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Behind the curtain: "Spamtown, USA" revisits 1985 Hormel strike

Miguel Octavio
Updated: March 09, 2020 11:21 PM
Created: March 09, 2020 10:49 PM

(ABC 6 News) -- The local P-9 union in Austin went on strike after Hormel Foods Corporation demanded an almost 25% cut on already frozen wages. The strike divided families and tore the community apart.

The Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis revisits the strike through its production of “Spamtown, USA.”

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A clear commotion sets the mood at the start of the play. 

Families shout at each other, but who’s right and who’s wrong isn’t clear. It’s a point director Will Davis tries to make.

“This play is not about how the strike was, it’s about how the strike felt,” Davis said.

The play follows three families. Parents are either a worker or a corporate manager, but it’s the kids who are the stars of the show.

“We just tried to focus on what was it like to live in this? What happened to the kids’ dreams? What did they learn from this? How were the kids trying to talk to the parents about this experience and bring their own needs and urgencies?” said CTC artistic director Peter C. Brosius.

“There are a number of fictionalized characters in this play who are friends who have that friendship tested because their families are on different sides of the debate,” Davis said.

While it’s all an act on stage, it was Jil Slegh’s reality.

“At home, I remember just being told, ‘don’t talk about it.’ Don’t talk about where your dad works,” Slegh said.

Slegh was in 6th grade during the strike. Her father worked on the corporate side.

“He would be out a job if he didn’t go to work,” Slegh said. “That was something that was difficult for me to understand too as a kid. All these people are so mad at where my dad works. Why does he still work there?” 

Picketers surrounded the factory during the strike. Slegh’s dad packed a bag to work each day in case he had to stay overnight. Her mother anxiously waited for him to come home. 

“If the company was going stay a leader in the food processing industry, cuts were going to have to be made, that was just the situation, sadly,” said Rayce Hardy, an economics and political science instructor.

Hardy’s father joined the strike after he worked more than 30 years for Hormel. 

“Of course I didn’t want to see my dad’s wages and benefits cut but I felt that way since 1986. I study it every year and I keep thinking I’m going to change my opinion on it but I don’t,” Hardy said.

Development in Austin continues to grow but its still kept its small town feel. 

“I don’t think it’s pronounced enough anymore that you can tell something’s off. I think it’s just a nice town now,” Slegh said.

Slegh said she’s afraid of protests because of experiences with the strike but no longer of the town.

“There’s so much more pride going on,” Slegh said. “I don’t think I was proud to be from Austin. Not for a long time.”

While Austin’s kids today may never understand the gravity of the strike, Brosius hopes the production sparks their curiosity. 

“I hope it has young people asking real questions. Is this true? What happened? To spur their interests in thinking about this event and the labor union and what a union is,” Brosius said.

But the show’s masterminds hope it sparks more conversations beyond the strike. 

“It allows you to walk into someone else’s shoes, it allows you to experience their lives, it allows you to have empathy, and see through their eyes and see the world through their lens,” Brosius said. “I hope it is also a reflection of the time we live in now which is a time of extraordinary division.”

While some say the show is all for entertainment, Davis said it’s more meaningful than that. 

"A play through the eyes of young children about ideological divisions...  has a lot of currency for us in the current moment we live in,” Davis said. 

We reached out to Hormel Foods for their reaction to the play and have not heard back. 

The show runs until April 5. Visit this link if you’d like to purchase tickets. 


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