Former Austin priest compares strike at American Crystal Co. to Hormel’s

Published 9:50 am Thursday, May 31, 2012

By Stephen J. Lee

Grand Forks Herald, N.D. (McClatchy-Tribune News Services)

As a young priest, Bishop Hoeppner, head of the Catholic Diocese of Crookston, saw firsthand the impact of a bitter labor dispute in Austin.

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“It was devastating for so many people,” he said, adding that he knew of a father and son on opposite sides of the Hormel strike. “They were at such odds, that 10 years later, the father committed suicide.”

At the time, Hoeppner administered the Catholic school in Austin.

That’s why it’s important to pray that such conflicts don’t rise out of the dispute between American Crystal Co. and the Bakery Workers union, he said.

The bishop is hosting a prayer service Sunday in Crookston, ahead of scheduled talks between management and union representatives on June 8.

Crystal President David Berg of Crystal and Bakery Workers union leaders have been invited, he said. “We hope many people will come.”

Also participating in the prayer service are Bishop Larry Wohlrabe of the Northwestern Minnesota Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and Rev. Daniel Wolpert of Crookston Presbyterian Church.

Similar prayer services were held shortly before Christmas in Grand Forks at Holy Family Catholic Church and in United Lutheran Church.

It’s been nearly 10 months since union members rejected Crystal management’s proposed five-year contract.

The company responded by locking out 1,300 workers Aug. 1 at plants in East Grand Forks; Crookston; Moorhead; Drayton, N.D.; and Hillsboro, N.D. Management hired temporary replacement workers, who finished the annual beet-processing campaign early this month.

The labor dispute in Austin in 1985 involved 1,500 workers and lasted 10 months.

According to news reports, Hormel basically won out after the national parent union cut ties with the local and about half the workers crossed picket lines and signed a new, lower-paying contract. The conflict has been said to have changed the city and left wounds still felt today.