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The Spam Factory's Dirty Secret

First, Hormel gutted the union. Then it sped up the line. And when the pig-brain machine made workers sick, they got canned.

It was February 2007, and the pipes under Emiliano Ballesta's trailer home on the outskirts of Austin had frozen solid. Worried about his wife and five children—most of all, his five-year-old son, who had recently been diagnosed with leukemia—Ballesta shimmied into the crawl space with a pair of small kerosene heaters. Instead of thawing the pipes, he ignited the wispy insulation hanging from the floorboards, and, in no time, flames engulfed the place. When police and firemen arrived, black smoke was rolling from under the eaves. By morning, nothing remained but a blackened hull.

Caption TK Emiliano Ballesta at the Queen of Angels church, Austin, Minnesota

The family slept on friends' couches and floors for weeks after that. Despite 12 years of working at QPP's head table, Ballesta was only making $12.75 an hour, barely a $26,500 base salary. But he had worked Saturdays for overtime as long as he could remember, and lately there were plenty of additional hours available as production ramped up to meet surging demand.

Spam, it turns out, is an excellent economic indicator. As the recession took hold, both Hormel and QPP offered more and more hours to workers. Hormel employees told the New York Times that they'd never seen so much overtime, and Hormel's CEO, Jeffrey M. Ettinger, confirmed that sales figures were climbing by double digits. Though head meat goes into sausage, not Spam, the increased production of one item increases output of everything else. One Hormel worker told the Times he'd bought a new TV and refrigerator with his overtime hours; Emiliano Ballesta could afford to move his family into a rental home.

In May 2007, Ballesta was at a son's high-school commencement when he noticed his legs starting to feel tight and numb. Within days, his right hip and thigh were throbbing, and it was as if the soles of his feet were on fire. At first, he chalked it up to fatigue, so many extra hours standing, but soon he was having trouble walking from the QPP parking lot to the plant door.

Ballesta wasn't alone. Miriam Angeles, who worked near the head table removing remnants of spinal cords, had started having burning pain in her lower legs, too, and now her right arm had begun falling asleep—both at work and at home, when she tried to feed her infant daughter. Susan Kruse, who cleared neck meat from the foramen magnum—the aperture where the spinal cord enters the skull—had a knot in her left calf that wouldn't go away. When the cramps spread to her right leg, and stiffness in her hands turned to tingling, Kruse finally went to the doctor. Even Pablo Ruiz, a process-control auditor who only passed by the head table, was starting to have numbness in his legs and once fell to the plant floor.

At first, Ballesta chalked it up to so many extra hours standing, but soon he was having trouble walking from the parking lot to the plant door.

In the meantime, Mayo doctors had prescribed Matthew Garcia a steroid to calm his nerve inflammation, and he'd improved enough to get around without a walker. He had lost pelvic floor function, robbing him of bowel control, and had to catheterize himself, but he managed to return to the brain machine in May. Within three weeks, though, Garcia couldn't stand again. Relatives rushed him back to the emergency room.

Dale Chidester, until recently the office coordinator of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 9, is a bear of a man with unruly hair and a salt-and-pepper goatee, but he's good-looking (he could be a '70s action star gone to seed) and speaks in a sweet, soft rasp. We met in his office in the Austin Labor Center. The building's institutional architecture, mostly reserved these days for elementary schools and county lockups, is like a time capsule of Depression-era proletarianism. Each morning, Chidester opened the window at the check counter, pushing up the wooden shutter as if it were a gate on a service elevator, and planted himself in his creaky office chair—a picture of FDR over one shoulder, a picture of Geronimo over the other.

The Head Cases

QPP workers diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder were clustered around the machine used to liquefy 1,350 pig brains every single hour.

Chidester didn't yet live in Austin during the 1985-86 strike—he worked at Hormel's plant in Ottumwa, Iowa—but he remembers well the regular four-hour runs up I-35 to deliver supplies to the families struggling through those lean months. He started in meatpacking in the late '70s, just as the country was sliding toward recession and all of the major meatpacking companies were consolidating and forcing workers to accept lower wages. Chidester says he witnessed a lot of dirty tricks meant to double-cross the unions. The Wilson Foods pork-processing plant in neighboring Albert Lea filed for bankruptcy in 1983 in order to nullify existing contracts and cut workers' average pay from $10.69 an hour to $6.50. With improved margins, owners were able to sell the company at a sizable profit.

In Austin, the Packinghouse Workers Local 9 (P-9, as it was then known) bristled at talk of lower wages. Workers had already conceded too much in return for Richard Knowlton's wan promise to build a state-of-the-art plant and keep Hormel's full operation in Austin. He had convinced P-9 to give up the incentive pay system; freeze wages until the new plant was complete; and sign away the right to strike until three years after the plant opened. Knowlton had recognized that profit margins were vanishing from butchering as automation transformed the trade into increasingly monotonous, low-skill jobs.

There was no reason, in his mind, to pay union wages for cut-and-kill workers. Like a latter-day Jay Hormel, he saw the future in making a new generation of packaged meals that America's increasingly female workforce could pop in the microwave at the end of the day. But, unlike Jay Hormel, Knowlton was reaching for increased profits (as well as a hefty bump in his own salary) by wresting away worker benefits. In October 1984, Knowlton demanded a 23 percent wage cut (PDF), from $10.69 an hour to $8.25. But under the strike restriction, P-9—which had just been absorbed into the United Food and Commercial Workers—had no recourse until August 1985.

When the no-strike period expired, P-9 walked out, beginning a 13-month strike that would stand among the most notorious and rancorous in American history. Believing that Hormel couldn't compete against larger companies that had already brought union wages down to $8.25, the UFCW asked P-9 to accept the lower wages, so as to restore the pattern bargaining that had existed for decades, with a common wage scale across all companies and plants. When P-9 refused, and even organized a nationwide boycott of Hormel products, the UFCW sent a letter to every local in the AFL-CIO asking them not to support P-9. Strikers who crossed the picket line were joined by scabs, the windows of their cars pounded daily by outraged union members. Minnesota Gov. Rudy Perpich called in the National Guard to protect the scabs. Finally the UFCW ended the strike by putting P-9 into receivership and negotiating a 1-cent increase over the wages proposed by Hormel, along with a promise that strikers would be given preference for rehiring as scab-occupied positions were vacated.

Then, in November 1987, barely a year after the conditions of the strike resolution were made official, Hormel announced a shutdown of nearly half of the new plant. Hormel would continue to operate the packaging operation on the refrigerated ("cold") side, but the cut-and-kill ("hot side") would be taken over by Quality Pork Processors Inc. QPP then existed only on paper but was headed by Richard C. Knight, a former executive at Swift, the Chicago-based meatpacker that pioneered the conveyor line and had a major plant in nearby Albert Lea.

Knight claimed his new company would be separate from Hormel, though QPP would buy exclusively Hormel hogs and sell the butchered meat exclusively back to Hormel. They would use Hormel's space and Hormel-owned equipment, rely on the Hormel mechanics, drive Hormel forklifts. The newly dubbed Local 9 felt this was a union-busting tactic and asserted that 550 former strikers still on the preferential recall list were entitled to the new jobs created by the subcontract—and at the wages the union had just agreed to, not the $6 to $8 an hour now being offered. Hormel denied this and, to make its point, erected a wall in the middle of the plant to divide Hormel from QPP. Eventually it would add a separate entrance and run a chain-link fence through the center of the parking lot. "It's kind of like taking a room in the middle of a house," Chidester told me, "and saying it's not really part of the house."*

Local 9's attorney asked the St. Paul Pioneer Press: "What good is a union contract if the company can avoid the contract by simply leasing its premises to another company and get the work done at non-union rates?" On the first day of operation in June 1988, an arbitrator closed down QPP. It took a year of legal wrangling, but the union eventually conceded. The contract was amended to allow lower pay for subcontractors, and the plant reopened in June 1989. UFCW bosses hailed the deal as a victory, even though they had won an hourly wage of $9 at QPP after the local had gone on strike to protect a $10.69 hourly wage at Hormel. The two-tier pay scale that the old P-9 leadership had warned against had arrived—but cloaked in doubletalk. "It's not a two-tiered wage," Chidester explained with an ironic smile. "It's just a subcontractor with a lower wage scale."

*The courts haven't bought the argument, either. In a 2001 class action [DC] brought by 700-plus employees who claimed they were owed wages for time spent cleaning and donning safety gear, the plaintiffs asked the judge to add Hormel as a "joint employer." She agreed, nothing that, among other things, QPP executive salaries appear to be negotiated with Hormel, which is a $7.4 billion Fortune 500 company. QPP promptly settled for $1,075,000.

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