The Long War at Staley

Against the Current, No. 149, November/December 2010

Dianne Feeley

The Fight for A New American Labor Movement
By Steven K. Ashby and C.J. Hawking
Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, $25 paper.

STALEY RECOUNTS THE epic struggle of workers in a corn-processing plant in Decatur, Illinois in the 1990s and provides insight into how a pivotal struggle ended in defeat. That ending was not inevitable.

Steven K. Ashby and C.J. Hawking outline the step-by-step process by which the workers confronted management and built solidarity at the workplace and within their community. In the process they educated themselves, their families and friends and developed innovative tactics to sustain that struggle over several years.

The authors tell the history of a struggle in which they were heavily involved as supporters.* This gives them knowledge of several key discussions that it would be difficult for most “outsiders” to obtain.

Ashby and Hawking preface their story with the 1990 death of Jim Beals at Staley’s corn-processing plant. Once a family-owned corporation, the company had been bought up by London-based multinational sugar conglomerate Tate & Lyle two years beforehand. As management pushed to get things done the cheapest way possible, safety training, testing or having equipment maintained and ready were placed on the back burner.

When OSHA settled with Tate & Lyle over Beals’ death, it fined the company a mere $4,000. Stunned, Allied Industrial Workers Local 837 officers then wrote to management denouncing the lack of safety standards and refused to participate in any further training or record keeping because these tasks were only “a company dog-and-pony show.” Workers realized they were under attack; “Remember Jim Beals” became their rally cry.

Well before the 1992 contract negotiations opened, management announced a draconian attendance policy, informed the union of a long list of offenses it considered grounds for immediate dismissal and replaced union contractors with nonunion ones. Clearly the company strategy was to prepare for the next contract, in which it wanted to defeat the union.

Management announced construction of a 3.5 mile pipeline between the plant and the Archer Daniels Midland corn-processing plant, workers were ordered to write up procedure manuals, outsiders were assigned to watch production processes, the company began mandatory “state of the plant” meetings to lecture workers on how work rules would have to be changed so the plant would remain competitive, and the Chicago-based union-busting law firm Seyfarth, Shaw, Fairweather & Geraldson were retained as the company’s bargaining team.

Staley’s first two chapters sketch the buildup to the 1992 contract negotiations. The following three detail how the workers prepared to defend their lives, their working conditions and the benefits won over decades. They began by voting to increase their dues from $18 to $34, and later to $100 a month. They invited labor educators to help them understand the state of the industry and talked with other trade unionists who had faced similar battles — most particularly Larry Solomon, president of UAW Local 751, representing Caterpillar workers in Decatur.

Early in 1992 the Cat workers ended their strike when the UAW International ordered members to return to work without a contract. The Staley workers wanted to analyze that defeat.

Preparing for Battle

Dave Watts, the newly installed Local 837 president explained his basic principle, “the inverted triangle.”

“In corporate America everything comes down from the top. With the union, it’s the other way around. It’s the bottom up.” In Local 837, said Watts, “all the direction comes from the floor [as the Staley workers called the union membership]. Not the international, not the president, not the union leadership. The floor governs.” (36)

As a result of having a local leadership interested in building a grassroots campaign, it seemed natural to involve family and friends in their deliberations. If the work force was going to have to take on an aggressive corporation, everyone had to know the issues and everyone was being asked to contribute one way or another.

Union meetings were not “for members only” but for family members and close friends as well. By the time the company eliminated union dues checkoff, union members and their families were so well organized and involved that 97% voluntarily paid their dues.

Local 837 decided to bring in two important resources. The first was Ray Rogers, whose corporate campaign was designed to publicly attack the corporation from every angle until it concedes. “Crisis in Decatur,” a four-page brochure he first produced for the local, explained that the Staley workers’ fight was about dignity, respect and safety on the job. Further, it was a fight to protect the Decatur community against a multinational corporation and detailed the corporations, including Archer Daniels Midland, which was collaborating with Tate & Lyle’s union-busting strategy.

Through a campaign that began with a press conference and massive door-to-door leafleting and mailings, the union was able to get their side of the story out. Later on Rogers researched the corporation’s connections with banks and targeted two for boycott.

The second was Jerry Tucker, who taught union members how to confront management with a “work-to-rule” campaign. Tucker adopted this tactic from the Industrial Workers of World, who perfected “the conscious withdrawal of efficiency,” by instructing members that they should follow company rules to the letter, take no initiative, work at a normal rate of speed, and give no advice or help to supervisors. They should show management that the membership is unified and determined by wearing union T-shirts on designated days, holding plant gate rallies and demanding group grievance hearings. (47)

Of course management retaliated. They instituted rotating 12-hour shifts, harassed workers at mandatory meetings and fired union activists. The workers attempted to take control of the meetings by trying out a number of different approaches, by remaining silent or, conversely, creating a din by suddenly shouting out questions. My personal favorite was when the workers at a departmental meeting put on Groucho Marx masks. (67)

Staley was prepared to bring in scabs, but they were caught off guard by the work-to-rule campaign that energized Local 837 members. Even the firings didn’t seem to demoralize them — the union had set up a Casualty Fund so that any members suspended or fired for union activity were still paid their salary. Meanwhile the company admitted production was down more than one-third; Local 837 calculated it was halved.

The War Erupts

After eight months of an escalating in-plant campaign, a small incident — changing a burned-out light bulb — led to a safety stand down, where the majority of the day shift walked off the job and over to the union hall for a mass safety meeting. The union voted to return the next morning, June 17, 1993, following a one-hour rally in front of the plant gates. But management then demanded each worker sign a statement agreeing to the contract the union had collectively rejected, and all but two returned to the union hall.

Of course the National Labor Relations Act prohibits employers from bargaining directly with individuals rather than with the union, so the company was forced to relent. After being out 32 hours, workers triumphantly marched into the plant singing “Solidarity Forever.”

Local 837, in coordination with UAW 751, had been planning a human chain linking their two plants for June 26. Joined by a 50-car caravan of Caterpillar workers from Peoria and workers from Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul, 4,000 people covered the 2.6 mile distance. It was to be the first of many solidarity caravans to Decatur.

The following morning Staley management launched their plan: at 3am night shift workers were escorted to the gates and locked out. Some were strip searched. The day shift was turned back at the gate.

Ashby and Hawking remark that from that moment forward “the union hall became the anchor, the rallying place where workers would come together to strategize, to support one another, to hold debates, and to make decisions.” (77)

Seven hundred and fifty workers were on the street, many having worked at the plant for more than 20 years. Within a week the local transformed the creative energy and rank-and-file initiative of the work-to-rule campaign outward into organizing support beyond Decatur.

Sixty-two members signed up to be “Road Warriors.” Jerry Tucker gave them some basic training in how to talk in front of an audience and (whether they signed up for a day trip or longer) off they went.

Within five weeks the AFL-CIO Executive Board, which declared its solidarity with the locked-out workers and called upon its member affiliates to provide assistance. In addition to fundraising, the warriors asked their audiences to come to Decatur for rallies, to form “Solidarity with Staley Committees,” to adopt a striker and to support their corporate campaign against Tate & Lyle.

The authors document many of the additional programs the local initiated — organizing demonstrations, setting up a food bank and the adopt a striker program, running local labor candidates, organizing a city-wide labor coalition, challenging the company’s tax breaks (and wining), encouraging the development of the Women’s Support Group and welcoming clergy support.

One unique chapter details the difficult road the local’s African-American workers traveled in order to overcome discrimination from both management and fellow workers. While the plant opened in the 1930s, Black men were not hired at Staley until the late 1960s and Black women nearly a decade later — as a result of the civil rights and feminist movements. At the time of the lockout 15% of Decatur’s population was African American, but in the plant it was only half that.

Discrimination existed in job assignments, promotion, overtime, and even whether the union would vote to take a Black member’s case to arbitration. Sexual harassment was a problem for white women, but an even greater issue for Black women. When Lyle & Tate began to impose harsh working conditions, many African-American workers felt that suddenly whites were being forced to endure situations they had always faced.

Even those few African Americans who attended union meetings over the spring and summer of 1992 sat in a group, silently, at the back of the hall. Despite this profound alienation, as the authors recount, “Many of the African American activists, then, worked to rule not so much in solidarity with the union but as a stand against the company in spite of the union.” (169)

Two longtime African-American women workers who were consistently active and outspoken — as they had been for equality inside the plant — were Jeanette Hawkins and Lorell Patterson. But even the lockout did not alter the sense of alienation for the majority. After observing racial dynamics at union meetings, C.J. Hawking suggested to Dave Watts that Black workers might want to have their own meetings. Sixteen came together in November 1993 to talk about the lockout and what that meant within Decatur’s Black community.

Hawking describes the process whereby these workers decided to build a Black Community Awareness Committee. It is a remarkable story and one of the few times in which racial issues within the union are concretely laid out. Although the formation of the BCAC was a positive step and enabled African-American workers to have their own voice and become a force in the union, the authors are careful not to claim a total transformation of the local. This chapter alone is worth the price of the book!

Subsequent chapters outline important elements in the solidarity campaigns members carried out during the long lockout. Many of these — such as the ”Road Warriors” trips — were launched early on and continued to expand. Chapters take up both the internal union discussions and the work the campaigns carried out. These include the use of civil disobedience, seeking solidarity from unions and communities across the country, confronting management at shareholders meetings in London and exposing the close ties Decatur’s city government maintained with the corporations.

Solidarity Threatens Bureaucracy

By 1994 two other unions in Decatur were walking their own picket lines — UAW workers at Caterpillar and rubber workers at Bridgestone/Firestone. Twenty-five percent of the city’s industrial workforce was on strike or locked out and ties, particularly between the Staley and Cat locals, were close. However, this grassroots solidarity disturbed their Internationals caused tension within the local labor council. Each official body thought the locals should be interacting only through their channels.

For those of us who attended various support rallies or made the trek to Decatur for one of the mass demonstrations, the most important aspect of Staley is the authors’ ability to explain the divisions within the local and the labor movement over the course of the lockout. This includes problems that developed with the corporate campaign strategy after its initial victories in forcing two banks to sever their ties, the failure of the AFL-CIO to bring its resources to the embattled local, and the tensions within the local as conservatives challenged the more radical leaders.

This last battle took place over re-voting on basically the same contract they had rejected in October 1992. In June 1995 members voted 57% against it, giving conservatives a hope that if they persisted they could win a majority.

At the end of 1993, during the course of the lockout, the Allied Industrial Workers, with a dwindling membership of 48,000, merged into the United Paperworkers International Union (UPIU); Local 837 became Local 7837.

Before the merger UPIU had been helpful in turning out its members and carrying articles on their struggle in their monthly newspaper. But once the merger went through, the International’s leaders explained to Dave Watts and the local’s Executive Board that they would have to accept concessions just as other UPIU locals had been forced to do. They felt that if the International took over negotiations and made compromises, the membership could get back to work. (See Chapter 14.)

Within a year, UPIU ordered Local 7837 to sever their relationship with Ray Rogers and remove Jerry Tucker from the bargaining table. Chapter 18 then recounts the gory details by which the conservatives in Local 7837 appealed to the International to take over bargaining. Throughout 1995 they campaigned against the most consistent activists, the “Road Warriors,” implying that they loved the limelight and were probably living high off the hog — so why would they want to settle?

Led by Jim Shinall, the conservatives spent time with workers who had found other jobs. They could vote yes, knowing they would not have to work under a draconian contract but could take a severance package and be done with Staley.

The authors quote Dave Watts as seeing the membership by at this stage as “being chewed” up. (263) Yet the corporate campaign against Miller brewery resulted in not renewing their contract with Staley and the next target, Pepsi, was feeling the heat and had announced that if the labor dispute was not settled by the end of the year, it would not renew its contract.

In October 1995 the new AFL-CIO president, John Sweeney, elected on the hopes of a renewed labor movement, promised to make the Staley fight “the top of our priority list” with 40 AFL-CIO organizers. (260)  But with the UPIU not behind it, the task force didn’t happen.

Analyzing the Defeat

Early December, the day before the Caterpillar workers were to vote on their contract, the UAW International called off the strike. Although 80% voted the contract down, Cat workers returned to work a second time without a contract.

Local 7837’s elections were scheduled for December 11 and UPIU officials, who felt that the union “had no leadership,” were advising the conservatives, who were running Shinall for president. (216) Feeling more and more isolated, members voted him in and before Christmas members voted 286-226 to accept the concessionary contract.

The book’s final two chapters recount the aftermath and analyze why the authors agree with the Staley militants and supporters that the workers had been within striking distance of a victory. Having lost Miller, a major customer, and about to lose Pepsi, Lyle & Tate was risking a corporate campaign targeting Coke, its third large customer. I’m less convinced of this because I think they are correct in pinpointing the role of UPIU leaders in subverting any victory.

Ashby and Hawking realize that the local made crucial mistakes, particularly on questions of prioritization and timing. They feel strongly that the decision to target Staley’s corporate connection to State Farm was “obscure and difficult to explain to supporters.” They see it as a poor target that took a great deal of energy at a crucial moment. I know I found it a puzzling campaign at the time, particularly given the very energetic campaigns that were later mounted around Millers and Pepsi.

The second criticism is that the local was unable to stop production through massive civil disobedience. However, as the authors note, it is difficult for one local to mount such an effort when the International opposes such an action.

Their final criticism is that the local was unable to sustain its high level of membership organization over the 908 days of the lockout. It seems to me that this, as the authors note in softening their second criticism, would have been difficult to accomplish without the backing of both the International and the AFL-CIO. But I think it does strengthen their first criticism of how essential it would have been to launch a well-targeted corporate campaign during the earliest phases of the struggle.

Staley — whether one was a supporter of the locked-out workers at the time and followed this struggle closely, or is just discovering this important moment of recemt labor history — is important to read. It looks at not only what did happen but the possibilities of what could have happened. It illustrates how a labor struggle in one local can become a social movement. It shows the courage of ordinary people who are transformed by their experiences, and hopefully it will also inspire a new generation to take up the fight to transform unions into institutions that are run by workers in their own interests.

*A number of articles by one or both of the authors appeared in ATC at the time. See “Decatur Labor Fights On” in ATC 53, “The June 25th Rally in Decatur” in ATC 58 and “Staley Workers End Lockout“ in ATC 61.

ATC 149, November-December 2010