Introduction By Bill Leumer
Jake Cooper (1916–1990), the author of the following essay, was a veteran of the Minneapolis Teamsters strike of 1934 and a lifelong revolutionary socialist. Like many other Socialist Workers Party leaders, he was imprisoned under the Smith Act in 1944 for opposing the U.S. involvement in the Second World War. Jake was the chairperson of the Metro P-9 Strike Support Committee during the Hormel strike in Austin, Minnesota in 1985-86. His “Lessons of the P-9 Strike” is a balance sheet of the fight against Hormel. The booklet goes over the role of Hormel, the government, the labor officials, and the courts in assisting to break the P-9 strike, as well as the strike strategy adopted by the P-9 local union leaders.
Workers Action is reprinting a chapter of Jake Cooper’s booklet, titled “Lessons of the P-9 Strike,” which first appeared in 1988. The chapter we are posting is: “Corporate Campaign: An Erroneous Strategy.”
The strike by Local P-9 of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) against Hormel Foods Corporation began in August 1985 and lasted for more than one year.
The P-9 strike was closely followed by many trade unionists, as well as other workers across the country because the members of P-9 were determined to put up a fight against Hormel’s demands for concessions from the union, even though Hormel was making a substantial profit. This policy of turning the union into a fighting force for the members to oppose the concessions inspired widespread strike support throughout the country. During the strike they faced the combined assault of the police, the judicial system and the state’s National Guard.
From the very beginning the strike was being undermined by top UFCW officials as well as by then President of the AFL-CIO Lane Kirkland in that they collaborated with Hormel to bring the strike to an end as soon as possible on the basis of the company’s terms.
This chapter of Jake Cooper’s booklet addresses the P-9 leadership’s failure to mobilize the entire membership and the union’s allies to shut down the Austin Hormel plant by using sustained mass picketing to keep out all the scabs when the plant was reopened in January of 1986.
There was one day, January 29, 1986, that mass picketing was employed which did succeed in closing down the Hormel plant. This day of mass picketing was organized primarily by P-9 strike solidarity activists. This successful mass action was not to be repeated.
The reason for not mobilizing the membership and others to shut the plant down and keep it closed was the adoption by the P-9 local leadership of the “Corporate Campaign” strategy developed by Ray Rogers who was employed by the P-9 Local to help develop alternative tactics for the strike. Rogers’ “new tactics” for his corporate campaign were founded on the notion that strikes cannot be won on the picket line. What Rogers proposed instead of mass pickets to shut down the plant was a series of publicity stunts and gimmicks like civil disobedience by a few people at banks that had relations with Hormel. Rogers’ thinking seemed to be that by engaging in this form of limp activity the strike could gain sympathy.
Jake Cooper’s chapter posted here analyzes the paralysis that Local P-9 confronted when, under the protection of the National Guard, the Hormel plant was reopened.
Why Corporate Campaign’s Tactics Can’t Win Strikes
In defiance of the forces arrayed against them, P-9 was determined to carry on the fight. The members saw themselves – and rightly so – as the vanguard against the concessions offensive of the corporations. As a result, they enjoyed the passionate support of class-conscious workers everywhere. But unfortunately, the union was saddled with an incorrect strategy for winning the strike.
The P-9 leadership – and the membership, although with some grumblings and reservations – followed the Corporate Campaign strategy to the letter.
Ray Rogers’ “corporate campaign” or “new tactics” was based on the judgment that strikes in the past period, such as the Phelps-Dodge, Greyhound, Caterpillar Tractor and Con-Edison strikes, were defeated because the old methods of struggle no longer worked. Rogers believed that the way to defeat union-busting companies was to cut-off their power base at the banks, holding companies, and other industries that have a financial interest in the struck company.
“Corporate Campaigners,” however, fail to appreciate the high degree of class consciousness of these masters of finance and industry. Their leaders – unlike the “leadership” of the workers – do not delude themselves with the myth of common interests between capital and labor. They see clearly what their interests require, and are not easily pitted one against the other.
What “Corporate Campaigners” also fail to take into consideration is the history of the labor movement and how it was built. The big union struggles of the 1930s, like the Teamsters strike in Minneapolis – the Auto-Lite strike in Toledo, Ohio, the Longshoremen’s and Seamen’s strike in 1933, and the militant strikes of coal miners and mass production workers in the auto, rubber, electrical, and other giant industries – were won by closing down the plants and using the mobilizations of the workers to keep them closed.
One of the corporate campaign’s justifications for “new tactics” is that anti-labor legislation enacted since the 1930s has eroded the power of unions. This is less than half true. First, when the 1930s labor upsurge began, the laws in effect were no less anti-labor. Second, the much deplored anti-labor legislation was enacted without any attempt at effective resistance by the labor bureaucracy. To this day, labor’s misleadership meekly obeys laws that would fall like a house of cards in the face of determined mass defiance.
“Corporate Campaigners” are also under the misapprehension that “Corporate Greed,” as they call it, is a “policy.” But the irrefutable drive to constantly increase the rate of profit is not a “policy.” It is intrinsic to capitalism, its categorical imperative.
Fight at the point of production
The strategy of P-9’s Corporate Campaign, led by Ray Rogers, boiled down to waging a serious fight everywhere but at the plant gate in Austin. Rogers’ tactics for mobilizing financial and moral support wherever possible were a positive and traditional union strike tactic. But from the moment Hormel announced they would renew operations at the Austin plant, the P-9 leadership desperately needed to shift its emphasis to take up the challenge and mobilize mass support to meet this deadly threat.
From that moment, beefing up the picketline to keep the plant closed was a dire and irreplaceable necessity. But Ray Rogers’ corporate campaign excluded the tactic of effective picketing to stop the strike breaking. The P-9 leadership made the fatal error of believing they could win without shutting down the plant. In the last analysis, they were intimidated by the long string of defeats the labor movement had suffered.
While strikebreakers were being herded into the plant under National Guard protection, Ray Rogers outlined his plans resistance at a P-9 membership meeting. His prescription was to emulate the tactics of the Gandhi movement in India and the Black civil rights movement in the United States.
“If it becomes necessary,” Rogers told P-9 members at a union meeting after Hormel reopened, “we’ll be asking everyone in this room to lay down in front of those plant gates. Men, women and children will have to go to jail. But I guarantee your support will increase tremendously.”
Rogers wanted P-9 members to block the gate a few at a time, and then be arrested. “The jails can’t hold them all,” he said. But the jails could hold them all. And workers can’t conduct a struggle if they’re in jail.
Confusion about the stakes
While advocating the tactics employed by the civil rights movement, Ray Rogers failed to grasp the source of the enormous power of the Black struggle for equality. The Black civil rights struggle was a fight for social equality against Jim Crow, the system of legalized segregation in the South. It was a mass struggle for elementary democratic rights against the Southern Jim Crow laws.
The moral authority of the civil rights movement was assured from the beginning because it exposed the hypocrisy of so-called American democracy. The tactic of mass civil disobedience and mass passive resistance employed by millions of Black men, women and children throughout the South in the early 1960s cannot be seen apart from the simmering anger of the urban Black working class, which was reflected in the massive and legal march on Washington, D.C., in 1963, and the explosions in the Black ghettos during the summer of 1965.
Moreover, the international context in which the Black civil rights movement took place should be examined. U.S. imperialism was locked in deadly struggle with millions of colonial people also fighting for the most fundamental human rights. The U.S. imperialist war against the Vietnamese, for example, was carried out in the name of “freedom” and “democracy.”
But the racism directed against Blacks in capitalist America gave the lie to this rationalization for justifying the unmitigated repression directed against the Vietnamese freedom struggle. Capitalists were divided because of the conflict between their domestic and foreign policy.
Civil disobedience was a dramatic component of the mass civil rights struggle, but not its most powerful expression. The ruling class was forced to make concessions on civil rights because they were faced with potential social upheavals led by the urban Black masses. In that sense, the P-9 unionists, like Blacks in the 1960s, had to raise the stakes considerably before the bosses would retreat.
The P-9 workers were involved in a struggle around class demands which united the employer class. A profit-hungry company like Hormel could not be “embarrassed” into acquiescing to the workers’ demands. Nor could they have been divided from their class on moral grounds. Only the threat of a localized strike struggle triggering a generalized labor upsurge could impel the employers – the ruling class – to force one of their own to back down.
Ray Rogers’ advocacy of the tactic of civil disobedience disarmed the P-9 workers because it appealed to what was perceived as a weakness: that the workers, by their numbers and determination, were incapable of winning a direct confrontation on the real field of battle – the picketline.
The substitute tactic of laying down at the plant gate and allowing police to escort scabs through was completely ineffective. Ordering strikers to meekly allow themselves to be picked up bodily and thrown into police vans was guaranteed to create the illusion of powerlessness. This mistaken defeatist policy underlying the “Corporate Campaign” steadily drained P-9 members of their self-confidence and steadily increased their sense of demoralization.
In early February 1986, Ray Rogers’ naivete was revealed when he attempted to negotiate a deal with local law-enforcement officials to allow the striking workers to challenge the injunction against mass picketing by committing civil disobedience (sitting down) at the plant gate, thus closing the plant. The P-9 members and their supporters, Rogers promised, would then allow the police to arrest them.
Sheriff Wayne Goodnature [sic], who was in charge of the cops, rejected this bizarre request. “I don’t believe we can do that, because our responsibility is to keep those roads open,” the bemused sheriff told the press. “The company has a right to run its business and I don’t see anyway that I can possibly participate in that kind of action.”
It certainly is a “new” tactic to expect strikebreakers – the cops and the National Guard – to collaborate in efforts to shut down a plant. As Frank Ellis, a founding leader of P-9 said: Injunctions and cops are used only to defend property rights, not human rights.
Weak forces for one-shot actions
After the police rejected Rogers’ proposals, sporadic one-shot attempts to challenge and protest the “unfairness” of Hormel were organized. These actions eventually turned into symbolic acts, resulting in arrests and suspended sentences for the best of the P-9 activists.
For example, on Feb. 6, 1986, 27 P-9 members were arrested for blocking a Highway 90 off-ramp near the Hormel plant. Ray Rogers was among those arrested. In a token gesture, these unionists vainly attempted to challenge an injunction that was issued to keep striking workers away from the plant. But their numbers were woefully inadequate to do more than get themselves arrested.
The authorities charged Rogers with “criminal syndicalism.” This law was a World War I sedition statute designed for the repression of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and the Non-Partisan League.
The P-9 leadership was now facing stiff jail sentences. What should have been a misdemeanor was turned by the authorities into a felony. The police and the courts wanted to intimidate the strikers. Rogers faced a $5000 fine and five years in prison for “criminal syndicalism.” Rogers and the other arrested strikers were given suspended sentences. But the message was clear. If they were arrested again, the suspended sentences would be invoked.
The severity of the charges was designed to intimidate other P-9 members from challenging the strikebreaking by Hormel, the cops, and the courts. In this regard, the authorities were somewhat successful. P-9 members were not inclined to make futile, symbolic “gestures” that would result in nothing more than their arrest and imprisonment. Furthermore, the central leadership of P-9 had to maintain a low profile to avoid the axe coming down on their own necks for the rest of the strike.
The leadership was victimized because they tried to substitute themselves for the 1500 strikers they neglected to mobilize. Throughout the strike, and particularly after Hormel attempted to open, the workers almost begged to be turned loose to shut down the plant. But the most the P-9 leadership did was to stand aside and permit leaderless strikers to attempt this difficult task – a task which required the complete participation of a fully mobilized rank and file and its elected leadership to succeed.
“Corporate Campaigners” in the leadership of the P-9 strike against Hormel rationalized their passive picketing policy in the name of “non-violence.” But violence against workers is inflicted every day by the boss. Violence is when the company and the laws prevent working people from earning enough money to properly feed, clothe, and house their families.
Isn’t it violence when a scab with police protection crashes through a picketline and injures or kills a union worker? Isn’t it violence when the police and National Guard crack workers’ skulls so the boss can break their union? Isn’t there a qualitative difference between this kind of violence and defensive action by the worker victims?