June 25th in Decatur

Against the Current, No. 58, September/October 1995

Steve Ashby

THEST ARE TUMULTUOUS times for the besieged and divided AFL-CIO. The 81union, 13.3 millionmember labor federation is at a crossroads. A June 25th march and rally in Decatur, Illinois symbolized the strengths and weaknesses of labor in the 1990s. It was the best of rallies. It was the worst of rallies.

A Historic Day

Nearly 4,000 manufacturing workers from three unions are locked in conflict with intransigent multinational corporations in Decatur, 175 miles south of Chicago:

* United Auto Worker Local 751’s 1800 members are part of the 13,500 UAW workers nationwide that have walked the picket lines since June, 1994 in an unfair labor practices strike against Caterpillar. This is the second long strike for Cat workers, who have been without a contract since November, 1991.

* United Rubber Worker Local 713’s 1250 workers struck BridgestoneFirestone in July, 1994 with 2800 other URW members nationwide. Facing a union decertification drive and no right to vote if still on the picket lines after one year, the strike was called off in May without a signed contract.

* And, smallest but most militant of the three locals, 760 United Paperworkers Local 7837 workers have been lockedout by A.E. Staley since June, 1993 after a powerful ninemonth shop floor worktorule campaign that slashed prction.odu

The three Decatur locals called the June 25th mobilization, which drew 45,000 workers from across the country. Starting at the three union halls, unionists and supporters marched several miles in ninety-degree heat past smokestacks and scabrun factories.

Half the crowd wore red shirts symbolizing proud, defiant unionism as they chanted “We Are Union!” “Scabs Out, Union In!” and “Solidarity!” As they passed the Staley gates, site of last year’s police gassing of hundreds of workers, unionists’ shouts rose to fever heights and many clenched the gate, though no civil disobedience action occurred.

Then the marchers converged at the Decatur Civic Center to hear a three-and-a-half hour marathon of speeches.

“It’s rejuvenating, it’s exciting, it makes me proud to be in a union to come to something like this,” asserted a Madison unionist representing the prevailing sentiment as marchers entered the auditorium.

In many ways, it was a historic rally. Not because of the size: there’ve been larger labor rallies, including in Decatur. Not because of the money raised: the more than $50,000 donated was hefty, but not unprecedented. (Staley “road warriors” have spoken at hundreds of union halls across the country over the last two years, receiving many hundreds of thousands of dollars.) And not because of the militant tenor of the speeches: we’ve all heard those from labor leaders before.

It was historic because it symbolized the fissure in organized labor driven by the rankandfile’s righteous anger at the leadership vacuum in the midst of a faltering, feeble AFLCIO. This fury has been spurned on by the combative Staley workers.

UPIU 7837 started the ball rolling by mobilizing support and building solidarity committees across the country. They escalated the pressure when seventy persistent Decatur workers showed up uninvited in February, 1995 at a posh hotel in Bal Harbour, Florida to dog members of the complacent AFLCIO Executive Council. The action emboldened leaders of a dozen major unions to slate a candidate, Service Employees International Union President John Sweeney, to challenge Lane Kirkland for the AFLCIO presidency at the October convention.

Kirkland fumed at the unprecedented revolt but finally resigned on June 12th, throwing his support to his chosen old guard successor, Secretary-Treasurer Tom Donahue.

Debating Labor’s Future

So it was that on June 25th, ten national labor presidents appeared in Decatur, each trying to outdo the others in their denunciations of corporate greed.

The rally rapidly took on the character of a campaign debate. Usually embattled locals have to beg Tom Donahue to attend their rallies; this time he asked if he could attend. Richard Trumka, United Mine Workers President and candidate for SecretaryTreasurer on the Sweeney slate, gave the most thunderous speech of the day and, unlike Donahue, received repeated standing ovations.

Trumka called for a “new kind of labor movement… We can’t afford to think of ourselves as Rubber Workers, or Auto Workers or Chemical Workers. What we are is union. What we are is family. What we are is brothers and sisters fighting to protect our way of life!”

While nationally the rankandfile rage’s at their leaders hasn’t reached the boiling point that it has in Decatur, the rally explicitly demonstrated that top AFLCIO officials have their eyes wide open and are growing worried about holding onto their jobs.

Decatur workers have started what will hopefully be an unstoppable movement to turn the AFLCIO inside out. Demands are growing for more democracy, lower salaries for the bureaucrats, more money for organizing drives, a national strike fund, concerted and largescale civil disobedience, and a break with the Democratic Party.

But What About Decatur?

Other highlights of the rally were the passionate, tearinducing speeches by children of the onstrike and lockedout workers. Bailey Elliott, the 10yearold daughter of a URW worker, told the audience, “The reason that I help the union is my mom says you’re nobody if you don’t help the guy next to you up the hill.” Ron Van Scyoc’s son Joey spoke about his pride in his father, and the havoc wreaked upon his family by A.E. Staley company: “The bosses have stolen my childhood and I won’t let them steal the rest of my life.”

Yet little was said about the Decatur labor conflicts by anyone but the children. The presence of so many national union presidents was gratifying, their militant tone was heartening, and the growing pressure they feel from the ranks was exhilarating. But listening to the speeches was like eating cotton candy: tastes great, but not much substance.

When it came to offering tangible actions and a winning strategy that could aid the Staley, Cat, and Firestone workers, the June 25th rally was anything but historic. “We’re all united today in Decatur,” Donahue told the press before the rally. “Everyone supports the people in these unions.” Would that it were true.

If the Staley workers’ fight is, as virtually every speaker proclaimed, the biggest and most important labor struggle in America, then what do our labor leaders offer as a strategy to win?

One labor leader after another called (abstractly) for more and bigger labor mobilizations; yet none (excluding Decatur unionists) brought more than a few dozen of their own workers with them.

All called for greater militancy; yet none have come to Decatur to risk arrest by blocking the gates. Many called for building broad laborcommunityreligious coalitions; yet none have thrown their unions’ national resources into building the rankandfile initiated Staley Workers Solidarity Committees which have built these crucial coalitions.

Corporate campaigns were endorsed; but not a single union president mentioned 7837’s campaign against Pepsi Cola, a primary purchaser of scab Staley corn sweetener. Several called for greater international solidarity; but none would take on the Rubberworkers’ racist Japanbashing (BridgestoneFirestone is Japaneseowned). Most scolded the Democrats; yet none but OCAW President Bob Wages have ceased throwing millions of dollars away into Democratic candidates’ campaigns.

“March and Keep Marching”

A few days after the rally I was at a hospital visiting Donna Sperry, wife of a lockedout Staley worker. Donna suffered a heart attack in the midst of her trial, with the first team of the Decatur 50, for blocking Staley’s gates on June 4, 1994. [In their first ever court victory, a Decatur jury found unionists and supporters innocent on three of the four charges, including the most serious ones.]

As a result of the lockout, Donna hadn’t been able to afford the expensive heart medicine her doctor prescribed. I ran into a fellow, visiting a doctor because of an injury on the job, who sparked a conversation when he saw my red shirt. Turns out he works for Mueller’s in Decatur, also organized by the UPIU, where the workers have succumbed to four concession contracts in a row.

I asked him if he’d been at the rally. He said he had, and started talking about Jesse Jackson’s speech. Jackson, the keynoter at the rally, had spent most of his forty minutes at the podium in an eloquent denunciation of racism. “They use my skin color and put it over your problem and shoot both of us with one bullet,” said the Rainbow Coalition leader.

Jackson teasingly again raised his potential (though unlikely) presidential run, and called on Decatur unionists to “hold on just a little while longer.”

Like other speakers, Jesse Jackson had little concrete to say about Decatur. But it was Jackson’s call for actionthe closest thing to something tangible that anyone said that daythat stuck in this workers’ mind. “It’s not enough to march in Decatur,” said Jackson. “We should be marching in Detroit and Chicago” and in twenty-five cities across the country. “Marching educates. It builds coalitions.”

Jackson was right, the Mueller unionist told me: “We need to march in every city, and it’s time every unionist walked off the job for a day to show the corporations we’re not going to take it anymore.” (However, Jackson offered no resources to help the marching to start.)

Militant speeches make your blood run faster, but they don’t win fair contracts. “We don’t need any dogandpony shows,” a clearly exasperated Staley Workers President Dave Watts told the Civic Center crowd. “Workers are under attack worldwide; we better have a different plan, one that is more effective. We can’t win this fight alone,” declared Watts, pointing out that most top labor leaders hadn’t even come to Decatur.

ATC 58, September-October 1995