DUBUQUE PACKING COMPANY
DUBUQUE PACKING COMPANY. Once one of Dubuque's largest employers, the Dubuque Packing Company began with the merger in June 1891 of the Dubuque Butchers' Association and the Dubuque Packing and Provision Company. The new corporation, named the Dubuque Packing Company, began business on July 1, 1891, with a capitalization of $50,000. The directors were Charles J. W. SAUNDERS, C. Steiber, L. Reinecke, and Christian Schmidt.
In 1931 the local meat supplier was purchased by H. W. (HARRY) WAHLERT and St. Louis interests from the Christian Schmitt family for $180,000 when it employed only sixty people. The new firm was incorporated for $400,000 with $300,000 in common stock and $100,000 in preferred. (1) Harry Wahlert was the president, B. M. Paar was vice-president and treasurer, and Fred Krey of St. Louis was another vice-president. (2) Before its reopening, the plant underwent a massive renovation including the installation of special tables with "mono-metal" tops, extra windows, extra refrigeration, and the construction of rooms where hides and other inedibles were kept from separate from the other parts of the building. (3) Growing rapidly through the Great Depression, largely through Wahlert's guidance, "the Pack" produced canned hams, the first American food product to be exported after WORLD WAR II. (4)
By the 1950s, Dubuque Packing Company was the second largest employer in the city. (5) In the 1960s the company's workforce reached 3,500. Annual sales in the 1970s supported a payroll of $20 million. (6) The end of the 1970s saw thousands of people dependent on Dubuque Pack either directly or indirectly, and wages won through negotiations were among the highest paid in the city. At its peak, the company's sales approached $2 billion and it had 12 plants. It was the 3rd largest beef slaughter in the U.S. (7)
The company was also recognized for the quality of the products they made. In 1960 and 1961 the company won gold medals at the California state fairs for their canned hams. They also became one of the largest suppliers of kosher meat in the United States. (8)
In 1980 "the Pack" was a major force in the economy of Dubuque, one of nine cities nationwide in which the company had plants. Workers "on the line" earned an average of $25,000 in annual wages plus an additional $11,000 in fringe benefits according to company estimates. This included an average of five weeks of vacation per year.
Blaming a changing market, high wages, and inefficient equipment, the company asked for wage and benefit concessions including a reduction of base pay from $10.69 to $9.00. When the union allowed a deadline to pass without voting on a previous wage-cut proposal, the company laid off 530 workers. Union officials charged the company with unfair labor practices and filed suit with the National Labor Relations Board. (9)
In April 1982, officials of Dubuque Packing Company announced they would close the Dubuque plant on October 16th. This action had the potential of creating unemployment for 1,200 workers and possibly raising Dubuque's unemployment rate to 17.3 percent.
On May 12, 1982 United Food and Commercial Workers Local 150-A members voted to reject the company's latest 11-point benefit and concessions package. Mel MAAS stated the workers "had enough and decided the company was going to close the plant regardless." After the vote was taken, company president Chuck Stoltz was nearly hit by an eleven gallon of dye as he walked from the headquarters. The concessions would have included a drop of base wages from $9.00 to $8.00, a loss of a week in vacation time, a limit on yearly vacations to three weeks, and an increase in worker payment of their medical insurance. (10)
News of the closing caught city officials by surprise. Union workers at the Pack had taken a 15.8 percent cut in pay and health insurance and given up some vacation time in October 1981 to keep the plant open. The City had given the company a 20 percent reduction in its property tax assessment on buildings in addition to a 38 percent reduction in its machinery assessment. Company officials would not discuss potential sale of the plant in the announcement.
In the fall of 1982, amid charges of union busting, the company sold the pork operation, Dubuque plant, and fleur-de-lis trademark to Robert Henry WAHLERT and the newly created FDL FOODS INC., for $30.5 million. The sale resulted in approximately five hundred employees being forced to accept lower wages or early retirement.
After the sale, Dubuque Packing Company moved its offices to the DUBUQUE BUILDING. Arguments continued with Local 150-A over health insurance and pension benefits.
In 1984 a district court ruled that the company had to pay full retirement benefits to eligible employees. When the company was sold, officials indicated that they wanted to take away some of the employees health, medical, and insurance benefits. The court ruled that the company should comply with an arbitrator's decision in 1983 and pay the fees of the attorney representing the union. (11)
In 1985 the headquarters was moved to Omaha, Nebraska to be more centrally located to its other plants, which were processing primarily beef at that time. The company again flourished and was later sold in a leverage buyout to BeefAmerica, a firm controlled by Eli Jacobs. Its gelatin operations were sold to the French company Sanofi. BeefAmerica went out of business in 1998 following a recall and a strike.
America's unions received an important announcement on June 14, 1991 as a result of company actions taken at the packing company. The National Labor Relations Board, in a unanimous ruling, found that the Dubuque Packing Company had violated federal labor law by refusing to negotiate with union workers over the movement of the hog kill operations from Dubuque to Rochelle, Illinois. (12)
The U. S. Court of Appeals said that the case posed "hard questions--some of the most polarizing questions in contemporary labor law." It then referred the case back to the NLRB for clarification of the bargaining obligation issue. The ruling placed the burden of proof on the employers as to why they should be free of bargaining with their unions when they choose to relocate. (13)
The packing plant in Dubuque operated under the FDL Foods Inc. name until September 1995 when the plant again closed. The plant was eventually sold to FARMLAND FOODS INC. which operated the plant until 2001. Smithfield Foods purchased the plant with the stated intention of refurbishing and reopening the plant. However Smithfield decided not to proceed with either remodeling or reopening the plant. This led to the belief that Smithfield only purchased the plant to remove competition from the market.
The former Dubuque Packing Company plant sat empty for four years. In 2003, Wal-Mart expressed interest in the site for a second supercenter. When the city decided against supplying tax incentives, Wal-Mart chose not to proceed with the project.
In 2004 local developer Wayne Briggs announced his plans to tear down the plant and redevelop the site as a shopping center. This new shopping center would have national retailers, and would give the northeastern parts of the city more shopping options. Briggs purchased the plant site. The Dubuque County zoning board gave their approval to the plans and on March 21, 2005 the city council approved the rezoning of the site.
By October 1, 2006, the buildings were totally demolished. For a brief period of time, the land was the source of interest from the DUBUQUE COMMUNITY SCHOOL DISTRICT which wanted to construct a new middle school on the site.
1. "Packing Firm Incorporated for $400,000," Telegraph-Herald and Times-Journal, July 12, 1931, p. 4
3. "Dubuque Packing Company Plant is Scene of Great Activity," Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, November 1, 1931, p. 19
9. "Dubuque Pack Workers Agree to Wage-Cut Proposals," The Daily Reporter, October 20, 1981. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1907&dat=19811020&id=-mErAAAAIBAJ&sjid=idkEAAAAIBAJ&pg=1342,1129987&hl=en
10. "Dubuque Pack to Close," The Daily Reporter, May 12, 1982. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1907&dat=19820512&id=oWMrAAAAIBAJ&sjid=pdkEAAAAIBAJ&pg=2983,2256088&hl=en
11. "Retirement Benefits Settled," The Daily Reporter, April 27, 1984. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1907&dat=19840427&id=lGYrAAAAIBAJsjid=99gEAAAAIBAJ&pg=2893,2158783&hl=en
12. "Union Wins on Plant Moves," The Tuscaloosa News, June 16, 1991, Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1817&dat=19910616&id=vDgdAAAAIBAJ&sjid=06UEAAAAIBAJ&pg=5893,3892826&hl=en
'The Pack" Changes. Quad City Times, July 20, 1980, p. 9a