The big strike ends

Published 9:20 am Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Before Albert Lea’s United Packinghouse Workers Local 6 gained national attention in 1959 for their involvement with the Wilson & Co. strike, they were average citizens just trying to make a living.

Some had started at the packinghouse right out of high school, others were married with children and yet others had worked at the plant for decades.

But no matter what the experience, each worker was affected in some way, and for many their lives were interrupted.

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Now, 50 years after the last day of the strike, the Tribune interviewed four former Wilson & Co. workers about their experiences at that time.

What led up to the disagreement between the union and the company, what took place during the strike and how was it resolved?

While these four men have agreed to share their stories openly, a few were afraid this article would open old wounds.

They said it took years to overcome the experiences they went through.

Here are their stories:

Robert Pleiss, Albert Lea, worked 35 years at Wilson & Co.

Pleiss, 88, has lived in Albert Lea his whole life.

Born on Pillsbury Avenue, his father worked at Wilson & Co. as a barrel maker.

He said he used to remember carrying his father’s lunch down Pillsbury Road and then to the plant, which was where today the vacant Blazing Star Landing is, adjacent to Garfield Avenue, Main Street and Front Street.

Pleiss, himself, started at the packinghouse in 1939 right after high school.

Before World War II, he said he was in the beef boning department.

After being drafted into the U.S. Army for three years, he came back and worked at the plant for a while before another strike began in 1946.

At that time, his mother encouraged him to find another place to work or to go back to school.

So he graduated from Luther College and taught some, but then came back to the plant in middle management.

“So many of the people who were striking were friends of mine,” he said. “It was so difficult to see the conflict. If we could have sat down and talked this thing out, there probably never would have been a strike.”

Pleiss said in the months leading up to the strike in 1959, he anticipated there was going to be trouble but never realized it was going to get as violent as it did.

As a manager, he was not represented by the union. He did not participate in the strike and actually kept his job the entire time.

“I did what I had to do,” he said. “I had a job to protect. If I didn’t go to work then I wouldn’t have a job.”

After the strike got into position in November 1959, he said the company had the position that the plant had to stay open.

It hired temporary workers — which the strikers referred to as scabs, many of whom were farmers from the area — to keep the plant in operation.

Pleiss said that’s when the situation got bad.

“I witnessed some things there that were not very nice, in fact, very bad,” he said.

He noted he saw strikers smash windshields.

“We felt really bad about that because we brought them into the plant, and we had no way of protecting them.”

He said he walked through the picket line every morning for a long time. He would greet the strikers; many were his friends.

He would talk to them amicably.

“They knew me; I knew them,” he said.

But he was never bothered by the strikers.

He said at one point he and some others actually ended up living in the plant for four to six weeks because of how the situation had escalated outside of the plant.

He, as part of middle management, worked alongside the temporary employees at that time.

He recalled conversations on the phone with his daughter at that time, who was probably 4 or 5, who would ask when he was coming home.

He also recalled one day when he looked out the plant up to the Main Street viaduct and saw 3,000 people looking down at the packinghouse yard.

“I had no animosity toward those people at all,” he said. “The only difference was I thought the company was not evil. They are not our enemy. Without the company, nobody has a job.”

Pleiss said he still sees many of the people involved with the strike out in the community.

He said he never talks about what happened with them, as he would prefer to “let it lie.”

He just hopes the people feel no animosity toward him.

When he drives past the Blazing Star Landing where the plant used to be, he said it is difficult for him. It closed in 2001 after a fire.

“I just can’t believe it’s gone,” Pleiss said. “It was there for 90 years, plus or minus.”

Bob Anderson, Albert Lea, worked 43 years at Wilson & Co.

Anderson, 70, started working at Wilson & Co. Aug. 21, 1958, in the stockyards. He worked in this position for 36 years, and then his last seven years, he cooked ham.

He was 18 when he started, right out of high school.

Prior to that, he had only worked in grocery stores.

He said he was 19 at the time the strike was called and was still living at home. His father was also working there.

He noted he thinks Wilson & Co. offered the union workers enough of a raise but said he thinks the argument was more about fringe benefits.

“Being 19, I wasn’t so much concerned about all that,” Anderson said.

He pulled picket duty every few days and still has his duty card to show that.

He said he “didn’t get too wild,” with his protests, though he knew some of the people who did.

He remembers seeing a car nose-down in the channel.

“It wasn’t a fun time, I know that,” Anderson said. “And you were wondering if you’re ever going to have a job.”

Being so young at the time of the strike, he said he didn’t notice the strike divide the community, though it probably did happen, he noted. He just knows how important Wilson & Co. was for Albert Lea jobs.

“Although the jobs weren’t fancy jobs, they provided a pretty good income at the time,” Anderson said.

If he had been married with children, he would have probably had different feelings about the experience, he said.

Wayne Jahnke, Albert Lea, worked 42 years at Wilson & Co.

Jahnke started at Wilson & Co. in May of 1959 after attending school in Mankato.

He said he was 21 years old that year, and the union was trying to get better pay and more benefits for the workers.

Though he was in Florida for most of the strike, he came back toward the end and picked up picket duty once a week for a couple hours.

He said there were “some hard feelings” for the people who were hired to replace the strikers’ jobs.

But most of those feelings have since passed, Jahnke said.

Arliss Bachtle, Albert Lea, worked 15 years at Wilson & Co.

Bachtle worked as the chief steward of the ham boning department at Wilson & Co.

In the time leading up to the strike, he said, “there was a feeling of definite unrest and not being treated fairly by the employer.”

“A lot of animosity was built up. It was like getting ready for a fight. You kind of felt it was inevitable what was going to happen.”

He said he became the captain of his shift for picket duty and was responsible for making sure his crew was in order. Every gate was picketed.

He declined to answer whether he was involved with any of the violence that resulted in the National Guard being called into Albert Lea.

“There was tension, of course” with those who crossed the picket lines, Bachtle said.

And looking back, he said, it was hard to forgive, but he felt he had to because of his Christian beliefs. It probably took five or six years after the strike to do so.

“You build up a form of hate,” Bachtle said. “There were friends and neighbors and relatives that did cross the picket lines.”

And while he has forgiven, he said he has not forgotten. He still remembers those who were strikers and those who were strike breakers.

“If the situation was to happen again, I’d do it the same,” Bachtle said. “If you get pushed into a corner, you’re going to come out swinging, but there really shouldn’t have to be a strike.”

After leaving Wilson & Co., he was hired full-time through the union as a business agent and was involved in numerous negotiations.

He is now retired.


The dispute between Wilson & Co. and the United Packinghouse Workers Local 6 began in the summer of 1959 as a dispute about mandatory overtime hours scheduled by the company.

It escalated after the workers’ contract expired between the two entities Sept. 1, 1959, and then on Nov. 3, 1959, the union officially called strike.

The strike lasted through Feb. 23, 1960, when the two entities agreed to arbitration, though many workers were not called back for months.

The following is a timeline of events before, during and after the strike by union workers, which brought national attention to Albert Lea:

June 12, 1959: About 600 Wilson & Co. employees were not working this day after a contractual disagreement between the union and management. The workers were locked out of the plant after refusing to work overtime.

 Sept. 1, 1959: The contract between the United Packinghouse Workers and Wilson & Co. expired.

Oct. 29, 1959: Wilson ended negotiations for a new contract when 225 workers refused to work a nine-hour day, claiming violation of contract. Workers gradually walked off their jobs.

Nov. 3, 1959: The union officially called strike.

 Nov. 10, 1959: Wilson asked a restraining order to prevent strikers from interfering with workers going to and from the plant. The order was issued later the same day, to continue in force until a Nov. 16 hearing on an injunction. The company subsequently asked that the hearing be delayed until Nov. 23 and the request was granted.

Nov. 23, 1959: The hearing ran until Dec. 8, when the judge asked counsel for both sides to make final arguments for Dec. 21. The restraining order continued in force.

Nov. 28, 1959: Wilson sent letters to employees advising that unless they returned to work, they would be replaced.

Nov. 30, 1959: Wilson began hiring nonunion workers and put the plant back in partial operation.

Dec. 1-7, 1959: Wilson hired 500 men to replace striking workers. The company declared it will not meet with union officials until the strikers return to work.

Dec. 9, 1959: Violence erupted in the morning, with car windows broken. Wilson got District Judge John Cahill to issue contempt citations against the union and three union members, citing them for violation of a restraining order prohibiting illegal interference with entry to the plant.

In the afternoon of the same day, nearly 1,000 pickets and sympathizers gathered outside the plant, stoning cars carrying nonunion workers from the plant and tipping three cars over. One man was hospitalized.

Dec. 10, 1959: Pickets jeered at nonunion workers going into the plant in the morning. Demonstrators hurled rocks and spat on cars, leaving the plant in the afternoon. Judge Cahill amended the previous restraining order to ban mass picketing.

Dec. 11, 1959: Minnesota Gov. Orville Freeman declared martial law in Albert Lea and ordered the Wilson plant to close immediately.

Dec. 13, 1959: Wilson and the union agreed to resume bargaining.

Dec. 14, 1959: About 300 nonunion workers were allowed to enter the plant to process some meat before it spoiled.

Dec. 23, 1959: Three federal judges ruled that Freeman exceeded his authority in using the National Guard to shut down Wilson & Co. The judges ruled the Wilson plant should be re-opened.

Dec. 28, 1959: The Wilson plant re-opened. Negotiations between the union and the company were under way.

Dec. 31, 1959: Freeman announced that the National Guard troops would be withdrawn from Albert Lea early the next week.

Jan. 4, 1960: Wilson and the union broke off negotiations in Chicago.

Jan. 7, 1960: More violence erupted in Albert Lea as two cars were burned, another was pushed into the lake and at least three people were threatened with death.

Jan. 10, 1960: Violence continued. The home of one nonunion Wilson worker was reportedly set on fire, and windows in the homes of two others were broken two days prior.

Jan. 11, 1960: Talks resumed in Chicago.

Jan. 19, 1960: Wilson said it would not rehire 2,400 of the union members who walked out of the company during the strike. The union rejected Wilson’s proposal for a strike settlement.

Jan. 30, 1960: Three thousand strikers and sympathizers rallied in support of the Wilson strike.

Feb. 2, 1960: At least two strike-connected incidents of vandalism were reported over the weekend to police.

Feb. 19, 1960: Five thousand union workers in seven Wilson plants voted to accept a two-year agreement. The strike was set to end Feb. 23.

However, the issue of when striking workers would return to work was still unresolved. This would be resolved through a three-man arbitration panel.

Feb. 25, 1960: About 750 people in Albert Lea filed for jobless benefits.

Feb. 29, 1960: The state Department of Employment Security issued a letter stating unemployment benefits would be granted to 850 Wilson employees.

March 10, 1960: The three-man arbitration panel in Chicago ruled that all but about 300 striking employees at seven Wilson plants could return to their jobs.

The decision established seniority of service as the rule in deciding who would return to work.

— Information obtained through Tribune archives and the Minnesota Historical Society.