Report — From the February 2013 issue

This Land Is Not Your Land

Deciding who belongs in America

( 2 of 11 )

During the Second World War, Hormel grew quickly by supplying Spam-filled K rations to the military. When the soldiers came home, they began buying meat in unprecedented quantities. Prices climbed so high that the mayor of New York City called for an investigation, but the New York Times concluded that price-fixing wasn’t to blame. “Americans are meat-hungry,” the reporter explained. “There are just more persons consuming more meat than ever before in the history of the country.”

In 1947, Hormel acquired the Fremont Packing Company, a small plant about forty miles northwest of Omaha on the Burlington Northern and Union Pacific railroads, and expanded its production line from around fifty workers to more than 600. At a time when the average farmer was earning just under $2,000 per year, the promise of more than 500 new jobs that paid $3,000 or more was a godsend. As the Los Angeles Times reported that year, “Most Hormel workers own their homes and have cars, refrigerators, well-dressed, well-fed, well-educated children.” For decades, wages held firm at about 20 percent above the national average for a manufacturing job, regardless of what was happening in the larger economy.

Then, in 1985, Hormel demanded a 23 percent wage cut, pushing union members at the flagship plant in Austin, Minnesota, to strike. Thirteen bitter months later, workers returned to the line. Within two years, Hormel threatened to eliminate more than 40 percent of the Fremont plant’s workforce unless the local agreed to wage cuts of their own.

Meanwhile, between 1983 and 1993, revenues doubled on increased output. As wages declined, earnings rose 350 percent, and the stock price went from four dollars per share to nearly twenty-four. But soon Hormel started looking for an even cheaper workforce, one that would be afraid to complain no matter how fast or dangerous the line became.

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