two days to the union members. “I didn’t want to see federal troops in here,” he said. “But with troops coming in and the administration none to doggone friendly toward labor anyway, I didn’t know what might have happened. Some of you know it was worth the whole thing to say to Jay Hormel, ‘Get the hell out of here.’ It doesn’t do anyone any harm to get down to earth once in a while to let them know they are not up in the clouds with the Blue Eagle [symbol of the New Deal’s NRA program]. If the strike had continued Hormel wouldn’t have had to import men,” Shoemaker cautioned. “They would have come by the load. Communities who are supporting people who cannot find work would say to those men, ‘you go to Austin, Hormel needs men, get to work, we won’t support you any longer.’” At the conclusion of his lengthy talk, Shoemaker asked the works to approve the Governor’s proposal.
While Shoemaker was speaking, Olson assured Ellis that the Industrial Commission’s decisions would be favorable to the union. Following the speeches, the union rank and file voted overwhelmingly to approve Olson’s solution and settlement.
While the armory meeting was still in session, 240 men and women resumed work in the business office of the plant and five hundred Hormel salesmen were ordered to return to work. On Monday evening the Austin Daily Herald lauded the signing of the agreement for taking Austin “out of the ‘strike city’ class and placing it in the column of those where all labor troubles and disputes will be settled by arbitration.” The next morning nearly the entire work force of the plant was back on the job.
On December 4, 1933, in accordance with a ruling by the State Industrial Commission, the following wage increases went into effect at the Hormel Company in Austin: workers earning 40 cent to 49 cents per hour received a pay increase of four cents per hour; workers earning 50 cents to 54 ½ cents received increases of three cents per hour; workers earning more than 54 ½ cents per hour were given increases of two cents per hour; a 10 percent increase in piecework earnings was granted and straight time men received a 10 percent cut back in pay. In no instance, then, did the IUAW achieve the 20 cents per hour raise it had initially demanded and in one instance a reduction in pay was put into effect. On the other hand, the Hormel Company, which had denied the possibility of making any pay increases at all was required to make minor concessions, but always less than half of what the union demanded. The increases were in line with increases that went into effect throughout the meatpacking industry that autumn.
Considering that his original position of granting only pay increases that would leave the company in a fair competitive position with the rest of the industry, Jay Hormel lost little in the Olson settlement. Beneficial to both parties in the dispute was the ruling handed down by the Commission was the setting up of a grievance procedure to avoid future strikes. Ellis and other union officers nevertheless considered the settlement a major union victory. Even with only a nominal advance in wages, the union acquired prestige among workers in the plant and Ellis remembered that following the decision of the Industrial Commission, workers rushed to join the union. For a labor organization so new and relatively unstable, the decision proved to be a godsend.
Governor Olson, on the other hand, found himself the target of a torrent of newspaper criticism following the strike settlement. During the two days the strikers held the plant, the Chicago Tribune and several Minneapolis and St. Paul dailies sent special staff writers and photographers to Austin to report the details of the transgression. The editorial staffs of these paper attacked Olson, hitting hard on his failure to break the strike with troops. The Governor struck back by buying radio time to defend his actions. “There were only two alternatives,” he said of the strike. “First, to peacefully persuade the employees to leave the plant, or, second, to eject them forcibly with the use of troops.” Olson reaffirmed his preference for peaceful persuasion. In a direct comment on the editorial criticism he concluded, “Apparently, the mistake made by me – in the light of these writings – was that I did not turn the machine guns of the state on some 2700 citizens and create some widows and orphans.” He characterized the critical editors as “blood-thirsty swivel-chair warriors whose only knowledge of life is gained through traveling from their homes to their editorial sanctuaries.” Yet despite the unfavorable press, Olson received thousands of letters endorsing his stand and he was unquestionably another beneficiary of the peaceful Hormel settlement. His tactful approach and calm demeanor n the midst of the crisis that could have exploded in an instant, enhanced his image throughout the state. Far from being the wild-eyed radical that Jay Hormel and many other anxious citizens feared, Olson demonstrated a preference for caution and calm and a commitment to law and order. In Austin, Olson uncompromisingly asserted his intention to uphold his oath of office as governor and to enforce all of the laws of the state of Minnesota. His success in settling the dispute peacefully contributed both to his continued popularity as well as to his reelection as governor in 1934.
Olson’s role in settling the Austin dispute was criticized as much by editors on the left as by those on the right. Reporters for the Communist Party’s Daily Worker rushed to Austin to cover developments in this “revolt of exploited workers.” Members of the local Communist Party, whose headquarters was established across the street from the union hall, filled the gaps in stories printed by other newspapers. Writers for the Daily Worker reported that the Austin workers had been “tricked into going back to work without gaining their demands for higher wages” and the governor’s agreement was called “a complete sellout.” Olson was described as “a shrewd strikebreaker.” So favorable to the lords of capitalism was the governor’s settlement, the Daily Worker reported, that it was “received with glee by the Hormel company.”
The 1933 episode dramatically changed Jay Hormel’s attitudes toward labor. Following the settlement of the strike, he told his workers, “I couldn’t lick you, so I joined you. “ Soon thereafter he initiated his “Master Plan,” a system of anticipatory welfare capitalism. According to that program, he sought to anticipate workers’ grievances and difficulties and tried to resolve them peacefully before they became serious industrial-relations problems. The working out of the Master Plan involved wage increases and some significant new fringe benefits for the workers. Union leader Frank Schultz later lamented Hormel’s nearly uncanny ability to outguess union officials and to gain praise and prestige in the eyes of the union’s rank and file. Largely as a result of Hormel’s new position, his company entered a new era of outspoken employee loyalty to the firm and the town of Austin experienced welcome industrial peace and harmony. Four and give decades after the 1933 strike, veterans of the conflict recall Jay Hormel’s post-1933 leadership and policies with outspoken admiration and praise.
A 1937 study of the Hormel Company by Fortune magazine described Jay Hormel as “the Red Capitalist and according to a 1948 Life story on Hormel, “he has been labeled everything from pale pink to red.” His enthusiastic and didactic speeches to business and civic organization regarding improving industrial relations and bridging the gap in understanding between workers and owners, demonstrated just how far he had distanced himself from his initial “benevolent dictator” stance. And his words also struck many of his conservative listeners as ominous and misguided apostasy. In an address in April, 1937, to a group of Owatonna businessmen, Hormel proclaimed that it was his believe that “labor troubles would not occur if business could understand labor….” All that the laboring men and women wanted, Hormel pointed out, was “respect for the fundamental rights of each working individual.” And what were those fundamental rights? “Well,” he answered, “what rights would you want if you were a workingman? What rights are always conceded as a result of any labor struggle? The first thing you want if you are a laboring man is a sense of security in your tenure of employment…. Second, when there is a discharge for cause, labor believes, the public believes, and except in your own shop, you believe that the employee is entitled to a fair hearing and a fair consideration before he is deemed guilty of transgressions that cause his discharge.” Hormel warned that if employers attempted “to resist this whole trend toward labor organization, if you will deny the principles I have just stated, I believe you will someday find yourself in labor difficulty….” From his own unhappy experience with the concept, Hormel concluded that “the idea that an employer is the lord and master of his own business is an antiquated notion. If you are an employer or if you are the proprietor of a business, you have a job and a trusteeship…. It would be asking too much to expect to have a good union unless you have a good employer…. Give labor the fair treatment that is its right and labors’ right to organize will never harm you.” One shocked Owatonna businessman with labor problems as well as an unhealthy appendix, after hearing Hormel’s words, requested that the local newspaper censor “the more inflammatory passages” from its report of the speech. The newspaper complied.
After the 1933 strike and settlement Frank Ellis turned to the sit-down strike as the best instrument for the settlement of department-level grievances within the plant. After continued harassment of strike leaders by several foremen and supervisors, Ellis called for a short sit-down strike in February 1934 to settle the issue. In July 1937, several department in the plant used sit-down strikes to demand a closed-shop agreement with the company. The sit-down threat ended in 1938 after the company agreed to a closed shop.
In late 1933 Ellis began sending organizers for the IUAW into numerous Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin communities. By November 1936 the IUAW had established strong branches in Albert Lea, Faribault and South St. Paul, Minnesota, and in Mason City and Waterloo, Iowa. Ellis took great pride in the IUAW successes in South St. Paul where Swift’s company union was broken and replaced by an IUAW local. The general approach of the IUAW in Austin remained relatively radical for most of the 1930s, as evidenced by the repeated resort to sit-down strikes in the face of increasing public hostility toward the tactic and as evidenced in the lead editorial of the union newspaper, The Unionist, which first appeared in October 1935 and proclaimed, “In line with the history and tradition of the Union, this paper will be radical and militant, dynamic rather than static, alive rather than asleep…. We are in the battle in support of all unions and especially industrial unions. We will fight for farmers and workers and will aid representatives of them in times of trouble and strife…. We recognize that we are under a system which promotes wage slavery.”
In May 1937, John L. Lewis began organizing packinghouse workers in the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and in the ensuing organizational struggle the IUAW voted to affiliate with the national CIO and became Local 183 and later  local 9 of the United Packinghouse Workers of America.
Forty years after the organization of the IAW in Austin, all of the early radical organizers were gone from the union hierarchy. A revolutionary reorientation in attitude that began with the disputes of 1933 came to full maturity in Austin in the 1950s and the 1960s. Once given a meaningful voice in the company’s decision making processes, the Hormel workers began to act more and more like their former managers. And the greater the expansion of union powers, the more the union moved into harmony with the company owners and managers. Where once the packinghouse business in Austin meant misery for many workers, by the 1960s it came to mean money and stability. Visitors to Austin expressed surprise at the obvious affluence of the Hormel workers and at the array of new cars lined up in neat rows in the parking lot of the company. Thousands of Hormel workers became members of two and three car households and it became difficult to distinguish the homes of workers in the town from the homes of mid-level management. By the 1960s, nobody who visited Austin could realistically describe the company workers as “the poor people.”
Most workers in the prospering Hormel Company in the 1960s and the 1970s who remembered or read about the history of their union concluded that the hard times were behind them. They should be forgiven for entertaining that illusion.
Originally appeared in Labor History (Volume 15, Issue 4, 1974)