The human cost of a major American corporation's reorganization in the town of Austin, Minnesota, is chronicled in this ambitious, socially concerned documentary from filmmaker Barbara Kopple, her long-awaited follow-up to HARLAN COUNTY, U.S.A.
In 1984, the Hormel Company's management announced a cut in the hourly wage, from an average of $10.69 to $8.25, with similar reductions in benefits and an end to incentive payments that equalled a 50 percent cut for some categories of worker. The grandchildren and great-grandchildren of European
immigrants, the predominantly white laborers were predictably angry, as can be seen in their testimony at union hearings. One female employee says she doesn't begrudge the firm's shareholders their profit of $29 million, but the workers should be allowed to live in their $32,000 homes.
Local union president Ray Guyette not only echoed their grievances, but also contracted the services of Ray Rogers whose consulting firm, Corporate Campaign, pioneered public relations techniques to win labor's demands. Rogers's novel tactics not only antagonized Hormel's leaders, but far worse,
rankled the counselors of different methods at the parent union, the United Food and Commercial Workers. Although it can be a confusing thread to follow, this dispute between Guyette and Lewie Anderson, the UFCW representative, gives the film an added piquancy.
Anderson states that the industry wants to return workers to the days of The Jungle, Upton Sinclair's expose of the meatpacking conditions at the turn of the century, but is very critical of Corporate Campaign's efforts to pressure Hormel's investors. His rational discussion of the relative forces
arrayed in the struggle is contrasted with Guyette's emotional appeal to his membership that "belief will carry you a long way." Later, Guyette describes his idea of union methods in terms of the lyrics of a Bruce Springsteen song. Hormel counters with a two-tier wage system, the old, high pay for
experienced workers, and a lower one for new employees. This is rejected, setting the stage for the first strike at Hormel's Austin plant in over fifty years.
The local's inexperience now began to destroy it, according to Anderson who reiterates the classic dictum that a strike is the union's final weapon and should be used with discretion, in a situation and at a time that favors the workers. Austin was not such a situation and the local foolishly
decided to rewrite their contract in the middle of negotiations. The strike coincided with difficult industry-wide talks, and Anderson is shown in the midst of feverish talks and debates. His pragmatic view is underlined by his willingness to meet with industry representatives away from the public
Hormel's final offer is to pay $10 per hour, but to freeze this rate for three years, and to Anderson's evident frustration, the local rejects it. Since their strike had already lasted over four months, some of the workers were becoming disillusioned with Guyette, despite a certain buoyancy
generated by picket lines and food distributions. The Bergstrom brothers are split by the decision to return to work, and we witness the heartbreaking choice made by some 75 members of the local union. In a frankly desperate move, the over 1400 remaining strikers attempt to spread the strike to
Hormel's other plants; they only succeed in getting 600 additional workers fired. Finally, the UFCW revokes its support, ceasing strike benefit payments, and negotiates a pay rate of $10.25 for that small fraction of the local union members who have crossed the picket line. Vacant store fronts in
downtown Austin are a result, as well as the relocation of the defeated workers, including the woman who had earlier referred to their right to live in their middle-class homes.
While the primary story of the Hormel strike is sadly routine, the secondary tale of rival strategies and competing views of unionism as personified by Anderson and Guyette is almost riveting. Almost, because of the background material that Barbara Kopple could not or would not limit. This film is
a traditionally constructed modern documentary, with a number of expected sequences of picket lines, worker testimony, stock footage from Hormel past and present and "talking heads" interview material. Some of this footage gets in the way of understanding the subtle differences between the local's
tactics and the UCFW's advice.
Part of the near-tragedy inherent in this conflict is the fact that Guyette and Rogers may have the better instincts and philosophy, but the sillier sense of political fighting, while Anderson has the canny feel of a seasoned professional, if the less romantic views of a union's role. It is this
ambiguity which gives AMERICAN DREAM its sophisticated sensibility, aside from the gloom of a failed local strike on the eve of a national recession. (Profanity.)
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- Released: 1992
- Rating: PG-13
- Review: The human cost of a major American corporation's reorganization in the town of Austin, Minnesota, is chronicled in this ambitious, socially concerned documentary from filmmaker Barbara Kopple, her long-awaited follow-up to HARLAN COUNTY, U.S.A. In 1984, t… (more)