The 1959 Wilson Meatpacking Strike

To Readers of Packinghouse Daughter:

Here is a recent video of interviews with two people whose lives were touched by the 1959 strike at the Wilson meatpacking plant in Albert Lea, MN:  Robert Pleiss, a management employee, who was required by terms of his job to work throughout the strike, and Robert Anderson, a laborer and member of the United Packinghouse Workers of America, who went out on strike.  I didn’t interview either of these men for my memoir, but after the book was published I received a nice letter, one of my favorites, from Bob Anderson, who was the last ’59 striker still employed at Farmland Foods, a later owner, when the plant burned in the summer of 2001. The plant burned just after the paperback edition of Ph.D. went to press, so I was unable to insert that news. It has since been torn down, so my description of the plant from several vantage points in town is no longer valid.  If you’ve imagined how it looms, you’ll be surprised to see the large, empty lot where it used to be.  The site is now called, with stunning optimism, “Blazing Star Landing.”

1959 Wilson Strike

You will note that both men’s accounts of their worklives and their roles in the strike show an ambivalence that underscores how complex an event this was.  This ambivalence is typical of the people I interviewed as well.  The strikers valued jobs that were grueling and unpleasant, because the work was skilled and steady and paid relatively well.  The management enjoyed relationships with the union members as neighbors, fellow parishioners, even as family.  Demands for company loyalty strained these relationships and broke some, but by no means all.  “Fairness” was a community value, and I found little love for Wilson & Co.’s top management in Chicago  among the local management employees I talked to.

I have two quibbles with the visuals chosen to illustrate the men’s recollections.  When Pleiss refers to the “riot” at the plant gate, the photos shown on two occasions are of the solidarity march held more than six weeks later.  The march, on January 30, 1960, was a peaceful event that drew union members from as far as South St. Paul and Cedar Rapids.  The violence outside the plant, on December 10 and 11, 1959, after “permanent replacements” had been brought in, was a local affair.  Second, when Pleiss refers to “the railroad bridge” where spectators had gathered, the video flashes on an iron-canopied trestle alongside a lake.  The “bridge” was likely the viaduct over railroad tracks on East Main Street, which carried both U.S. Highways 65 and 16 through town.  That trafficked thoroughfare was where the crowds gathered to watch what was happening below.

Thank you to photographer Brie Cohen of the Albert Lea Tribune for shooting and editing the video, and to my classmate Neil “Gunnar” Berg for calling it to my attention.  If you had difficulty viewing the video, try it on Berg’s website.

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