A view from the strike’s front lines

Published 9:59 pm Saturday, August 14, 2010

Lee Bonorden was down at the strike everyday, covering the event first hand for the Austin Daily Herald. --Eric Johnson/photodesk@austindailyherald.com

On Aug. 2, the Herald sat down with Lee Bonorden, who covered the strike for the paper in the mid-1980s. Now retired, Bonorden reflected on a tumultuous time, both in his community and in his career.

Q. How far along in your career were you when you began covering the strike?

A. It happened in 1985 and I was the divorced parent of a daughter and son. We moved here to Austin to take a job. At that time, I was 40 years old and I had been writing or reporting full-time since 1969. I was maybe at the midpoint of the career I held. I retired a year ago and that was the 40th anniversary of being a reporter, so I had been around the block. A friend of mine had been given the job of publisher of the Austin Daily Herald. Through the years, he had helped me find jobs and he thought he had a good one for me. The regional editor at the time was leaving the staff and he thought I would do well at the job. Being one of the quintessential restless single fathers, it just sounded like a good idea.

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Q. Before the strike, not many in the region may have known a whole lot about Austin. How did you see the community of Austin change as the strike began to evolve?

A. When I came here in 1985, things were happening. It was an evolving situation going on. I think the first thing that I noticed was, and forgive me for understating the problem, ‘this was serious.’ I had never reported or been in a community where there was a labor dispute before. Very quickly you learned there were bars where company executives went — Tolly’s Time Out was their favorite watering hole — and there were bars where militant strikers went like Lefty’s and the so called eastside bars. Quickly enough, you saw it even in church. I went to a church called Grace Lutheran and we had several police officers and deputies that went there, five or six that I remember, and very quickly it was like the Amish. The cops sat on one side of the church and the militant strikers sat on the other side. They wouldn’t speak. And this was when they were only talking about walking off the job or going on strike. That also meant family members, brothers, who had divisive views who wanted to keep their job and those who wanted to keep striker solidarity.

Q. Word of the strike began to get serious in 1984. Where were you when you first learned the strike of 1985 was set to begin?

Pardon my crusty speak, but I was a virgin who got defrocked very quickly. Before coming to Austin, I didn’t know anything about the history of this labor dispute going on here. It was quite a long history, it didn’t happen overnight. It was all new to me and I was very naive. At this point in my career, I was this frenetic single parent just trying to get a job, pay the bills and keep the family afloat. As a reporter, I enjoyed more so covering people rather than issues. Feature stories and stories about events, rather than deep-seated issues. So when I came to Austin, I got with it in a hurry. It’s (due) to my own naivety that I didn’t inquire if there were any issues to be aware of here. The event sounded exciting and as a journalist I thought I could keep myself apart from that.

A. You have said that the Herald was labeled as a Hormel sympathizer. Why do you feel the people of Austin felt this way?

Nine out of 10 historians could tell you that Austin was a meatpacking town and a bastion of labor. There truly was a rich history of first George A. Hormel, and then his son Jay, creating contracts and working conditions that made meatpacking a premier job here. It wasn’t at all like Sinclair’s “The Jungle.” It’s a terrible job to slice open a pig’s innards and make sausage and bacon and so on. But, they had the best working conditions and the best benefits of anybody. In the ‘50s, according to others who were here then, you would find more new cars and pickup trucks outside the plant than you would across the freeway at the corporate offices. The plant workers were paid far better than the managers of the companies. The plant workers were building new homes, they were driving the economy, they were spending the money locally. So, there was a rich history that this was a very strong labor town. Other places had stuff going on, but this was the place in the Midwest where people wanted to come to work because of the benefits and the working conditions here. So, labor was king here in Austin.

This made the issue bring up very passionate feelings. After all, the job is about blood and guts and you work very hard while doing dangerous work with sharp knives. To this day, you can find old-timers with missing fingers or thumbs, so there is a lot of danger inherent to the work here.

So, the union element wasn’t about to be criticized. Its members worked hard, sacrificed hard and they drove the economy of Austin. So, to see in print criticism of the union being too demanding was too much. To find something to criticize about the union was just unheard of. The union was Mother Teresa, Abe Lincoln and the Lord and Savior all rolled into one. So, they thought ‘how dare you criticize this element?’ Around that time, things were changing nationally. The unions were losing their power. Already the Tyson chicken empire was importing immigrant labor and paying them less than its regular workers. So, the Herald didn’t have any marching orders that we were going to discredit the union. We simply tried … earnestly to provide a fair balance of what was considered pro-company news and what was considered pro-union news. In the union, there was more passion than in the suits at the office. They would march into the Herald offices and confront you face to face, demanding a more friendly reporting of union activities and a less friendly reporting of the company here. Among the dissidents and militant unions, we became known as the “Hormel Herald” simply for trying to print balanced news.

Q. How did that impact your experience reporting on the strike? People involved in the strike became very passionate about their side of the issue. Did you ever feel your job put you in danger?

A. Occasionally the hair would stand up on the back of your neck. I’m not a hero, but they shout at you, “You mother-f***ing, ass-kissing journalist. If you don’t change the way you report, we’ll break your legs.” I didn’t face the dangers the so-called scabs faced going back to work, but there were street corner confrontations.

I tried to disconnect myself from what I would report. But, I think it made me open my eyes and be aware that every word that I wrote would be scrutinized.

It takes pretty big cajones to go cover a union rally when they’re saying, “Hey, there goes Lee Bonorden of the Hormel Herald. He’ll screw it up. He’ll not tell the truth.”

It was intimidation. Nobody ever threw a punch at me or wrote “scab” on my front lawn, but there was the threat that they would.

Leaving your kids at home also felt like a risk, but what could you do? Bring them along in their pajamas when you covered the story in the morning?

Q. You were a reporter living in a small community, covering a large issue. Did your coverage of the event ever cross over into your personal life?

A. There were people whose houses got shot at. There were Molotov cocktails thrown at homes. There were lawns that by night people would write “scab” on. They made devices that would flatten your tires better than nails.

At home, there were a few threatening phone calls. Nowadays, I laugh at it but at the time it was exciting. The kids at the time would rush to answer the phone, and they would say it was for me. I would take the phone and hear, “You mother-f***ing journalist, I’m gonna break your legs.” I would slam down the phone and get angry at the kids. I would say, “Don’t answer those calls here, you don’t have to listen to that kind of stuff.” They would say it was just someone nicely asking if Lee Bonorden was there. So, it was kind of like fair fighting. Don’t take it out on the reporter’s kids, but he was fair game. I didn’t frequent the eastside bars where the unions hung out. You would end up looking at people a different way.

Q. This was a large issue in Austin and the surrounding area with a lot of intense moments. What would you consider the highlights of your strike coverage?

A. There was the time when (the Rev.) Jesse Jackson came to town. Jesse was running for office at the time, let us be truthful about that. So you had to separate bulls**t from fact to determine what he was doing here. He prayed for the people that were arrested, and I think he was arrested too at one point.

He was a celebrity. The Rainbow Coalition was his platform at the time he was here.

The character we have not mentioned, a man by the name of Ray Rogers, was hired by the union to conduct its Corporate Campaign. There were rallies at the high school here that were held by the union, by Rogers.

There was the riot, with the National Guard and the tear gas, which was pretty exciting. There was a lot going on then. … There were so many things happening here that it’s hard to determine what was the most interesting.

Q. Was there any aspect about the strike that most people weren’t aware of?

A. There was an aspect to the strike, in the form of blood, sweat and tears, that there were people that suffered. People who held onto those opinions that they were right and that the other side was wrong, and that things were going to change forever. And what they didn’t know was how far they would change and that things were out of control. That they had no control over those changes.

The strike changed people’s lives forever and it would change the union forever. There would be no union as it once was anymore.

Right or wrong, we have been a part of the much larger change occurring in the United States involving unions and immigration.

Q. This was a national story that received a great deal of attention from across the country. Do you feel other news outlets accurately portrayed the strike?

A. I do, and it’s not just an old newspaper hack defending his profession. “American Dream,” the documentary on the strike, is just about as clear of a view about the strikers

from their side as anything possibly could be. There are also several other books and accounts of it.

Q. A lot happened during the Hormel Strike of 1985 — Reagan was running for president and unions across the country seemed to be losing ground. Do you think these bigger-picture events affected the strike in Austin?

A. Something definitely happened out there. This wasn’t just a dispute between workers and their employers. This was a nation taking sides. It would really be maybe a disservice to try to describe all the sides.

Q. How did you see Hormel and P-9’s approach to the strike change over time?

A. The strike never captured the national imagination like the “The Jungle” did because the safety at the plants have improved so much.

I think the strike was so intense because the factory was founded by George Hormel and Jay Hormel, who encouraged the ideas that the worker came first, that we would take care of our workers and that we were feeding the nation, so we would protect them and provide a safe working environment.

With how the company changed, I think Hormel at first was in disbelief that the strike would happen. The union put money in escrow to build the plant in Austin. It showed they wanted to keep their jobs. Then the strike happens and I think the union membership felt that it was going to get the good contacts and benefits it thought it was going to get there. I think Hormel looked on the strikers with benign neglect, like they were thinking, “Oh, these foolish people. They don’t know what they are doing and they will cave in real soon and it will all be over.” But it wasn’t. Ray Rogers’ campaign went all over, from coast to coast. That must have surprised the company that they would have that kind of battle on so many different fronts.

The thing I never really understood is that the international union leadership discredited the local P-9ers. Through legal work, they removed the militants from office. They physically removed them and replaced them with “yes” men. That was like cutting off the head of the beast to get rid of the militants. Soon after, the rank and file capitulated and gave up.

With regards to the union, I think the rank and file of the meatpacker’s union placed their trust in Ray Rogers and paid him an enormous sum of money to conduct his Corporate Campaign, so that he could stage strikes in front of all the different plants. For whatever reasons, that backfired. In the end, there were factions in the union that felt they were betrayed by Ray Rogers. They felt he had screwed them, they were foolish to have placed their trust in him, to give him all this money and by doing so we bankrupted our treasury here. So, they felt they had no money left to stage a strike of any sort. So I feel by a chain of events, P-9 unraveled itself.

I think the rank and file forgave (local union president) Jim Guyette and never really blamed him because he was a local boy while Ray Rogers was this outsider that came to town. I think Rogers was a guy that brought a good idea to town that turned out to be a bad idea and he paid dearly for it.

Q. Talking about the strike is still a sensitive issue for many people in the area. How do you the think the community as a whole now reflects on the whole situation?

A. I have a good example. I spoke with my friend who is a meatpacker who works seven days a week on the SPAM line. I told him a reporter from the Herald was going to come and ask me questions about the strike. I asked him and he said, “Nowadays, it’s so far back and the stars of it are so much older that time blocks out some of the nitty-gritty details. Plus, the new Hispanic workforce thinks ‘who the hell cares’ because it’s an event that took place 25 years ago and you’re just here to work.” (I) think the strike has waned in its power and emotion. I’m sure the old guard would think it’s behind them and wonder why you would want to bring that up. There might be a few ornery people that are still mad at each other, but generally the clans have mellowed throughout the years. Time heals all or most wounds.

Also, Hormel has changed in my 25 years here. When I came to town, it was meatpacker, it was a meat processor. Now it’s a total food processor. The company has such a brilliant plan to diversify and buy all these subsidiaries while holding on to the core products. It’s been a perfect strategy for this era. It would be an insult to call it a meatpacker now. The majority of people nowadays will think this is ancient history.

Q. Do you feel you walked away from the strike a more experienced reporter?

A. Definitely. How we reported back then may have been different and looser than what we do today, but I still learned to do the basic 9 o’clock listen to how many strikers the police arrested last night, then 11 o’clock listen to Guyette say how many strikers the police brutalized last night and when the National Guard was here, they had a lower officer give a brief report. It makes any reporter work harder to verify the facts. The whole experience made me a better reporter. It made this individual better appreciate people and the passion they hold for certain issues in their lifetime.

The one thing I really treasure about the strike is I got to talk with everyone involved on both sides. Any reporter would appreciate that you could talk to people.

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