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Labor takes its lumps.


In late January, some Staley workers came through Madison, Wisconsin, to tell their side of a tawdry story--the story of labor's demise, circa 1996.

For two and a half years, the workers at the A.E. Staley Company in Decatur, Illinois, had come to represent a new labor militancy among the rank and file, a willingness to stand up and fight against predatory multinationals. The Staley workers were part of a valiant group of unionists challenging corporate power in what became known as a "war zone" in central Illinois. The war included the workers at Caterpillar and at Bridgestone/Firestone. Now the war is over; the workers have lost.

In June 1993, Staley, a subsidiary of Tate & Lyle, locked out its workers. The local union responded aggressively with a corporate campaign against Staley's corn-syrup customers, including the Miller Brewing Company and PepsiCo. And the workers took their cause to the streets: they organized mass protests, for which they were pepper-gassed by police. They pleaded their case before the AFL-CIO executive council, and one Staley worker went on a hunger strike for several weeks to dramatize their plight.

All for naught.

The Staley workers voted to accept a contract designed to bust their union on December 22. The vote was close--286 to 226--on a settlement virtually equivalent to the two that the United Paperworkers Local 7837 had already defeated.

The new contract cuts the number of union jobs from 762 at the time of the lockout to 250 by 1997; gives the company unlimited subcontracting rights; institutes twelve-hour shifts rotating every thirty days, and mandatory overtime without overtime pay; punishes scab harassment with immediate firing; and grants no amnesty to workers fired for union activities.

The international union is in no small part responsible for the capitulation to Staley. The international worked hard behind the scenes to overthrow Dave Watts, the local president, and to replace him with a president willing to cut a deal, any deal. The strategy succeeded on December 12, when the membership threw out Watts and elected Jim Shinall by a 249-to-201 vote. Within a few days, the strikers settled with Staley.

The coup de grace came on January 16, at a meeting at the union hall. "The newly elected president of the local union didn't want people in there who had opposed the settlement," says Watts. "When we went to the podium and put proper motions on the floor, the police were actually called in. Six to eight officers came and started removing people. These were the very same cops that had pepper-gassed us! This was the most dishonorable, disgraceful part of unionism I've ever been involved in."

After the settlement, Staley offered 349 jobs to the 601 eligible union members. Fewer than 180 have chosen to return. The many replacement workers who have been hired on at Staley will now have union membership, making Local 7837 a union of scabs. As one of those severed from Staley, Watts is no longer a member of the union he now holds in contempt. "I am not proud at all to have been a member of the International Paperworkers Union. It has some good membership; it has some poor leadership."

Watts, a union man for twenty-eight years at Staley, places the blame for the defeat squarely on a corrupt and overpaid international board. "They're still eating fine finger foods off the workers. There are more limousines, thousand-dollar suits, and twenty-dollar cigars down there than the average working man ever needs to know about. Workers take it in the back. The leadership is living pretty high on the hog off of dues money, and giving very poor service. Why pay dues?"

The scene at Caterpillar was not much prettier. In early December, striking workers at Caterpillar voted against accepting the company's latest contract offer. But the international union had already informed members that their votes didn't matter--whether they approved the contract or not, the strike was finished. And so it was.

Caterpillar employees are now working without a contract, but the company has begun to impose the terms the local union rejected anyhow. These include a two-tier wage structure, the right for the company to demand work periods longer than eight-hour days with no overtime pay, and new "standards of conduct," including "temporary special moratoria," which restrict freedom of speech. Forbidden language includes the word "scab," slogans as apparently innocuous as FAMILIES IN SOLIDARITY, UAW (for which two employees have already been suspended), and union stickers on lunch pails. The UAW says that eighty-eight union members have so far been suspended or fired for speech infractions; Caterpillar claims the number is somewhere around fifty.

As at Staley's Decatur plant, scabs--5,650 in all--remain on the job at Caterpillar. And in some plants they are receiving preferential treatment. Replacement workers continue to perform important jobs while management consigns returning strikers to "work pools," with minimal responsibility. "In the Decatur plant, management made union members wear their safety glasses and ear plugs at lunch, while scabs and management eat without them," Labor Notes reports.

Strikes have fallen to their lowest number in fifty years, according to The New York Times. Whereas 3,005 strikes took place in 1975 and 1,016 in 1985, 1995 saw only 385, and that was a 20 percent drop from 1994. This decline has accompanied a fall in real income since 1973, and a tendency of corporations to lay off workers, downsize, and transfer plants overseas. The Times blames the death of the strike weapon on the increasingly popular practice of hiring on replacement workers, and on corporations' willingness and ability to function during a walkout.

Staley and Caterpillar suggest another reason: a union leadership that is loath to lead, too distanced from its members, and too comfortable with the status quo to challenge it.

The new leadership of the AFL-CIO rightly emphasizes organizing, approaching formerly neglected industries such as chicken-processing and nursing homes, and attempting to recruit minorities and women. However, the allure of a dues-paying membership is proving so attractive to unions organizing chicken-processing plants in the Southern states that unions are often competing against each other for the same members. While an expansive mobilization of service-sector and temporary workers is essential if the union movement is to have any future in the United States, this sort of fratricidal rivalry amounts to a splintering of the labor movement, at a time when cohesion is desperately needed.

Other, more fundamental changes are needed if labor is to learn the Staley lesson.

* There must be a democratic, responsive union leadership at the international level. Here was a local that had put itself on the line. Union members showed tremendous courage, ingenuity, and energy--and for this they got the cold shoulder. As in many unions, the governing body of the United Paperworkers Union is not elected by the full membership. This must change. Every international union head ought to be elected by popular vote. Only then will unions be more responsive to the needs of their members.

* The AFL-CIO itself has to take democracy seriously. When union members are fighting for their livelihoods, as they were in Decatur, the federation has an obligation to throw its full support behind them. It did not under Lane Kirkland; so far it has not under John Sweeney.

* Sweeney has the right idea about organizing, but organizing itself is not enough. The American leadership needs to remember the meaning of solidarity. It's not just a hoary old song to be mumbled at the end of union meetings and on Labor Day. It's a concept crucial to labor's survival. Staley depended on PepsiCo's business; PepsiCo workers should have gone on strike, too. To hell with the ban on secondary strikes; the labor movement would be nowhere if workers in the 1930s didn't risk breaking the law to stand up for their rights. And where was the AFL-CIO when Staley workers were trying to get a national boycott of Pepsi off the ground? It was planning the most propitious time to endorse Bill Clinton.

Solidarity also has an international component, especially in this day and age. Staley's parent company, Tate & Lyle of England, should have been the target of strikes by workers there. International organizing is one of the only ways to have an impact on these companies.

Workers in France recently demonstrated the power that a vigorous labor movement can exert, as have workers in Ontario (see "On the Line," Page 13). Here in the United States we seem more than oceans away from such a development.

It need not be.

Workers here, as there, are feeling the pinch; workers here, as there, are prepared to act. The Staley workers demonstrated that American unionists have the guts and the creativity to fight back. But they fought alone. The next time, they ought to have their leaders behind them.
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Title Annotation:AFL-CIO, United Paperworkers Union sell out strikers at A.E. Staley Co.
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Mar 1, 1996
Previous Article:Chaos or Community: Seeking Solutions, Not Scapegoats for Bad Economics.
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