Guardsmen Say They’re in Austin to Keep Peace, Not Take Sides With PM-Hormel Strike Bjt
AUSTIN, Minn. (AP) _ Although striking meatpackers have called them a ″private security force″ for Geo. A. Hormel & Co., National Guardsmen will remain neutral in the strike while keeping the peace, a Guard spokesman says.
″We do not try to take sides in a dispute,″ said Capt. John Botnen, 28, a Guard public affairs officer. ″We’re here to protect lives and property.″
″With us,″ said 1st Lt. Greg Darby, a platoon leader, ″the politics stop at our front door.″
Gov. Rudy Perpich called out the Guard on Monday after Austin law agencies said crowds outside the strikebound Hormel plant were out of control. About 500 Guardsmen were on duty Tuesday, and an additional 300 were called in later.
Botnen said the guardsmen, who are paid at least $65 a day while on duty, are from the Army and Air National Guard. While in Austin, the guardsmen stay at the Armory and do not mix with the public.
″If they’re out interacting, they might get to know them (strikers),″ he said. ″You try to remain uninvolved and non-biased.″
Although some strikers and their supporters taunted the guardsmen Tuesday morning, Botnen said there were no altercations.
″There was some name-calling, but it ceased because it had no effect. The National Guard is trained very heavily in crowd control,″ he said Tuesday.
Guardsmen are hit with water balloons and buckets of water as part of that training, he said, ″so when it comes to the real thing, they don’t panic.″
The guardsmen are not armed. Instead, they carry 3-foot-long wood batons. They also wear riot gear, including steel helmets with plexiglas face shields, flak vests and camouflage fatigues.
While on eight-hour shifts at the plant, the Guardsmen form lines in the streets to prevent fights between strikers and workers attempting to cross the picket line.
While on line, guardsmen remain impassive and are instructed not to speak. If there is a confrontation, Botnen said, ″they are to take the least amount of action to get out of the situation. If arrests are to be made, that’s up to the sheriff.″
Guardsmen eat bag lunches or dehydrated food while at the plant, and take other meals at the Armory. The rest of the day is devoted to eight hours for sleeping and eight hours for training, Botnen said.
Some strikers have questioned Perpich’s decision to activate the Guard.
″I think it’s a gross waste of the taxpayers’ money to send the National Guard here when there’s no violence. I think they’re being used by the company,″ said striker Dan Allen, 28.
″He did not feel it was a waste of taxpayers’ money,″ Botnen said. ″We are here to help in this situation.″