At Staley, Labor Fights Back

David Simcha

ALLIED INDUSTRIAL WORKERS Local 837 of Decatur, IL has declared war on the decline of the labor movement. The determination to fight came after their employer, the A.E. Staley Manufacturing Co., attacked the union. Staley, a subsidiary of British sugar conglomerate Tate & Lyle, demands concessions, of course, but they also took on new employees.

First, they retained Seyfarth, Shaw Fairweather & Geraldson, a union-busting Chicago law firm. Second, they hired a new labor relations director, best known for permanently replacing 1,200 striking paperworkers in Jay, Maine. Finally, Harmony Construction Company replaced previously used union contractors; their claim to fame is supplying replacement workers in case of a strike.

In negotiations Tate & Lyle sought “greater flexibility,” attacking the local’s seniority, job security and grievance procedure. They demanded subcontracting of work, insurance givebacks and restructuring of holidays and vacations. When the local decided not to accept Staley’s demands, the company declared an impasse, suspended key sections of the contract (including the union security clause and dues check-off) and evicted them from the in-plant office they’ve been using for nearly half a century.

AIW 837 isn’t on strike. Militancy, the 763 union members knew, would not be enough. The United Auto Workers in town, at Caterpillar, were taking a traditional, militant strike into a defeat people across the country were whispering about as the “Patco of the ’90,” in reference to the air traffic controllers strike Reagan used in the early 1980s to break their union.

Instead the union brought in allies of its own, two mavericks in the labor movement and then labor and community forces spanning the globe. They hired Ray Rogers of Corporate Campaign, Inc., best known for his role advising UFCW Local P-9 strikers at Hormel in Austin, Minnesota, to coordinate a rank-and-file assault on the company’s public image and isolate the company from the corporate community that supports it. Last September, the local launched its corporate campaign.

Also helping the local is Jerry Tucker, former director of UAW Region 5 and a leader of the New Directions reform caucus in the UAW. Although frieends, this is the first time these two innovative strategists have worked together on a single campaign. Tucker is a master of in-plant strategies and shop-floor tactics such as work-to-rule where workers stop helping management achieve production by using their knowledge and skills, and instead follow the company’s rule book and the managers’ orders to the letter.

Production has plummeted 314%, according to Staley Vice President Patrick Mohan, since the company unilaterally implemented its last contract offer.

Corporate Campaign

Mohan recently decided not to stand for reappointment to the Mana Bank of Central Illinois board. He claims this has nothing to do with a union-inspired boycott of Magna Banks, and he will not step down before his term ends, June 30. The boycott continues.

Robert Powers, chair of Staley, used to sit on the board of First of America-Decatur, until the union ran a successful boycott campaign of the regional bank in Michigan, Illinois and Indiana. Both banks and Staley management remain firm in their declarations that the banks are merely innocent bystanders in a labor dispute over which they have no control.

The union’s job has been to argue differently. The members walk door-to-door throughout Decatur dropping off leaflets describing Staley’s greed as well as its practices which threaten the environment, the local economy, and the physical safety of its employees. Their martyr, James Beals, 44, died at work in 1990 after inhaling toxic fumes. Only two hours earlier Beals had complained, “something has to be done about the propylene oxide problem, because tragedy is Just around the corner.”

Leaflets are also distributed outside local branches. They mail the leaflets to union and community organizations regionally, calling for a boycott of the financial institutions which have close ties to Staley: “Don’t bank on community bashing!” Organizations are asked to withdraw funds from these banks and urge their members and allies to do the same while sending letters of explanation to the bank’s CEO.

The union tries to convince the bank’s board that it’s just not worth the financial liability of maintaining such, now high-profile, relations with Staley. At a protest they staged outside the Magna shareholders’ meeting in St. Louis on May 5, they urged the board to sever ties because to refuse to do so would conflict with their responsibility to their shareholders.

Additionally, Tate & Lyle plants have racked up record numbers of environmental violations in the United States. According to a 1991 study, Tale & Lyle’s Domino plant had more safety violations than any other plant in New York City. That same year OSHA slapped Staley with penalties of $1.6 million, from nearly 300 different violations. The Environmental Protection Agency cited Tate & Lyle’s Western Sugar Company for polluting the Yellowstone River; meanwhile Staley pumps hundreds of thousands of pounds of toxic substances into Decatur’s air and water each year.

International Solidarity

Earlier, on January 27, protests were staged at Tate & Lyle’s Annual General Meeting in London where workers cautioned stockholders that the spillover from Staley’s labor dispute could have a negative impact on the value of their stock and on company profits, which totaled over $400 million last year.

Support for the Staley workers has come from more than thirty-five trade unions in Britain, Belgium, Australia and Canada. On March 28-29 the AIW hosted a meeting in St. Louis for representatives from every union at a Tate & Lyle plant in North America, and Dave Watts, the local’s president, expected to see representatives from England, where Tate & Lyle is attempting impose similar work rule changes against the wishes of the Boilermakers union, and Australia, too.

Tate & Lyle chief Stephen Brown resigned March 1. Meanwhile, the boycott of Tate & Lyle products continues: Domino, Redpath, and GW sugars.

Back in Decatur

The Caterpillar workers were brought into the First of America boycott campaign early on, after Rogers identified James Wogsland, vice chairman of Caterpillar, as a director on the board of that bank. However, even though the boycott hasn’t been officially called off, the UAW doesn’t seem to be continuing promotion of the boycott beyond the local level since Powers of Staley resigned.

Similarly, the inside campaign at Caterpillar reportedly draws 15 out of the 2,400 workers to solidarity meetings, as opposed to 680 workers at Staley. Some Caterpillar workers have been heard wondering why their inside campaign isn’t working like Staley’s, and why they had to find out from Rogers and the AIW instead of their own UAW about the connections between First of America and their employer.

On June 4, Staley notified the union of its intent to shutdown one building on August 1. Currently, eighty-eight hourly and three salaried employees earn their living in that department. Since the company follows division, not plant, seniority, some workers with forty years may lose their jobs. This, as well as severance arrangements, will have to be decided with the union in side negotiations mandated by law in the event of the closing of a corporate division of a larger company.

While Tate & Lyle spent $1.5 billion to acquire Staley in a hostile takeover five years ago, the company is generous to its top executives. Chairman Neil Shaw earned $2 over the last two years. When Stephen Brown was promoted, the company purchased a $1.7 million London mansion. But for workers, there is no sugar plum fairy.

There are no magic pills either for the U.S. labor movement, and the fight at Staley is still undecided. The courage to be creative while thinking strategically, acknowledging and organizing solidarity in the workers’ communities, as well as national and international rank-and-file labor solidarity to compete to confront the power of multinational corporations, are necessary beginnings.

Staley demonstrates that these cannot come from a labor bureaucracy afraid of its members’ power, but only from the determination of rank-and-file workers, including those still to be organized, to mobilize in their own interests.

[For more information or to send donations, write to Campaign to Fight Union Busters, A1W Local 837, 2882 N. Dineen, Decatur, IL 62526. Phone 217/876-7006.]

July-August 1993, ATC 45