Final Friday Film: American Dream by Barbara Kopple

Directed by Barbara Kopple
USA, 1990, 100 min

 In 1984 the Hormel meat-packing company offered the union workers in Austin, Minnesota a new contract, cutting their wages from $10.69 per hour to $8.25 per hour—benefits would be cut by 30 percent. The workers were not filled with joy. The company had just declared an annual profit of $29 million, the cuts were inspired by owners wanting to maximize profits beyond that on the backs and cuts in health and life spans of the workers and their families.

American Dream chronicles the six-month strike that followed during 1985 and 1986 at the Hormel meatpacking plant in Austin, Minnesota. The local union, P-9 of the Food and Commercial Workers, overwhelmingly rejected a contract offer with a $2/hour wage cut. Following this the meat workers strike and hire a New York consultant to manage a national media campaign against Hormel. Despite support from P-9’s rank and file, FCWU’s international disagrees with the strategy. In addition to union-company tension, there’s union-union in-fighting. Hormel holds firm; scabs, replacement workers, brothers on opposite sides, a union coup d’état, and a new contract materialize. The film asks, was it worth it, or was the strike a long-term disaster for organized labor?

In many ways, the Hormel plant in bucolic Minnesota seemed like the least likely site for a labor-management inferno. The company’s founders had been of a paternalistic bent, and Austin’s hourly wage of $10.69 was the industry standard. But in 1984, despite profits of $29 million, Hormel announced plans to cut that wage by 23%. “What are we going to have to give up,” one worker worried, “when they show a loss for the quarter?”—Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times, March 1992

Barbara Kopple, who had previously covered an extended miner’s strike in the acclaimed 1976 documentary Harlan County, USA, focuses on the personalities and emotions behind the strike, creating a highly charged portrait of labor that is sympathetic to the workers’ distress without ignoring the strike’s greater ambiguities.

 

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