Printer Friendly

Labor war zone in Illinois.

It's a bitter cold November day in Decatur, Illinois. I'm shivering in a speakers' tent filled with hundreds of union factory workers, their families, and supporters. A mood of festive defiance permeates the tent as workers join hands red from the cold and begin singing a round of old labor anthems, imparting a note of urgency to their well-worn lyrics.

The day marks the fiftieth anniversary of Allied Industrial Workers Local 837, the union that represents some 760 workers at Decatur's A.E. Staley Manufacturing Company, a large Illinois-based cornprocessing company. Union members have gathered not just to celebrate but also to protest: Management at Staley has locked them out of their jobs.

Labor is under attack in Decatur, as it is across the country. But here, where the union has declared central Illinois a "war zone," labor is fighting back.

With the final chorus of "Solidarity Forever," workers and union officials take turns stepping up to the microphone. They talk of company safety violations, unionbusting, and corporate greed.

"Today, critics of organized labor argue that most American workers already enjoy good wages, good benefits, and good working conditions," suggests union official Boyd Young, pausing long enough to let his audience hoot in disgust. "Let them come to Decatur, Illinois!"

He's followed by Dan Lane, a Staley worker who was fired shortly before the lockout began in late June. "It's time that we, labor, as a solidarity movement, get off our knees, stand up and join hands," he urges the crowd, his voice rising steadily in volume. "We have to move forward together to win this victory, not only in Decatur, not only in central Illinois, but in this whole damn country!"

The fiery speeches, the chants of "no contract, no peace," and the enthusiasm of the crowd show a union ready and willing to do battle. Lest there be any doubt, the official pronouncement comes from Local 837 president Dave Watts: "The labor movement, the grass-roots efforts which are so obvious here today, is alive."

Although the demise of organized labor has become a common lament of the Left, there are signs of life in Decatur. An industrial city of 90,000, set about 175 miles southwest of Chicago among the corn and bean fields of central Illinois, Decatur has drawn the attention of the national labor movement.

The tale of the Staley fight is of a small union local mustering strong opposition to a powerful multinational corporation. The workers know the deck is stacked against them. In days when more and more people are looking for work and union membership is shrinking, workers are becoming increasingly expendable. How the labor movement can survive in such adverse times is the lesson Staley workers believe they can teach other unions across the country.

"I think we have given the labor movement a good shot in the arm in showing workers how and when you can stand up and fight," says Jim Shinall, who has worked at Staley for twenty-nine years. "It's helping to pull the labor movement together."

Next to Caterpillar and Archer Daniels Midland, an agribusiness giant, Staley is one of Decatur's biggest employers. Its plant sprawls pipelines, smokestacks, and conveyors over some 450 acres near downtown Decatur. Inside the factory walls, corn is ground to produce starches for paper making and sweeteners for soft drinks, beer, and other food products.

The union had a history of cooperation with Staley management. Members earned wages that averaged close to $13.50 per hour for work that helped make the company increasingly profitable. Things started to change, however, when British multinational Tate & Lyle, one of the world's largest producers of sweeteners, bought the company in 1988. Workers say they began to see signs of trouble when the company brought in a high-powered law firm and management people notorious for union-busting.

Their fears were confirmed when it came time for contract renewal last year. Management, in no mood for bargaining, imposed terms of its "best and final offer": a tough new contract calling for diminished seniority, toothless safety and grievance procedures, and a new twelvehour work rotation system.

"It was obvious to me that the company wanted a strike," says Mark Crouch, an activist professor of labor studies at Indiana University, who stepped in to advise Staley workers. "It was headed toward a forcedstrike scenario. The company wanted to piss the workers off so they would take the bait and destroy themselves."

Workers were outraged, but were equally wary of striking. They had just seen a strike of the considerably more powerful United Auto Workers crumble when Caterpillar threatened to hire replacement workers. Fearing a similar outcome at Staley, they needed an alternative.

They found one in the "corporate campaign," a divide-and-conquer strategy led by free-lance labor adviser Ray Rogers. His corporate campaigns target the financial allies of antilabor companies for boycotts and highly visible public humiliation.

They combined the "corporate campaign" with an "in-plant strategy," a plan of attack refined by dissident UAW labor leader Jerry Tucker. It calls on workers to stay on the job, drawing a paycheck while finding clever ways to cut productivity and force management to the bargaining table.

"This is a small local with a very big problem," Rogers told me. "It's out in the middle of nowhere in a place with a history of big unions taking big beatings. One would have to be optimistic to say this is David versus Goliath. This is baby David in a very deep hole."

While Rogers began mapping out Staley's corporate ties, Tucker helped workers establish an in-plant strategy at Staley. The employees' work-to-rule campaign cut productivity by strictly adhering to company-specified procedures for how to do their work, denying the company the ingenuity they had acquired from years on the job.

Tucker says there couldn't have been a better place to put his strategy into action. "The local has exhibited real progressiveness in that every member is a worker, and there are no union bureaucrats who sit around the office all day waiting for the phone to ring. They work," Tucker says. "They all feel like the rank-and-file. It's not like the UAW, which has a whole army of full-time functionaries and a real gap between union leaders and the workers."

The in-plant strategy annoyed the company. When the late shift ended on June 27, management announced that the inplant strategy was "sabotage" and ordered all workers who wouldn't accept its final contract offer to leave the plant. All 760 left, and they have remained off the job ever since.

The lockout was a bitter pill for the union. "The reward for fifty years of collective bargaining with the company was a lockout," says union president Dave Watts. "We've helped create a lot of profit for the company in the past fifty years and they don't intend to share it any longer."

With workers held outside the plant gate, the in-plant strategy was over, and the focus turned to Rogers's corporate campaign. He scored some early victories. Boycotts of two Illinois banks forced Staley officials who had been serving on their boards to resign.

Now Rogers is gunning for bigger game. One target is Archer Daniels Midland, which calls itself the "supermarket to the world" and holds stock in Staley's London-based parent company, Tate & Lyle.

Workers see an even more direct link between ADM and Staley. They claim ADM, ostensibly one of Staley's competitors, is helping Staley fill orders during the lock-out. They point to a recently constructed pipeline connecting the Staley and ADM corn-processing plants as further proof of their "corporate solidarity."

As Staley workers see it, the other big spider minding the web of corporate interests is State Farm Insurance Company. State Farm is one of the largest institutional owners of ADM stock and, according to the union, by no means a "good neighbor." The union has called for a boycott against State Farm and has demonstrated at its corporate offices.

The corporate campaign has also resulted in a boycott of Domino and GW brand sugars, leading products of Tate & Lyle. "Help stop the Domino effect," reads a slickly produced pamphlet the union has been distributing to publicize the boycott.

Throughout this fight, Staley workers have rallied around a motto: "It's our solidarity versus theirs." "Their" solidarity is the tangle of interests the corporate campaign has unearthed. "Ours" is the support Staley workers have generated within the community and the ties they have forged with other unions.

Union members have hit the pavement in teams of "road warriors" since early in their struggle, traveling across the country to make their case before union meetings and appeal for financial support.

The union is also developing ties with British labor unions, spreading word overseas of the labor-unfriendly exploits of Tate & Lyle's American subsidiary. Staley workers are distributing Deadly Corn, a documentary chronicling hazards at the Decatur plant and publicizing the lock-out.

But the most important bonds have been formed at home, in Decatur. "I've learned more people's names since the lockout than I had during twenty-seven years at the plant," says Jerry Fargusson, a locked-out Staley worker. "By locking us out they've done more for union solidarity than anything else. We've made a lot of friends."

One friend is at the nearby Caterpillar plant in Decatur, where a feud continues to rage between workers and management following the five-month strike that collapsed in April 1992.

Larry Solomon, head of the UAW local at the Decatur plant, says Caterpillar workers have vigorously supported the locked-out Staley workers. They see the Staley fight as their own, he says, and have often passed the hat for them.

"It's been the trend for companies to take the unions on. Where there are a lot of unions, there are a lot of fights," Solomon says. "I think greedy corporations dream of having a union-free environment."

That prospect makes Morris Delbridge, who has worked at Caterpillar's Decatur plant for twenty-eight years, "upset and belligerent."

"The people who work in the plant have built Caterpillar into a company that is competitive worldwide," Delbridge says. "It's really pathetic the way this organization has turned on its people."

Since Caterpillar workers returned to their jobs in 1992, they remain without a contract and have adopted an in-plant strategy. Solomon says the effort got off to a slow start, but estimates that about a third of the 1,700 workers at the Decatur plant are now taking part in the campaign.

"A lot of workers at first thought we wanted them to sabotage the company and destroy things inside the plant," Solomon says. "But when they get some education and learn what we are doing, they join up."

For his part, Richard Zerofowski, a long-time Caterpillar worker, sees the action as a painful necessity. "I liken it to a divorce," he says. "When you go back to-gether, it's not going to be the same. It's hard for me not to give my supervisor advice that would make both his job and mine easier, but we have to do it."

He says the fate of Staley workers who engaged in the same sort of guerrilla tactics has slowed some participation at Caterpillar.

"A lot of people are afraid of being punished. After they saw what happened to the Staley workers, they say we've got to be careful or we'll be locked out," he tells me--after he's satisfied that I am not a card-carrying Socialist. ("We've had problems with some of those types showing up at our meetings," he says. "They are escorted out real quick.")

Some Caterpillar workers' apparent hostility toward socialism aside, it's clear that workers in Decatur are taking a critical look at those who wield political power.

"Unions are becoming very hierarchical, but to succeed in the fights unions are having with multinationals, that has to be broken down. Unions have to undergo a transformation," says Jerry Tucker, who has remained in Decatur as an adviser since his work organizing the inside campaign at Staley came to a close.

"When you deal with this question of corporate solidarity, which the Clinton Administration is very permissive of, workers need to build new structures which provide them with maximum solidarity," Tucker adds.

Tucker's disdain for Clinton is shared by many union members in Decatur. They are outraged by the President's enormous show of political muscle in getting the North American Free Trade Agreement passed and equally dismayed by his apparent willingness to let a bill languish in the Senate that would bar employers from hiring permanent replacement workers in case of a strike.

"Many of the workers felt the Clinton Administration deserted us on NAFTA. We have a lot of people who are very upset," says Larry Solomon at Caterpillar. "Clinton twisted many arms to get NAFTA passed. If he doesn't do that on the anti-scab bill, he will be deserted. He will send a very strong message that he isn't interested in labor issues."

Over at Staley, many workers have already got the message. Jerry Tucker reports that workers expressed strong support for the formation of a national labor party during one of their weekly solidarity meetings.

"The way Clinton was pushing NAFTA was a step backward for labor," says Jim Shinall, a Staley worker.

"If he continues to take stands against labor like that, I'm not too sure he's as pro-labor as he had some believe before he was elected. I would like to see a labor party, myself. It seems the two parties sure talk about how important working people are, but so far all they've done is talk. One of these days, it could be a long way down the road, we'll have a party to represent the workers."

As the lockout enters its sixth month, Staley workers are holding together reasonably well, with hundreds still showing up for weekly solidarity meetings.

Some have found temporary jobs. Others rely on support coming in from other unions and unemployment compensation, which, barring an extension, will run out in early February. No one is quite sure what will happen when that time comes, but being starved into submission is the last thing on their minds.

They remain hopeful that production at the Staley plant, now run by temporary replacement workers, will fall far enough that management will come to the table willing to negotiate.

The union is also waiting for the National Labor Relations Board to rule on the charge it filed claiming that the lockout is illegal. But even a favorable decision, workers say, won't guarantee success.

Ray Rogers, the architect of their fight, says the union still has a chance of winning, but he has begun speaking of symbolic victories.

"We've had a very powerful strategy, but we are also up against a very powerful alliance of corporate interests whose goal it is to render unions ineffective," he told me. "No matter what happens here, people are going to look at how long these workers held out and say, 'Damn, that company will think twice before it does that again.'"

Many workers I talked to say they knew their struggle would be tough when they first decided to fight the company instead of making heavy contract concessions. They are prepared to stick it out.

"If we lose our jobs here, our kids and grandkids will probably never have such a good job. They are slowly whittling them away," says Nancy Hanna, a locked-out Staley worker. "I am willing to fight to the end."
COPYRIGHT 1994 The Progressive, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1994, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Decatur, Illinois lockout of A.E. Staley Manufacturing Co. workers
Author:Jarosinski, Eric
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Feb 1, 1994
Previous Article:Working the risk shift.
Next Article:Downsized.

Related Articles
Fungal fish-oil factories.
Germans, knights, communists and craftsmen: a brief look at woodworking unions.
Resurrecting road kill.
Labor war rages on.
Labor takes its lumps.
Dispatches from Decatur: community is the first casualty in America's labor wars.
Forging a Common Bond: Labor and Environmental Activism during the BASF Lockout.
Hard labor: scholars chronicle the relationship of African Americans to unions and the industrialization of America.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters