A jury has awarded John Morrell & Co. $24.6 million in damages from the meatpackers' union for three strikes at its processing plant in Sioux Falls, and the union has promised to appeal.

The award issued in U.S. District Court on Thursday stemmed from a $40 million lawsuit the company filed saying the often-violent strikes were illegal because the Sioux Falls union local had a labor contract in effect.A previous federal jury agreed in March, but a federal arbitrator ruled Monday that 2,400 union members were legally refusing to cross a picket line set up by striking Morrell workers from Sioux City, Iowa.

"We will appeal it and we will win on appeal," Nick Clark, assistant general counsel for the United Food & Commercial Workers Union, said of the damage award.

U.S. District Judge Richard Battey had refused to let the union appeal the original finding that the strike was illegal until after the second trial to assess damages.

The Cincinnati-based company maintained it suffered $26.5 million in losses because of the strikes in 1986 and 1987. Witnesses for the union testified some of the losses were related to market conditions, including a shortage of hogs and high livestock prices.

Morrell also is fighting a $4.3 million fine, the largest ever against a single employer by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. OSHA found the company did little or nothing in light of hundreds of serious injuries to hand and arm joints caused by the repetitive motion of the meatpacking line.

Battey postponed enforcement of arbitrator William Rentfro's ruling that Morrell must rehire workers who struck and pay them back wages. The judge set court dates on Nov. 29 and Dec. 5 for Morrell lawyers to file motions asking that the arbitrator's ruling be nullified.

Clark said the arbitrator's finding, which could allow an estimated 1,900 union members to return to jobs they lost 19 months ago, supports the union's claim that the strikes were legal.