One of the most devastating and shameful developments of postwar American society was the war waged on organized labor by corporations, in collusion with the Reagan Administration, from 1980-88. To assign an end date is deceptive, of course, since we continue to feel the waves to this day. The era began appropriately enough, with Reagan acting as a “mediator” in the air traffic controllers’ strike, where he “permanently replaced” 1,400 members of the Professional Air Traffic Controller’s Organization. This sent a clear and unmistakable message to companies from coast to coast: “Clean house, we’ve got your back.” They took it to heart too: Phelps Dodge in Arizona in 1983; Chicago Tribune in 1987; Caterpillar in 1989; and perhaps the most famous of all, Hormel in 1985, the subject of Baraba Kopple’s Academy-Award winning documentary American Dream.
After the stagnation of the 1970s economy, the horrible recession that hit in 1982 provided corporations with the perfect pretext to crush labor, an opportunity that had not presented itself since the 1930s. This was the beginning of what would later be codified as globalization, and economists Barry Bluestone and Bennett Harrison outline the situation quite clearly in their 1982 book The Deindustrialization of America: Plant Closings, Community Abandonment, and the Dismantling of Basic Industry. In the quest to remain “globally competitive,” companies were willing to do whatever it took, even destroying the very social fabric of communities that had devoted their entire working lives to the success of their firms.
It started in what is called the “Frostbelt” of the northeast, first with the steel mills, then spreading to other areas of manufacturing. Reagan’s public relations team were brilliant propagandists, pushing patriotism and national pride, the myth of the “home team” and language designed to foster illusions of equality, community and collective struggle (see Barbara Ehrenreich’s 1989 book Fear of Falling for a good discussion of this). Suddenly “union” became a dirty word. Unions were un-American, greedy, out for themselves. That this view was even embraced by large portions of an increasingly-conservative working class that unions had supported for decades is a testament to the efficacy of the smear campaign. Concurrently, the management consultant industry boomed as corporations looked for ways to increase their profit margins by slashing wages, benefits, and pensions. Factories moved in droves to the south, the “Sunbelt,” where labor was cheap and migrants plenty.
The packinghouse P-9 strike at Hormel in Austin, Minnesota showed how far manufacturing management was willing to go in this new era: they closed the old factory, built a new “hi-tech” one that resembled a prison (where worker injuries reached epidemic proportions), and demanded deep wage cuts. And this was during a string of double-digit record profits for Hormel, which was outstripping its competitors by huge margins. Several years earlier, at the behest of the United Food and Commercial Worker’s (UFCW), P-9 had already reluctantly agreed to a set of concessions that dramatically increased management’s power. So when a clause in this earlier agreement was invoked, demanding a unilateral 23% pay cut across the board, P-9 geared up for a fight. Tired of the UFCW selling them down the river, they brought in Ray Rogers of Corporate Campaign Inc., a consultant firm which specialized in high-profile media assaults on corporations, typically with boycotts and pressure strategies on banks and stakeholders. It galvanizes worker spirit but the impact on Hormel is minimal. As the months wear on, the International and UFCW withdraw all support and striker benefits, even encouraging P-9 members to be scabs and cross their own picket lines. Some choose to do so, burning bridges with their neighbors, their friends, their family members. Others block streets, get hit with teargas and arrested, refuse to give in. The destruction of the social fabric, as predicted.
On the bright side, American Dream highlights a new energy in labor, one that shows how out of touch the national labor leaders had become, with their exorbitant salaries and willingness to negotiate with unfair corporate demands. This new spirit is summed up well by one striker late in the film, when he realizes that the P-9 membership, even after months of pickets and civil disobedience, will ultimately have to pick between unfair concessions or unemployment: “Fuck ’em, we’ll find something else,” he says defiantly, walking away from the union hall mic.