Liz Baier’s Story Behind the Story

9 Sep

“Austin at a Crossroads: 25 Years After the Hormel Strike”
(A three-part radio and online series on Minnesota Public Radio)

By Elizabeth Baier
IJJ “Immigration in the Heartland” Fellow, 2010

I went into this project with the vague idea of exploring the changing demographics of Austin, Minn., one of dozens of meat-packing towns in the America Midwest.

Thousands of immigrants — mostly Mexican and Guatemalan — have landed in Austin in the last decade lured by jobs at meat processing giant Hormel.
I wanted to explore the day-to-day challenges a rural American town undergoes when it’s gradually transformed by a large community of immigrant workers and how the community reconciles its history with its present-day reality.

The struggles in Austin are compounded by the fact that residents harbor deep memories of a contentious labor strike at the Hormel plant in 1985. The 10-month strike was one of the longest in an industry racked by them in the 1980s. After the strike, Austin started to mirror other meatpacking towns and attract immigrant workers who showed up for jobs.

When I realized this year marked the 25th anniversary of the labor strike, I knew I had to dive into the subject and explore how the labor dispute paved the way for modern-day Austin.

I began interviewing dozens of people around town – from government and police officials to social service providers and undocumented workers at the plant. I quickly realized that there were some key “scenes” I would need for an eventual radio story, but I had no clear focus on how many stories I would have and how I would focus each one of them. Still, I used these interviews early on to build a rapport and trust with sources. To my surprise, it was easier to get undocumented workers to speak with me — candidly and on the record — than some of the former Hormel workers who had gone on strike more than two decades. In many ways, that reinforced the role the strike still plays in the memories of many Austin residents.

After conducting the first round of interviews, I started to log dozens of hours of tape and listen for themes, commonalities and nuance that might emerge from the interviews. Among the recurring points I discovered were how the memory of the strike is still very much alive for some long-timers; how former union members still feel betrayed by the company; the intense fear some immigrant workers have toward local authorities, and how nostalgia for pre-strike Austin intersects with anti-immigrant sentiment for a lot of old-timers.

I realized Austin is a city with a lot of parts that simply don’t stitch together. So I knew I needed to get as many perspectives into the pieces as possible. I found some old-time Austin residents who spoke in very honest, raw terms about how their town has changed and how they feel forced out and scared as a result. And I found Latino families who let me into their homes and shared their hopes and fears.

My ability to speak Spanish fluently was indispensible in this phase of the reporting. Those language skills helped me communicate with new sources and build trust very quickly and that helped me refine the stories as I went along. None of the undocumented immigrants I spoke with expressed explicit concern about being identified for fear of deportation. But after discussing the issue of identification with my editors, we decided to fully name one undocumented source and partially name another. We made the distinction because the former is in the process of being deported, and hence in the public domain, whereas the latter is living out of sight of authorities.

I started to structure my stories and eventually decided on three, 10-minute stories that would air on MPR’s All Things Considered. I met with editors and Web producers early on, and that helped my colleagues decide to give the project a big Web presence, too. Once I knew the series would be more than just a series of radio stories, I worked closely with a photographer to coordinate photo shoots, translate interviews and get him access to scenes I had already recorded for the radio.

My biggest obstacle, however, was trying to get officials from Hormel to speak with me. After about half a dozen attempts to schedule everything from a sit-down interview to an e-mail Q&A, officials at the plant declined to comment for any part of the series. The stories didn’t suffer, but I had hoped to get their perspective in the stories, considering their role in the community.

I would have been able to do this story without a Justice and Journalism fellowship. But having had the discussions about both the macro and micro levels of immigration helped me see the value of spending time and not rushing this project. I worked on the series over a six-week period while covering other stories on my geographic beat.

The majority of the listener/ reader comments came by e-mail and face-to-face feedback. I didn’t get any negative feedback. Some of the e-mails I received expressed surprise. Others commended the depth of the reporting.

Some included:

“Thanks. I’ve listened and read your report. I think it is very well done and accurate. You really captured the mood of Austin — not an easy thing to do.”
— Tom Stiehm, Mayor, Austin, Minn.

“I will be teaching a first-year seminar titled ‘The Politics of U.S. Immigration’ this fall and I intend to play the feature for my students and have a discussion about it in early November…I think it will be a powerful  experience for my students as it brings the immigration issue closer to home.”
— Tagonei Mharapara, instructor, College of Saint Benedict/ Saint John’s University, St. Joseph, Minn.

“Congratulations on your excellent series of reports about Austin on the 25th anniversary of the strike. I caught the first report when I was driving across town and was shocked by what I heard.  Your reports, which included many candid comments from Austin residents, gave your listeners a great window into the difficulty the town is having in blending the old and new residents into one community.”
— Liz Fedor, program officer, Otto Bremer Foundation, and former Star Tribune Business Reporter

I doubt I would have dedicated so much time on this project without the IJJ fellowship. I believe the fellowship experience helped me truly understand some of the nuance involved in covering an issue as complex as immigration.

——-

This is the link to the main project page:
http://minnesota.publicradio.org/projects/2010/08/austin-at-a-crossroads/

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