Freeman: The Governor Years, 1955-1960

By Rodney E. Leonard
Copyright 2003, the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, Minneapolis

Chapter 5: Albert Lea and the Wilson Strike

A full-scale riot erupted shortly after 4 p.m. on December 9, 1959, at the Wilson and Company meatpacking plant in Albert Lea, Minnesota. About 400 nonunion workers, most hired by Wilson as strikebreakers during the preceding week, were leaving the plant as the shift changed. More than 700 members of the United Packinghouse Workers of America (UPWA), who had been on strike for five weeks, blocked the gate.

As the second shift of strikebreakers arrived, a strikebreaker gunned his car engine, knocking down a striker and injuring his head. Word passed swiftly: a strikebreaker with a rifle was threatening a striker. Tempers flared at the rumor, and the strikers moved to block all the plant gates. Rocks flew, and most of the strikebreakers retreated into the plant for safety. Car windows shattered. Flying glass hit a nonunion worker, blinding him in one eye. Three cars were overturned, another pushed into nearby Albert Lea Lake.

The din mounted. By 6 p.m. another 300 strikers joined the melee. Twenty Albert Lea policemen, the city’s full force, came on the scene. Thirty Freeborn County sheriff’s deputies joined them. With some 350 strikebreakers still inside and hoping to get past a thousand angry strikers, the police force had too little manpower to disperse them. It didn’t try the hopeless task.

Police searched the vehicles of strikebreakers, confiscating three pistols, seven automatic rifles, two shotguns, and assorted knives. The search provided union leaders a lull to talk with the strikers. Using police bullhorns, they urged union members to proceed to their union hall a mile away for a special strike meeting. The crowd, eager for a way out of the evening’s confrontation, slowly dispersed. By 7:30 the strikebreakers could leave safely.

The next morning, December 10, began quietly. But by early afternoon, the number of strikers crowding the picket line had grown. The wives of some workers joined the crowd, swelling to more than 700 strong by 4 p.m., another shift change. Massing some 50 officers and deputies, now better prepared to quell a riot, police officers kept the crowd under control—but only at a cost. The tension forced the city and the county to keep all available personnel at the plant, neglecting their peacekeeping duties elsewhere. Vandals threw bricks through the windows of grocery stores carrying Wilson meat products, but the police could not respond. Neither could deputies deter attacks on farms where strikebreakers lived.

to be continued . . .