Fistfights, rocks, riot police: 34 years ago, South Dakota's largest workforce walked off slaughterhouse jobs
Ultimately, the strike was deemed a 'failure' by some scholars, who noted the tough environment for labor unions in the 1980s. But it marked a dividing line for the city.
SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — There were fistfights in the street. And trucks blocked at the loading dock.
It was spring, 1987. And Sioux Falls' largest employer -- a slaughterhouse built like a fortress -- had shuddered to a stop as over 2,500 workers honored a picket line, effectively walking off the job.
Over the course of the next six months, the saga of the assembly-line butchers at John Morrell and Co. would incur a local judge's wrath, test a town's loyalties, and ultimately become a casualty of a bitter fight waged by the Reagan Administration against labor interests.
Regarding the "effectiveness" of the United Food & Commercial Workers' Union strike, sociologist Bradley Nash with Appalachian State University wrote in his 2000 dissertation, which looked at labor law in the 1980s, "the UFCW's efforts would be deemed a failure."
But for one stockyard official working cattle alley across the street, the conflict stays vividly in his mind to this day.
"There were a few skirmishes right in front of our hog chutes," Jim Woster , former co-owner of Olsen-Frankman Livestock, told Forum News Service on Tuesday, Aug. 31, about those early days of the strike when the plant stopped running. "There was a little, not fear, but hesitancy on the part of people."
The Rushmore State -- a darling of Republican officeholders in state government -- has never been a big union stronghold . According to an article by University of Nebraska-Omaha historian William C. Pratt, in 1921-22, when packinghouse workers across the nation walked off the job, Morrell's employees in Sioux Falls stayed on the job. The same was true during national strikes in 1948.
But in the mid-1980s, on the heels of a pay cut and threats of another by the Cincinnati-based Morrell's, workers got fed up. When Sioux City members with the United Food and Commercial Workers walked off their plant, Sioux Falls union members joined them in a sympathy strike.
On May 1, the largest workforce in South Dakota's largest city left their posts.
"Here we have a company that is exploiting the worker to the ninth degree," Dennis Foster, president of Local 304A, told the Argus Leader.
Initially, the massive slaughterhouse shrugged to a stop. But already, Morrell's had posted radio ads for replacement workers. Within days, the replacement workers -- labeled "scabs" derogatorily by union workers -- showed up for their new jobs.
Fights broke out on the streets. Picketers threw rocks at trucks and buses. Riot police were called. A 17-year-old was hospitalized after being injured by a policeman's night stick. And the local paper's headline read " Violence at Morrell ."
Eventually, Morrell's bused in workers, with many sleeping on cots in the plant overnight to avoid confrontation.
But the city was torn. A local Lutheran pastor held a prayer service for 200 union members, many who faced financial peril. Gov. George Mickelson called on the workers to return to their jobs.
"We feel bad because they're taking our jobs away," Joni Pesicka, a Morrell's employee, told the Argus Leader.
But the plant's closure had rippling effects across a city with truck drivers and cafes and other manufacturers who depended on Morrell's for survival.
"If I don't see something in another month, I'll have to lay somebody off," an anonymous manager of a rubber hose and cart distributor told the local paper.
In the strike's early days, the union would take some blows.
A local judge -- R.D. Hurd -- drew a stiff line in the sand, fining the union president $100 a day for breaking the "no strikes" clause buried in the union's contract.
While a legal fight ensued, the strike went ahead, with workers staying behind the picket line. But with Morrell's hiring of replacement workers, by September, nearly 80% of the plant was up-and-running again, slaughtering pigs and sheep and cows.
Year-end reports show the company's profits were dented, but not in ruin as union leaders predicted. Even more-so, Morrell's ultimately sued and won nearly $25 million from a federal jury against the international union.
The standoff marked another loss for collective-bargaining efforts in the nation when the National Labor Relations Board -- flush with Reagan appointees -- ruled the "sympathy strike" was an "economic" strike, scuttling their hopes for backpay.
By early November, the workers went back -- though some never returned.
Ultimately, while the fight was chalked up as a win for Morrell's, bigger changes were on the way for the meat industry. By the early 1990s, they stopped slaughtering cows, as the industry consolidated. In 2009, the stockyards closed up. And during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the slaughterhouse once again came under national scrutiny for working conditions that spurred an outbreak of the deadly virus.
All that is to say that this Labor Day weekend, even in a state not known for labor conflict, a union workforce still continues in the state's largest city. Earlier this summer, workers at the meat processing facility known now as Smithfield's threatened going on strike again -- ultimately signing on to a new contract , with base pay of $18.25 an hour.
But in 1987, those same jobs were paying the modern-day equivalent of about $22 an hour. Woster remembers that big pay as the fruits of what he called a "tough union" in Local 304A.
"When I came to Sioux Falls in '62, those were the best jobs in the city," said Woster, noting the job as "hard work," but one that also paid out in good benefits and vacation time. "Part of that was a tough union in 304A."