With many people still unemployed, and as we continue to face economic hardship, the documentary American Dream is just as relevant today it was back in the early 1990s when it was released. The film takes place in Austin, Minnesota, a small town due south of Minneapolis, and centers around the local Hormel meat-packing plant. The facility had been an excellent place to work offering great benefits and good wages to employees. Just as the United States was coming out of a recession, Hormel announced that they would be cutting wages for employees from $10.69 to $8.25. To add insult to injury, benefits would be cut by 30% for those employees.
The employees, as you can imagine, were angry, but they belonged to a union, the United Food and Commercial Workers. They turned to their union at the national level for support. However, these cuts were occurring across the country, and the meat-packers were not supported by United Food and Commercial Workers. In the past year, Hormel had a $30 million dollar profit. With the belief that the company had the money, the workers decided to strike; American Dream follows the strike from the start to the finish.
The strike begins easily enough as the workers picket outside of the building while local union leaders try to negotiate terms with Hormel. However, Hormel makes it clear that there is little negotiating to be done. Their position is that they will not return the wage to $10.69. As the strike continues, scabs are brought in to keep the plant running, some of which are related to those who are striking. As their chances worsen, they decided to hire a consultant named Ray Rogers who helps bring national coverage to the strike and encourages blocking of the gates to the meatpacking plant to stop workers from entering. At one point, Hormel offers a wage compromise to their workers, but they don’t take it. Instead, they opt to tear up the old contract and start from scratch. This plan proves to be disastrous when Hormel removes benefits which had been standard and little ground is gained.
Soon enough, weeks turn into months. The strike lasts for over a year. Finally, an agreement is finally reached, but the workers consider it to be unsatisfactory. Many of the workers are not rehired by Hormel and forced to look for other lines of work. In the end, the workers lose badly to Hormel. It is a sad ending, but it is often how strikes end.
The film itself was well received critically. The local paper approved of the film as did Roger Ebert. Barbara Kopple and Arthur Kohn received the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 1991. It also received many other awards including three documentary awards from the Sundance Film Festival. American Dream is an amazing film, and it is a must see.