SPAM is at the center of one of the longest and most contentious labor battles in U.S. history. In 1985, workers at the Hormel Foods plant in Austin, Minnesota, went on strike, demanding better working conditions and stable wages. Generations of meatpackers had worked at the plant, some for most of their lives—and that gruesome, difficult work afforded them a sustainable, middle-class life. So when that way of life was threatened, they fought back. SPAM boycotts spread to cities and towns around the world. The strike went on for almost two years, pitted neighbor against neighbor, and turned violent; the National Guard was called in to protect those who crossed the picket line. In the end, the strike is a Rorschach test: either a lesson in what is possible when workers unite, or a cautionary tale about biting the SPAM that feeds.
This episode is the second in a new three-part miniseries from The Experiment—“SPAM: How the American Dream Got Canned.”
Be part of The Experiment. Use the hashtag #TheExperimentPodcast, or write to us at email@example.com.
This episode 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. Fact-check by Michelle Ciarrocca. Sound design by David Herman with additional engineering by Joe Plourde. Transcription by Caleb Codding. Special thanks to Peter Rachleff and Philip Dawkins.
Music by R Mccarthy (“Maria, Just,” “Big Game,” “Fine,” and “Melodi 2”), Parish Council (“Museum Weather” and “Marmalade Day”), Column (“｢THE ART OF FUN｣ (Raj)”), and Keyboard (“Ojima,” “Only One,” and “World View”); provided by Tasty Morsels. Additional music by Alexander Overington. Additional audio from CBS, CNBC (Clip 1, Clip 2, and Clip 3), NBC, Al Jazeera, Reagan Foundation, WCCO-TV, PBS (Clip 1, Clip 2, Clip 3, Clip 4, Clip 5, Clip 6, Clip 7, and Clip 8), and New Jersey Network.
A transcript of this episode is presented below:
Julia Longoria: I’m Julia Longoria. This is The Experiment.
And in case you’re late to the party, this is the second part of a three-part miniseries. We’re exploring food, work, and family through the history of SPAM, the canned meat.
(One ukulele slowly winds up, as if to play a song—the SPAM musubi song from the last episode!)
Longoria: In Episode 1, producer Gabrielle Berbey and I traveled to Austin, Minnesota: SPAMtown USA, where SPAM is made.
Berbey: We heard from Austonians about a strike that happened there in the 1980s. But when we started asking around town, people did not want to talk about it.
Longoria: If you haven’t listened to part one, please stop the tape. Go back and listen to the first one. We’ll be waiting right here for you when you’re done.
(The ukulele reverberates into the void.)
Berbey: And just a heads-up, this episode contains graphic descriptions of a meatpacking plant.
Longoria: Now … on to the second course!
(The void swallows up the background noise in preparation for a news montage.)
News Host 1: There has been a tsunami of job resignations in the U.S. workforce.
News Host 2: … This is being called the great resignation. WBEZ’s Lisa …
Longoria: Across the U.S. today, workers have reached their limit.
(Strings rattle out an eerie, slowly descending note.)
News Host 3: A wave of workers strikes sweeping across America. Thousands across different industries have already walked out and even more on the horizon.
Longoria: The pandemic has pushed workers to reconsider what they’re willing to put up with, and what work is really for.
Interviewee: It’s time to find something that is going to be better for my family.
News Host 4: Americans have been going on strike and shutting down workplaces at rates not seen in decades.
Longoria: Even before the pandemic, the U.S. began to see more workers on strike than anytime since the 1980s.
Rayce Hardy: Humans have had strife between the worker and the boss. That strife is—is century—well, that’s millennial! And the Hormel strike in the ’80s is the poster child for it.
Berbey: The Hormel strike—as in, the Hormel Foods Corporation—the meatpacking plant where SPAM is made.
(A harsh piano chord crashes up, then down, at intervals, all bathed in static.)
Longoria: And depending on who you talk to …
Philip Dawkins: This strike is studied as sort of a “What not to do.”
Andrew Ulland: Like, the last gasp of American labor getting crushed.
Longoria: The Hormel strike was either the final nail in the coffin for the rights of workers, or …
Peter Rachleff: The story was also one of fighting back, and of fighting back creatively.
Longoria: … A story of what’s possible when workers unite.
Jim Guyette: We turned our rank-and-file into organizers.
Organizer: What have you got?
Organizer: Right! That’s what we’re talking about, is power. How you can get it and how you can use it! (Applause and cheers from the audience.)
(A steady beat picks up, driving the piano forward. Alongside it, a bass line bounces, sunny and full of light, full of motion.)
Longoria: Either way, it’s the thing that tore a town apart.
Hardy: There are still people who are not speaking to each other
Longoria: What do you think is the legacy of the strike today in Austin?
Rich Morgan: How bad things can get between two people or two sides when they refuse to talk.
Berbey: This week, the second story in our three-part SPAM saga.
Longoria: We revisit a moment in SPAM’s history when our collective idea of what work and family should look like changed profoundly across the country in ways we’re still feeling today. When about 1,500 meatpackers captured the world’s attention and tried to turn back an inevitable tide.
I’m Julia Longoria.
Berbey: I’m Gabrielle Berbey.
Longoria: This is The Experiment, a show about our unfinished country.
(The music plays up, all sunshine and reminiscence, before it winds down to quiet.)
Longoria: Before coming to Austin, we had read in history books about the famous 1980s Hormel strike. But we wanted to understand how it felt for the people here.
(Three knocks on a door.)
Longoria: So our first stop was the home of Rayce Hardy, the son of a meatpacker.
Berbey: Hi! I’m here for Rayce! Hardy? Oh, is this the wrong—is this the wrong address? … I’m sorry! Sorry about that.
Longoria: Apparently he lives at Southwest, not Southeast.
Berbey: We knocked on the wrong—[Laughingly.]—door.
Longoria: Eventually …
Berbey: There’s Rayce; there he is!
Longoria: We found him.
Rayce Hardy: Come on in.
Berbey: Thank you!
Longoria: (Distant.) Thank you.
Berbey: He offered to give us a tour to help orient ourselves to Austin—since, clearly, we needed it.
Hardy: (As Berbey laughs.) Mom wanted to come with, so she’s in.
Berbey: Hi, how are you?
Longoria: His 88-year-old mom tagged along.
Hardy’s Mom: Where do you live?
Berbey: I live in New York.
Hardy’s Mom: In—oh!
Berbey: Ha ha.
Hardy’s Mom: (Laughs.) Poor thing! (Laughs even more.)
Longoria: They were great tour guides, because they’ve spent most of their lives in Austin. Rayce teaches economics at Riverland Community College there.
Hardy: I’m trying to convince Riverland to just have me—[Stumbles over the words for a second.] A class—my economics class—just on Hormel Foods.
Longoria: He’s kind of an unofficial historian of the Hormel corporation.
Hardy: The layers of this … Well, I think you could get a degree in—in SPAM! Yes, a SPAM degree!
Longoria: Part of the reason Rayce knows so much about Hormel is because his family worked for the company for generations.
Hardy: So there’s—you can see the graveyard there, and the cemetery.
Longoria: We drive by the cemetery, where three generations of Rayce’s family are buried—all of whom worked at the Hormel corporation.
(A lush yet formal, restrained arrangement of strings plays.)
Longoria: 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.
Berbey: Where is your dad buried?
Berbey: His dad …
Hardy: Bill …
Berbey: … Who passed away a few years ago …
Hardy’s Mom: Sweet little Billy, we used to call him.
Berbey: … Worked there while he was raising Rayce.
Hardy’s Mom: So we aren’t going to pick on the Hormel company, are ya?
Berbey: Pick on them?
Hardy’s Mom: Uh huh! (Both Hardys laugh.)
Longoria: For generations, Hormel was good to families like theirs.
(The string arrangement slowly fades out.)
Hardy: So this is—to the north here of us is the whole Hormel Austin plant. Fifteen football fields of factory. It’s got a barbed-wire eight-foot fence around it.
Berbey: Is that a truck full of pigs?
Hardy: Yeah. This whole area is the livestock area.
Berbey: Oh, wow.
Hardy: And now you can smell the bacon.
Berbey: (Sniffing.) You can?
Berbey: Can we roll down the window?
(“The Hall of the Mountain King” plays on tuba.)
Hardy: We used to sneak in there when I was in high school, just to see—“Wow! Look at this place!”—and take a peek.
Longoria: And what’d it look like?
Hardy: It was a dump. [Laughs.] You know, we went down, and it was just like there were rats running around in the bowels of the plant hall … (Fades out.)
Longoria: Inside the factory, the work of making SPAM was intense.
Hardy: It’s a sensual overload. It’s so orchestrated and choreographed, it’s …
Longoria: It’s an assembly line—or a disassembly line. And each worker had a piece of the puzzle.
Hardy: (In a montage, each phrase overlapping the last.) When he whacked the pig in the head, it was stunned … Whacked it with a sledgehammer … And now someone’s got to get the skin off … Rigor mortis sets in … Job called “snatching guts” … You reach into the pig carcass … Pull up the stomach as the stomach’s still operating … And you got to get it out of there, or it’s going to burst and destroy the carcass.
Berbey: And then workers themselves who were doing the slaughtering?
Hardy: (As the music escalates and picks up speed.) Ninety-nine percent male—at that time—just doing stupid stuff.
Berbey: One former meatpacker told us that, when he visited the factory as a kid, he saw a worker slit a cow’s throat …
Lynn Huston: 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, you know, like …
Berbey: We did run this story by Hormel’s current VP of Quality Management, who called it barroom talk at best.
Huston: That was his—that was his thing to gross out the crowd, you know?
Longoria: This, by the way, is Lynn Huston.
(Huston laughs. It’s a full laugh, guttural and rough and grating and utterly jovial, reassuring the way a worn-in flannel might be. He laughs freely as he talks.)
Longoria: He has an amazing laugh.
Huston: The things you get used to at a packing house, huh? (Laughs.)
(“The Hall of the Mountain King” fades out.)
Longoria: And the reason men did this tough, gruesome, and exhausting work was because it gave their families a way of life.
Hardy: My mom and my siblings and I were going to be taken care of financially and health-wise.
Longoria: 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. And 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.
Hardy: My dad had an $886 weekly check in 1974. That’s thousands of dollars now.
Longoria: The equivalent of a six-figure job today.
Hardy: So 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.
Longoria: And it wasn’t just health benefits. In a home with multiple kids where the sole breadwinner was a meatpacker …
Hardy: He had a sense of pride that he could take our whole family and just head out on a two-week vacation. You know, and to 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.
(A pensive cacophony of strings and light piano notes, vaguely electronic, soft and shimmering.)
Longoria: It wasn’t just the meatpackers at Hormel that lived this dream. Union power was strong in postwar 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.
(The music hits one final soft piano note and echoes out to nothing.)
President 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….
Longoria: But then, moving into the 1980s, we began to see a shift. The dollar weakened. American jobs moved abroad. We saw globalization—automation.
(New music comes in: electronic, robotic, moving quickly and just a little unnervingly.)
President Reagan: It’s time to recognize that we’ve come to a turning point. We are threatened with an economic calamity of tremendous proportions.
Robert MacNeil: The government announced today that there are now more Americans out of work than at any time since the Great Depression. The major cause is …
Longoria: To adapt, American corporations started cutting jobs and cutting pay.
MacNeil: American Airlines yesterday asked all its employees to accept a five percent pay cut for three months.
News Anchor 1: Workers at the company are protesting what they say are poor working conditions, inadequate health benefits, and low wages.
News Anchor 2: (A montage.) 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 … Steelworkers….
News Anchor 3: Today, the industry is struggling, and so are the workers who must sometimes choose between lower wages or going out on strike.
(The music slows down, becoming expansive and full of space but still electronic.)
Longoria: Unions pushed back against these changes using the best tool that they had: the labor strike.
Unidentified Voice: The right of men to leave their jobs is a test of freedom.
Longoria: Strikes had been breaking out across the country for years with mixed results, but one strike in particular ...
Jim Lehrer: Air traffic controllers walked off their jobs this morning, triggering …
Longoria: … sent a clear message to workers and signaled a shift in the American workplace.
President Reagan: This morning at 7 a.m. EDT, the union representing those who man America’s air traffic control facilities called a strike.
Longoria: In the summer of 1981, over 12,000 air traffic controllers violated federal law by going on strike. They had been out for just two days when the president of the United States himself stepped in and did what no president had done before.
President Reagan: And if they do not report for work within 48 hours, they have forfeited their jobs and will be terminated.
Longoria: Forty-eight hours after making his speech, President Reagan fired over 11,000 air traffic controllers on strike.
Hardy: 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.
Longoria: This was the environment that, in 1984, Hormel—the family company—started making some changes.
(Slow, buoyant music plays. It may be bouncy, but it’s somber, too.)
Huston: They cut people’s wages way down. Just cut everybody’s wages and benefits.
Longoria: 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 percent, from $10.69 an hour to $8.25.
Hardy: If you think you’ve earned something, especially through your body—[Laughs.]—you know, that’s a really tough thing. It was something being taken that people thought they earned.
Longoria: And 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—so people were working harder and faster and getting hurt more.
Huston: Boy, if you didn’t work out and work up to speed in a gang, they made sure you got kicked out of there.
Peter Rachleff: 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.
Longoria: Workers reported they were getting injured more often.
Guyette: You had women who worked in the plant and who couldn’t pick up their children anymore. They had to pick them up with their elbows because their wrists were shot.
Longoria: The union that represented the 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.
Hardy: So this was Dick Knowlton’s house. He was the president at the time of the strike. (Fades under.)
Berbey: When Rayce drove us around Austin, he pointed out that workers and management at the plant were close.
Hardy: It’s a relatively bigger house for the neighborhood, but there are some—[A cough.]—houses bigger. It’s a two-story. I was friends with his daughter, so I’ve been in there several times. And then my mom and dad’s—and my dad was a laborer, you know—it’s just right here.
Berbey: Oh! Oh, wow. Oh, yeah. That’s your parents’ house right there. So we just drove like a block and a half away, and now we’re at your dad’s house. And he worked in the factory?
Hardy: Yeah. And, you know, was good friends with Dick Knowlton.
Berbey: In Austin, worker and management took each others’ 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 …
Hardy: You didn’t have to worry about going to church and having somebody spit on the back of your head. You know, other strikes were out in Philadelphia or Pittsburgh—they were in metropolitan, urban areas. … That 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 a bunch of corn fields in the last county on I-35 in Minnesota. It came in Austin!
(A clunky beat plays, open and airy but mechanical.)
Longoria: If the workers at the Hormel plant wanted any chance of protecting their wages, their families, and their way of life, they were gonna need a truly capable leader—someone who could navigate a very tricky political situation. They found that leader in a man named Jim Guyette.
(The beat ends with the strum of an electric guitar.)
Berbey: Tell me where you grew up.
Guyette: Austin, Minnesota. Middle of a cornfield. My father worked at the plant, and, um, my grandfather worked at the plant.
Berbey: Jim comes from a long line of Hormel meatpackers. He had been working there since college. And from the beginning, he had a strong rapport with the other workers. He told us a story from early in his time at the plant.
Guyette: Alright, so, I had gotten married. You know, we were trying to have children. Nothing was working
Berbey: He and his wife couldn’t get pregnant, so the doctor told them they should try at a certain time of the month.
Guyette: I would have to get time off to go home and procreate. (Berbey laughs.)
Berbey: Jim’s foreman allowed him to go home but the other workers found out about it. So, when he went out on his “special leave” …
Guyette: “Ready, go!” [The familiar strain of Mozart’s “William Tell Overture” plays, indicating a race is about to begin.] These guys were yelling and screaming and cheering and … Oh my gosh, it was, uh … It’s quite the show.
Berbey: The production line stopped. And workers gave him a standing ovation on his way out. He and his wife succeeded, by the way: had three kids.
(The overture comes to a triumphant conclusion.)
Berbey: It was this family man, Jim Guyette, who was elected the president of the local meatpackers union.
Guyette: And I think, you know, a lot of times things are deliberately complicated when they don’t have to be. It’s not that hard. So I feel my job is to break it down into simpler pieces that people can understand.
Berbey: 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 Lynn Huston. You know. [Huston’s laugh—the same one from before—plays.] The one with the laugh.
Huston: (Laughingly.) You know, Jim was such a good thinker and talker. Very honest. Straight shooter.
Longoria: With Jim Guyette and laughing Lynn 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.
Huston: We took it to arbitration. We tried to negotiate with them on it.
Longoria: The company offered them a deal. It was better than their original proposal. But they still insisted, “We have to lower wages and cut benefits.” And the way the national economy was headed, many people—including the big dogs at the international union—thought Jim and Lynn should take it. But the local union voted and said, “No way.”
(A persistent electronic arpeggio plays—very high-drama, very ’80s.)
Huston: And finally it was, uh, the regional director at that time, said, “You know, guys, you got no choice. All you can do is go on strike.”
Guyette: We just went down to the plant and um, said, “We’re going on strike.” That’s what we did.
Longoria: What—what did that look like? Was that you on—on a microphone, or—or … ?
Guyette: No, we … No, no, no. No. [Chuckles.] That’s—that’s made-for-TV stuff, you know? No, it wasn’t made for TV. This is a real deal.
Longoria: Workers at the Hormel plant hadn’t been on strike since the Great Depression. And 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 a message to management.
Hardy: “Cram your SPAM!”
Berbey: Wait, what does that mean?
Hardy: Well, “Cram your SPAM,” like, “Shove it up your anus,” you know?
Berbey: (Realizing.) Oh!
Hardy: There were signs all over town!
Longoria: Fifteen hundred workers didn’t go to work that day. And Hormel had to temporarily shut down the plant. But Jim made sure this wasn’t your average strike that the country had seen so many of by that point.
Guyette: If you want to win, you need to do more than just stand on a picket line. You need to involve the family.
Longoria: From the very beginning, Jim understood who the real players of this strike were going to be.
(The ’80s music fades out.)
Guyette: The pressure on the spouse and the children is real. It was something that affected everybody.
Longoria: So Jim invited them to the Austin Labor Center to be a part of the strike, which transformed the place into a sort of hub of activity.
(Rock-y electric guitar music plays.)
Huston: They made toys for kids.
Guyette: We had a clothing exchange.
Longoria: They handed out food.
Huston: We had dances at the union hall and hired bands, and everybody brought their kids and had a good time.
Longoria: Did the union feel like a family?
Guyette: Without a doubt.
Longoria: Lynn said a song that was playing often was:
Huston: Queen. “We Are the Champions.”
(A clip of the song’s chorus plays over loud applause, then fades out.)
Longoria: This was the ’80s.
Huston: We used to come out with a boombox and start playing that song—[Laughs heartily.]—and just, just get everybody fired up, you know?
Berbey: You kind of make it sound like it was fun.
Huston: It was! (Laughs.)
Berbey: And by January of 1986, the strikers had fanned out around the country, calling workers across industries to their cause.
Guyette: Rochester and Albert Lea and Owatonna and Fairbolt.
Berbey: First, in the Midwest, to other Hormel plants, urging workers there to strike.
Guyette: Fremont, Nebraska—and Ottumwa, Iowa; Waterloo, Iowa; Sioux Falls, South Dakota; Madison, Wisconsin … We mapped out the entire cities.
Berbey: And then they spread the word of the strike to the far stretches. Like, to the coasts!
(Newsclip assemblage plays.)
MacNeil: (After a horn fanfare.) Next tonight: a focus report from Austin, Minnesota, about an unusual labor campaign.
Ray Rogers: What have you got? [The crowd yells, “Power!”] That’s right! That’s what we’re talking about. Power: how you can get it and how you can use it!
Carol Levinson: What may appear to be just another union dispute may be the birth of a new trend in American labor relations.
(News assemblage ends.)
Hardy: It was weird, ’cause Austin’s just this little town in the middle of nowhere. And then, all of a sudden, The New York Times is here, you know, and ABC, NBC, CBS—and not the local affiliates around the area—but the national ones.
Newscaster: (Over applause.) Reverend Jesse Jackson stepped off the plane in Austin this morning, bringing a ray of hope to the bitter eight-month meatpacker’s strike.
Huston: Jesse Jackson was here a number of times.
Jesse Jackson: (Over a megaphone.) In many ways, what Selma, Alabama, was to the Voting Rights Movement in ’65, Austin, Minnesota, has become that to collective bargaining in 1986. (Enthusiastic cheers from the crowd.)
Huston: And once we got on the national news every night, it went all over the world.
Berbey: One historian we talked to told us a South African union organizer came down to Austin and later said he managed to smuggle a “Cram Your SPAM” t-shirt into Nelson Mandela’s jail cell.
Guyette: You know, I went to England, got a resolution to boycott Hormel products.
Huston: I think we got donations from something like 70 countries.
Longoria: What do you think resonated with people from 70 countries?
Huston: (Sighs.) 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.”
Guyette: At some point you gotta ask yourself, “How much is enough?”
Longoria: With Jim and Lynn’s strategy, the strike had become an international phenomenon, with money starting to pour in from all over the world. And because of those donations, the strike was able to keep going. At a time when the worker seemed to be failing around the country, this strike was a ray of hope.
Hardy: What Jim Guyette did? He worked his rear end off. He was relentless. He was honest.
Longoria: That’s Rayce Hardy again, the son-of-a-meatpacker.
Hardy: He was honest. People thought he was—no, he was honest. He was transparent. He was consistent, but he was ignorant of global phenomenons.
(The gentle hum of superimposed synthesizer chords play up, esoteric and vast.)
Hardy: There was nothing jolly about this. [Laughs lightly.] 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.
Longoria: That’s after the break.
(The music fades out.)
(An acoustic guitar strum rewinds back into place to welcome us back from the break.)
Longoria: I’m Julia Longoria. This is The Experiment, and we’re 10 months into the Hormel strike.
News Anchor: 1986 has been another year of pain and discontent for the organized-labor movement
Longoria: 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. And 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.
Longoria: We heard this over and over from the people we talked to: Family was the “how” of the strike—and also the “why.”
Berbey: Hi, are you Dedee?
Dedee Bergstrom: Sure are!
Berbey: We went to visit Dedee Bergstrom and her husband …
RJ Bergstrom: This is my granddaughter’s horse.
Berbey: … Former striker RJ Bergstom at their home in Austin.
RJ Bergstrom: And the goats even got names up there.
Berbey: … Where they showed us their stable of goats.
Dedee Bergstrom: The female goat is Maggie. That’s his mom. They’ve all deceased, you know.
Berbey: Do you name all your goats after deceased family members?
RJ Bergstrom: Oh! (Berbey laughs.) Well, they—I don’t think they’d mind. I got goosebumps! I think they would get a kick out of everything.
Berbey: Before they started a family, RJ and Dedee began dating as teenagers.
Dedee Bergstrom: I just thought he was handsome, which he was, very. [RJ acts embarrassed.] Big muscles! Come back tan from the Vietnam.
RJ Bergstrom: Oh, god. What about you?
Dedee Bergstrom: I had big boobs, that’s why you liked me.
RJ Bergstrom: Hey, this is gonna air!
Dedee Bergstrom: (Over the sound of a teaspoon stirring a drink.) Well, they’ll deduct it, I don’t know.
RJ Bergstrom: Gee whiz! (Both laugh.)
Berbey: And when they got married, RJ was sole breadwinner.
Dedee Bergstrom: Well, I always wanted to be a cartoonist. But then I got married, got pregnant, and had a child. [One brief laugh.] So I was just a stay-at-home mom. That’s what I was. [Inhales.] Well, then the strike came. [Sighs.] And that was a tough time for the family.
Berbey: RJ knew it was tough for his family. At the peak of the strike, there were fights at 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.
RJ Bergstrom: I had a picture of my family on my chest and I walked … National Guard were standing, you know, almost at attention, just looking straight ahead and in line.
And I said, “This is what we’re fighting for,” you know. “Our families, and trying to give them all we can,” you know. You were there for your family.
Berbey: When we asked Dedee about what the strike was like for her …
Dedee Bergstrom: I was worried, I was scared.
Berbey: … She paints a very different picture than the one strike leaders Jim and Lynn the strike leaders talk about.
Dedee Bergstrom: I was a young mom with three kids, and … I don’t know. It was—it was just scary.
Berbey: [Gingerly.] Could you understand what he was fighting for at this time?
Dedee Bergstrom: [A shaky inhale.] Uh, I—I don’t know. I think I was mad at him most of the time that … You know, ’cause emotionally he would come home and he’d be upset and, you know … And 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. You know, it was just … There was a lot of tension all the time.
I went to my mom and dad’s a lot. (Laughs.)
RJ Bergstrom: Hmm.
Dedee Bergstrom: But, you know, I think the main thing is, like, going to rallies. I didn’t want to do that. He would complain, “Well, you’re not like so-and-so’s wife, you know, they’re down there. They’re stuffing envelopes. They’re doing this, they’re …” It was a real rocky, rocky time. Because you wanted to keep it as normal as you can. I hated going in the line and getting the free food. And sometimes it was, you know, outdated, or whatever.
RJ Bergstrom: We didn’t like going to, like, Salvation Army and getting that block of cheese and then the box of powdered milk. (Dedee makes a grossed-out sound as she remembers.)
Longoria: RJ told us he thought that what he was fighting for was family. Um …
Dedee Bergstrom: Oh yeah. He was fighting for the family. And—where I was protecting the family.
Longoria: And as the months went by, the reality of the situation became bleak.
RJ Bergstrom: But 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 know.
RJ Bergstrom: We got behind on house payments, and the sheriff would come out and give you the, uh, notice or whatever. And so the banks weren’t really too fond of the strikers, you know.
Berbey: Did you guys have discussions about him crossing the picket line? Like, did you want him to?
Dedee Bergstrom: I knew he wouldn’t. Inside, yes, I did, but I couldn’t express it because I knew he wouldn’t go back.
Berbey: You mean cross the picket line?
Dedee Bergstrom: Right.
Berbey: Did you ever think about crossing?
RJ Bergstrom: No. No; I never was gonna cross, no.
Dedee Bergstrom: No; I knew he wouldn’t go. He’s kinda a stubborn guy once in a while.
RJ Bergstrom: Mmm.
Berbey: 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 a part of the strike. But 10 months in, his brother broke. He crossed the picket line.
Newscaster: (Over the sound of vocal conflict.) … Split apart. Brother was pitted against brother. RJ is very bitter about his brother who crossed the picket line.
RJ Bergstrom: My mom called the other day and said, “Why don’t you go in and get your job back?” And I said, “Well, one scab in the family is enough.”
(A distorted, strange music plays in the background.)
Longoria: No one from the two families—the brothers, their wives, and the cousins—no one saw each other for years. RJ’s and his brother’s parents had to hold separate Christmases for their grandkids.
Dedee Bergstrom: 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, is I cried so much back then, and I don’t cry now. I just … All my tears are gone.
Hardy: There was nothing rosy in my dad’s eyes about it at all. There was nothing rosy.
(The music fades out.)
Longoria: Rayce Hardy again.
Hardy: So this was Dick Knowlton’s house. He was the president at the time of the strike.
Longoria: … 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.
Hardy: I got to go with my dad and just be front row and watch it. You know?
Longoria: What did it look like?
Hardy: It was ugly. It was painful. I mean, people were hurt. I mean, 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 and that’s not—to me, that’s not fun to watch.
Longoria: 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 Christmastime, Rayce ran into Mrs. Nolton, the wife of Hormel’s CEO, who used to drive him to school as a kid.
Hardy: I said, “Oh, it’s Mrs. Knowlton!”
Longoria: Rayce approached Mrs. Knowlton to say hello.
Hardy: And she turned, and those two guys just pounced on me for attacking Mrs. Knowlton! And she said, “Oh, Rayce! Rayce! No, no, no, no, no!” and gave me a hug. I said, “I didn’t attack her. Didn’t you see her hug me?” And it’s just like, “Holy buckets! Mrs. Knowlton had to have two bodyguards to go grocery shopping.” I mean, come on! You gotta be kidding me! But she had to. Constant death threats.
(A wash of ethereal music plays in the background.)
Longoria: We tried to reach out to Mrs. Knowlton 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.
Hardy: 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,” you know? He did that for months. He had hope: Maybe it will work out, because Dick Knowlton—all of the executives but two at that time—grew up in Austin. All started in the factory and worked 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’s—that was the hope. But then, the writing on the walls started getting … It was blurry at first, but it became very distinct that this is not gonna end well.
Longoria: By this point, Rayce’s dad had spent one year working odd jobs, trying to support his four kids. One of them was sick.
Hardy: My little sister has epilepsy.
Longoria: It all got to be too much. And then, one night, that summer of 1986, Rayce’s dad got a call from a friend in corporate.
Hardy: 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.” And when that happened, he told my mom, “I’m going in.”
(The music plays in the clear for a brief moment: a breath.)
Hardy: And he went in.
Huston: There was a number of people I told to cross that picket line.
Berbey: Lynn, the vice president of the union, eventually encouraged people to cross.
(The music fades out.)
Huston: A couple of them, their wives were diagnosed with cancer, and they had no medical. They were … Came into my office and says, “Geez, I don’t know what to do.” I says, “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.
Longoria: We asked Union President Jim Guyette about this.
Guyette: You know, during the strike, people that I thought were tough weren’t very tough.
Berbey: Was there a part of you that could empathize with people that were saying, like, “I’m behind on my home payments”?
Guyette: (Quickly, with a beat between each “No.”) No. No. No. Not at all. You either stand for something or you don’t, you know? Everything else is an excuse.
And the only thing that’ll beat a union is if a union beats itself. It’s the only thing that’ll beat a union. So, um, no, I don’t buy their argument whatsoever. None. A lot of people made sacrifices.
Longoria: What sacrifices did you feel like you had to make?
Guyette: Well, um … I think it was hard on my children.
Longoria: Jim says he would be in union meetings, run home to put his kids to bed, and then go right back to the labor center. All this wore on his marriage. After the strike, he and his wife ended up getting divorced.
Guyette: I was excommunicated from the Lutheran church for doing the devil’s work in the strike, according to them. And my ex-father-in-law and my ex-brother-in-law were leading the charge on that.
Longoria: Would you say that the strike ending and all of that—is that kind of what ended the marriage or you guys, or … ?
Guyette: 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?
(A beat, then a dreamy, lackadaisical guitar line plays, distorted at points.)
Longoria: 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 Lynn were pushed out.
Guyette: The international union program was, uh, “You gotta take these concessions. This is—this is the way of the world. You gotta do it. There’s just—[A beat.]—nothing else we can do.”
Longoria: The new union leaders made a deal with the company. They accepted the lower wages and benefits that the company offered.
Guyette: And we would’ve gotten what we wanted had it not been for the international union.
Longoria: The international union ended the strike on September 13, 1986. And of the 1,500 workers on strike, around 500 of them went back to work in the end.
Longoria: No matter which side you were on, the strike stayed with people. There are people who still don’t talk to each other.
Berbey: 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.
Lynn Huston is still in Austin. He left meatpacking 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.
Berbey: What do you do now?
Guyette: I’m in insurance. I do health insurance for seniors.
Guyette: I explain Medicare to ’em, and how it works.
Berbey: And Rayce’s dad, who did cross, was shunned for years by people in town because of his decision.
Hardy: So he was 90 years old. And he knew he was going to die—he had Stage 4 cancer. So, I mean, he knew the end was really close.
Longoria: And even on his deathbed, Rayce’s dad was still talking about the strike.
Hardy: And he said, “Gal, sometimes I just wonder, what if I wouldn’t have gone back? What would have happened? What would’ve I done? What would’ve your mom and I done?” I mean, it was—he was still thinking about it.
Berbey: Why do you think that it weighed on him?
Hardy: Well, there’s that, in his head—it was a small bit—but in his head was, he thought that, “Yeah, I am being a traitor to all these workers.”
(The music fades down and out.)
Guyette: You know, we all said we were all going to go back or none of us were going to go back. You had people who, um, they went back to work, and they left, uh—they left their brothers and sisters to hang out to dry. I guess they were more comfortable, um, being in bed with a company than they were with their union brothers and sisters.
Berbey: For Jim Guyette, the union bonds were thick as blood.
Longoria: Do you think, in your philosophy, should work aspire to feel like a family? Like, is that—should that be the goal, that they treat you like a family would?
Guyette: Sure it should. Sure it should. It should absolutely be the goal.
Hardy: 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.
I mean, who chooses to snatch guts to pass time? You gotta be kidding me! I mean, seriously! Whose hobby—have you ever heard of a hobby … [Mockingly.] “Well, what do you do for a hobby?” “I snatch guts!” I mean, that—that—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.
Berbey: Another thing that Jim told us in that what they were fighting for is the dignity of the worker. I mean, everything you’re saying …
Hardy: (Interrupting.) No doubt. No doubt he was fighting for the dignity of the worker. Wholeheartedly, that’s what he was fighting for. And I’m—I believe he believed it in every ounce. But, when profit is No. 1, the dignity of the worker is out the window.
If nobody went back to work, workers wouldn’t be paid more today. They wouldn’t. It didn’t—it didn’t matter.
I mean, really, that’s the weird thing about this, is it didn’t matter. The strike didn’t matter. The worker lost in the ’80s. They lost.
Longoria: So isn’t that an argument to have more, like, Jims of the world saying, like, you know—[Searching for the words.] “Employers should have the obligation …”
Hardy: Yeah. But in the meantime, I’ve got a bill to pay.
(Strings ramp up and a glockenspiel plays a light, wandering melody.)
Hardy: I think Jim’s fighting made a difference. He wasn’t going to win, but he didn’t lose as bad.
(A beat of music.)
Rich Morgan: They had pool tables; they got the bowling machine.
Hardy: That’s an old bowling ball!
Morgan: It’s wooden. [The sounds of a ball rolling across wood.] And then the … (Fades out.)
Longoria: 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.
RM: Yeah. But this was the main hall where they held all the rank-and-file meetings and stuff.
Berbey: We got a tour from one of the former union presidents.
Hardy: I mean, this is the room. This is where it all happened.
(Soft bursts of synthesized air puff out a tune, lazy and dreamy and thick in the air.)
Berbey: It kinda gives me chills. [Morgan exhales a quick laugh.] It looks like a time capsule.
Morgan: I’ve taken time to make sure that everything—nothing’s changed. I couldn’t see it go to waste. I just could not allow it to go to waste. Um, but 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 sick and tired of being sick and tired.
Longoria: There was one thing in the Austin Labor Center that seemed new.
Longoria: Um, and it says, um, “A Voice for Working America: UFCW.” And then, “Una Voz Para Los Trabajadores.” [Longoria chuckles as she reads the Spanish words for “A Voice for the Workers” as she considers what the presence of that poster means.] I bet that wasn’t there in the ’80s.
Rich Morgan: No, none of that was there.
Longoria: After the strike failed, many of the white, middle-class strikers whose families had worked at Hormel for generations left Austin, Minnesota, altogether. But the meatpacking plant stayed open. And a new workforce came to town.
(The music gives way to a new song. Church music, tambourine and all, sung by a crowd in Spanish, intones: “Santo, santo es el señor.”)
Longoria: That’s next week on The Experiment.
(The singing continues under the credits.)
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.
And 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.