Monday, August 09, 2010

How a labor strike changed everything

Immigration has always been a part of our country. It's how our country was built and it's how we became known as the world's melting pot. But now immigration is viewed by many as being a negative. It's viewed as bringing crime and it's assumed by many that everyone who doesn't look like you or I is here illegally. Sure, that's the case sometimes but it isn't always. That's the subject of a Minnesota Public Radio package airing today about my old hometown -- Austin, MN -- being at a crossroads a full quarter century after the Hormel strike which gained national attention changed the landscape of the city forever.

The subject is of particular interest because I grew up in Austin. Well, more specifically a farm outside of Austin but I attended school there and lived in the city until moving in 2003. Throughout that time, those changes were taking place. I remember our very own neighbors being embroiled in the politics of teh Hormel strike. Some crossed the picket line and some stood firm. Those wounds of union men and women and the "scabs" who crossed the picket line are still a sore subject for some but the real changes in the city weren't totally visible until a few years after the strike.

The dad of a friend of mine was at least partially responsible for finding new workers willing to take the lower wages of the newly formed Quality Pork Processors (QPP). I recall advertisements touting a starting wage of a whopping $7.75/hour. These were the same jobs that, under union scale, sometimes paid double that a few years ago. That was the beginning of the immigration influx. It was (and still is) an extremely low wage for an already established but recently unemployed head of household to earn a living with so the logical recruitment target were immigrants and the logical area was south -- particularly Mexico.

There have been rumors for the past twenty years of QPP advertising on billboards in border towns in Texas and even in cities south of the border in Mexico about the high paying jobs in Austin. Supposedly a bus arrives on a weekly basis -- if not more frequently -- in Austin carrying eager, new employees for the cut and kill lines at QPP.

The new racial make-up of Austin has created a cultural divide. While the once high-paying jobs that vanished overnight left many downtown storefronts, the influx of hispanics in the city created a rebirth of sorts in the business community. Suddenly Mexican markets and restaurants sprung up. When I left in 2003 there was one authentic Mexican restaurant in town. Not so any more. The MPR story lists the number of hispanic businesses in the downtown area as nearly a dozen. They pay sales taxes and property taxes and wages, too. It's good to have businesses.

"You know, we sound like a bunch of racists down here," said Vincent Maloney, who worked at Hormel for 38 years. "But we're not."

But some view the immigrants as taking over their once whites-only community.

"We've got eight parks in town. Small ones. Big ones," Maloney said. "The white man don't dare go out there. The Mexicans have got them all cornered. And what a mess. They get these piƱatas. Beat the hell out of them."

In my last couple years living in Austin, I noticed the fondness that the new immigrants had for the community's parks. They were mostly families grilling on the weekends. Sure the crowds were large and to "old timers" the different culture is intimidating. There are plenty who view them all as bad because of the violence their culture has brought to the city. There have been stabbings and rapes and even murders. It's not a pretty fact but I think of it as a growing pain. If it weren't for the city's latest demographic make-up of 25% hispanic, the city would be a virtual ghost town. The police do their jobs in cracking down on crime but they don't racially profile because that is simply wrong.

The big sticking point is that the influx of hispanic immigrants are very adamant about clinging to their heritage, their language and their culture. That doesn't sit well with established residents.

"Everything is labeled here, making it easier for them to keep their language," she said. "At HyVee, the grocery store, they have the Spanish names for the restrooms and they have the magazines that are printed in Spanish. They just enable them to keep their language. ... I think everyone would feel more accepting if they tried to blend in."

That quoted point is something I actually agree with. My grandpa immigrated here from Denmark. He worked hard to learn the language and earn a living. He farmed for decades and provided for his large family. I don't recall my dad ever saying that his dad spoke Danish -- even inside the house or with relatives who immigrated here as well. Sure, he hung on to the language because he as well as his relatives corresponded with family members back in Denmark but that was the extent of him keeping his language. May dad can't speak one single word of Danish. My grandpa blended in.

Is it different now? Was it different a century ago? Was it shameful to be proud of your immigrant heritage in 1917? I don't have the answers but I do know that my old hometown has permanently changed and those residents need to confront the change head on, embrace the positives and work with their immigrant neighbors together to make the city better before the few bad apples effectively take over.

1 comment:

choochoo said...

I've been an immigrant for two days, almost. It's a bit weird still, but I'll get the hang of it. People are fine with me as long as they don't think I'm Swedish. Which is also weird. lol.