Spamtown, USA examines the tumultuous experience of the residents of Austin, MN during the infamous P-9 Hormel Strike in the 1980s. Presented in vignettes of the families on all sides of the strike—union members, those who crossed the picket line, and Hormel corporate leaders—this is the story of how this event impacted the lives, relationships, and dreams of the children and teenagers of the town in particular.
The play begins by introducing the audience to the landmarks of the town; from the local schools, parks, layout of the city, and the Hormel meat packing facilities. It is 1983 and spirit week at Austin High School.
Miss Bombrick (factory worker) is getting the children (Travis, sophomore and Jude, 7th grader) ready for school while they participate in typical sibling exchanges—some banter, some poking fun, while trying to get out the door in time for school. Trig (Miss Bombrick’s ex-husband, factory worker at the Hormel plant) calls to explain he can’t pick up the kids because he has an important P-9 union meeting.
At the wealthy Bolton house on the other side of town, Amy (freshman) waits by the door for Travis (her boyfriend) to pick her up. Mr. Bolton (a corporate leader at Hormel) comments that Travis is “nothing but lazy.” Amy dreams of going to fashion school in Paris. This scene clearly establishes there are two classes of people that reside in Austin—the workers and the corporate leaders.
At the Olsen house, Rosa (the wife of Gunner, a factory worker and Trig’s brother) is cutting Mrs. Bolton’s (Hormel R&D scientist) hair in her living room, serving as a beauty salon. Here we meet her son Scott (7th grader) who dreams of being an astronaut.
In the parking lot of the new Hormel factory, Gunner and Trig are eating lunch and discussing how they don’t feel the “state of the art” factory works well. Trig implies it doesn’t matter if things are ethical, humane, and fair treatment for animals since they’re coming to the factory to be killed. Gunner wishes they cared about the ethical treatment of people instead. Trig talks about their pregnant coworker who slipped on the stairs and sprained her back, but the baby was fine. He explains that Hormel’s on-the-job disability won’t cover any of her medical bills. He took the issue to the union bargaining session, but was told that she purposely got hurt in order to collect workman’s comp. Trig says “the big-ups” bribe the doctors to not report injuries at the factory, so it is kept from the newspapers.
1984: The young people are a grade older. Trig is a P-9 Union secretary. Miss Bombrick is now treasurer. The union has hired Ray Rogers, a union strike consultant. We hear opinions on both sides as to whether or not this strike will work. The adults argue about salary cuts. The scene closes with the adults saying the town slogan in unison “Where the good life is here to stay.”
Travis picks Amy up for school. Mr. Bolton stops them as they are about to leave. He wants to drive Amy to school, but Amy wants to go with Travis. They argue, and Mr. Bolton yells about the disrespectful way Travis’s father spoke to him at the union meeting and tells him to get his father to stop making threatening phone calls. Travis doesn’t know what he’s talking about, and points out that he never sees his dad since the divorce.
During lunch, Scott works on building his model space station while Ms. Priette eats. She asks if everything is okay at home. Scott says it is bonkers because his mom is working overtime in case the strike happens and his dad can’t work.
In the next scene, Carol (Age 6) is playing with her toys while Mrs. Bolton works. Carol is play pretending with her dolls that they are office workers and “dirty P-9ers”. Mrs. Bolton tries to explain to her what the union is, what a strike is, and as best as she can for Carol’s young age, but is left with some unanswerable questions.
At Galloway Park, Travis is watching Amy during cheer practice. Travis asks her to marry him. Amy has dreams of going to Paris and they discuss their dreams for their lives, as teenagers do. Amy confesses it’s getting difficult at home when her parents say things about his parents.
At home, Travis tells his mother his plans to move to Paris with Amy once she graduates. The practical nature of Miss Bombrick kicks in and gently tries to break down his resolve, stating such dreams are not possible for people like Travis because dreams are not the same as reality, particularly financially. Travis tells her to take her own advice and claims that corporate won’t give in to the union’s demands. She informs him that there is a huge difference between fighting for what you want and fighting for what is right. She challenges him to decide what kind of fighter he is. There is a knock at the door. Trig and Gunner are picking her up for the rally in the Austin High School auditorium.
In the auditorium, cheerleaders lead a fight cheer as adults chant Never surrender! Never back down! Travis sneaks out to smoke a cigarette. Scott and Jude sneak out as well and ask Travis for a cigarette. They wonder how long the adults will keep up the strike. From inside, we hear call and response chants. Amy arrives with her sister Carol. Travis extinguishes the cigarette and the kids begin arguing about the strike. Amy insist her dad does care and is trying to do what’s fair for the whole company. The two continue to argue. Scott tries to deflect by pointing out that Ray Rogers was about to speak inside, which causes Carol to ask who Ray Rogers is. Amy informs her that he is a professional agitator who ruins companies around the country. Travis retorts that Ray Rogers is a consultant who helps unions organize, strike, and win. The kids fight back and forth about who will win the strike. Inside, Ray Rogers announces that they voted for him to lead the strike. The adults chant Strike! The kids discuss their fears.
1985: It’s unseasonably cold for October. The pickets have begun. The labs are shut down. The offices are open, but are surrounded by shouting protesters. At the picket line, Trig is leading others in a chant for fair pay. At the Bolton’s home, Mr. Bolton explains to his young daughter that it is safer for him to ride in a police car to work.
Amy arrives at Scott’s house and asks if his parents are home. They are both at the P-9 hall--again. Scott becomes suspicious and asks why she came, because they are fighting on opposite sides. They argue but find common ground that the strike is ruining everything. Amy apologizes and confesses to Scott that she came over to tell his mom that she needs to cancel her hair appointments because of the strike. Amy felt like she needed to tell her face-to-face. They bond over the fact that all of the adults are changing their lives without asking the kid’s opinions.
Mr. and Mrs. Bolton have a serious argument about the strike; about losing their friends and about giving in to the demands of the workers. Mrs. Bolton wants him to admit he’s wrong and end everything but he is stubborn. They suddenly realize Carol has heard everything from the stairs. She asks if they are angry because of her and if they are going to get a divorce. They assure her they won’t.
Rosa, Gunner, and Scott are working as a family to make flyers for the strike. Rosa and Gunner talk about all they have lost during this strike and how their children are being bullied at school. Gunner says they have submitted a new contract to Hormel that they think they will agree to. They dream of taking a family trip once this is all over.
Miss Bombrick fights with Travis about his continuing romance with Amy and gets in an argument with Jude about the food she is ordering for people who aren’t working. The door rings and it is Rosa. She’s come from the Union Hall with the news that Ray Rogers and P-9 rejected the new contracts from Hormel. Even though Hormel agreed to every one of the original demands, Ray Rogers advised them to ask for more since the P-9ers have now been out of work for so long. However, the national union said they had to accept it or they will enforce sanctions on the strikers. Miss Bombrick explodes that she will not go back to work until all of their needs are met. Rosa informs everyone that her husband, Gunner, is going back to work.
Gunner approaches the noisy picket line. Gunner informs his brother, Trig, that since the strike is now unsanctioned, it’s time to go back to work. Trig insists that isn’t about working, but about commitment, purpose, justice, and family. Gunner says his family deserves to eat, but Trig calls him a rotten scab. After Gunner shoulders past Trig, Trig spits where he walked and says “I don’t have a brother.”
Autumn 1985: In the Bolton’s home, Carol asks if all bacon is made out of pig scabs. She explains she saw a sticker on a truck that said, “Hormel makes scab bacon.” Mrs. Bolton tells her that’s not what bacon is made of and that it is just a grownup joke she shouldn’t repeat. Amy tells Carol scab is a bad name for people who cross the picket line to go to work. Carol agrees not to use it, and wants a good word for people who cross the picket line to work. Amy doesn’t know one.
Scott is guarding his house with a gun. The word “scab” is burned into the garage door. Jude approaches and questions why he’s is guarding the house. Scott informs her that someone has to protect the house while his dad is gone. He reveals that his dad needs to carry a gun to stay safe. The two argue about who is in the right when Scott asks Jude if her father burned the garage. Jude screams about how her father wouldn’t do that to his own family. The two fight to the point of where they are fighting over the gun in Scott’s hand. Scott is knocked to the ground. Jude storms away leaving Scott crying on the ground next to his gun.
Amy shows up at the P-9 Union Hall where Travis is working on a mural. Amy asks about the mural and Travis explains that it is a snake that is destroying Austin. The two have an argument. The stage goes dark and the snake comes to life. It eats the workers protesting below the mural. Every time it eats someone, there are the sounds of pigs being slaughtered. National Guards enter in full riot gear and shoot the snake.
Travis drives Jude to school and his mom to the picket line to where the National Guard have been deployed. Jude is startled that they have guns. Miss Bombrick elaborates that there are a few P-9ers who have gotten out of hand and made life difficult for “a few scabs.”
Travis and his dad take a break from striking together. Travis explains that he is failing school, has lost Amy, his family is exploding, and now he can’t get the job because of this ongoing strike. Trig agrees this is not fair and shares he feels the same way. Travis comes to the conclusion that he can’t always control circumstances, but he does want to do the right thing for his family.
In the Bolton home, a rock flies through the window and a rifle is fired into the air outside. Mr. Bolton runs to the door and yells after the truck. Mr. Bolton is positive that it was Trig; he recognizes his pickup. Mrs. Bolton takes Carol out of the room and Amy challenges her father’s assumption that it was Trig. Mr. Bolton defends his statement by saying that if Trig would spit at him and threaten to kill him, he’d throw a rock through their window. He yells at Amy to grow up and admit that her boyfriend’s father is violent. Amy tries to tell her father that Travis is no longer her boyfriend but he is occupied with calling the police.
Miss Bombrick calls Travis to tell him that his father has been arrested. She asks him to look through her jewelry box and gather as much money as he can find at home for Trig’s bail. Travis sells the car to pay for his father’s bail. She confides that she’s not sure what the fight was for because they’re going to lose. Travis assures her that no matter the outcome, it’s okay because they fought.
1986: Ms. Priette and Scott are discussing the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle. He brings up the ending of the strike. Scott says they replaced everyone who didn’t go back to work. He says most of the new workers are Mexican (and look like him and his mom) and thinks everything fell apart for everyone. He wonders if it’s better not to try. Ms. Priette stops him and offers him an envelope. It’s a letter of recommendation for space camp, in case he changes his mind. Scott takes it and smiles.
As he leaves Ms. Priette’s room he bumps into Jude who has been trying to find him to talk about the Challenger explosion. He tries to dismiss her but she hugs him and apologizes for everything. They decide that while they can’t control how their parents feel, the two of them will be friends again.