Told  /  Etymology

How the Term “Hoosier” Became a Weapon in the Class War

In Indiana, “hoosier” is a badge of honor. In St Louis, it’s the nastiest insult around. The difference reveals the prejudice that breaks worker solidarity.

A few episodes in labor history help further explain the derogatory hoosier. St Louis University communications scholar Avis Meyer observed that its more popular usage, beyond the local merchant class, “goes back to the 1930s and union struggles” at Anheuser-Busch.

Indiana capitalists weren’t the only interlopers in St Louis; Indiana workers were in the mix too. According to Meyer, the Anheuser-Busch brewery got in the habit of hiring nonunion workers from Indiana during labor strikes, rural migrants who were desperate enough to cross picket lines and accept lower wages. At times, hoosier intersected with “scab.” Beyond strike circumstances, it “came to mean a country bumpkin who screwed up your job.”

Then in the 1950s, during the mid-century auto boom, Chrysler’s Plymouth auto plant in Evansville, Indiana, needed to upgrade equipment and wanted closer proximity to a central railroad. Instead of investing in Evansville, in 1953, Chrysler shuttered the Indiana plant and moved operations to the far edge of South St Louis, to a county called Fenton.

There was nothing out in Fenton but some woods, hills, and a few homesteaders. When the plant arrived, so too did another wave of Indiana workers migrating from Evansville, mixing with local autoworkers at the Fenton plant. The rich regarded the newcomers with typical class prejudice, while workers resented their sudden arrival in the workforce. Thus St Louisans across the class spectrum greeted them with their favorite slur: hoosiers!

The word is a curse in the superstitious sense of words that perform a magic spell. In this case, their effect was to give the Chrysler Corporation an advantage, with workers focusing on their hatred of incoming hoosiers instead of the bosses who moved workers around like chess pieces, omnipotently sealing their economic fates. The animosity between rural Indiana migrants and workers with local roots was, along with pervasive racism, just the kind of division Chrysler needed to stave off solidarity and a real organized threat from the union.

And for what? In 2009, Chrysler’s Fenton assembly plant closed for good, laying off about thirty-seven hundred workers. The plant lasted about forty years, and now those union jobs are gone.

In 2011, the plant’s buildings were razed, and now that area is devoted to a bright, gigantic, Buc-ee’s gas station, with a dark field of Amazon distribution warehouses behind it — a collection of significantly worse jobs than Chrysler ever offered. In there is a lesson for the workers who spat on the hoosiers of yore. Without a good union job, who’s a hoosier now?