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Steven K. Ashby and C.J. Hawking, Staley: The Fight for a New American Labor Movement.

Steven K. Ashby and C.J. Hawking, Staley: The Fight for a New American Labor Movement (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press 2009)

IF ANY HISTORIANS still think that the 1990s was a period of labour quiescence, Staley should convincingly disabuse them of that notion. If any commentators still believe that the 1990s represented the period when "new voices" finally regenerated organized labour, this book will present a devastating challenge. That paradox is at the centre of this important book, which ranks alongside Richard Brisbane's A Strike Like No Other and Kate Bronfenbrenner's Ravenswood as a major contribution to the history of modern American labour. The authors have presented a compelling analysis of a decisive moment in the struggle for social democracy. Equally important, they present an astute analysis of the central conundrum facing American labour today: the tension between front-rank militancy and institutional conservatism.

Ashby and Hawking weave these themes into the analysis of a labour movement buffeted by forces that would have intimidated the likes of John L. Lewis. Staley manufactured high fructose corn syrup, the revolutionary substitute for sugar that sweetened everything from Pepsi to Pop-Tarts in the consumer-fuelled 1980s. The demand for the product was insatiable--by 1992, the company was turning a $400 million profit. But in the "greed is good" decade, profitability wasn't simply a function of demand. Hawking and Ashby outline the deliberate campaign for the restoration of corporate control that began when Chrysler demanded massive wage and benefit concessions from the UAW in 1979 and received a major stamp of approval when President Reagan liquidated the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization in 1981. The era of shareholder entitlement, leveraged buyouts, corporate consolidation, and Hormel-style anti-unionism provides the background for the analysis of the Staley struggle. For example, by the time that the multinational Tate and Lyell absorbed A.E Staley in 1988, the company had already experimented in "cooperation" schemes designed to rationalize production and reduce employee control. The Tate and Lyell acquisition eliminated a competitor and made an already concentrated industry even less competitive.

The irony, of course, is that the company used the rhetoric of global competitiveness to justify demands for massive concessions. The imperative was clear: to render the whole idea of a collective agreement meaningless. Ashby and Hawking establish the political and economic context for the company's draconian demands. In the same period that Caterpillar (also in Decatur), Hormel, Greyhound, International Paper, and Staley were demanding concessions, real wages for US workers were on a steady decline. Following a four year wage freeze (!), the Staley local of the Allied Industrial Workers arrived at the bargaining table to discover that the new owners expected them to accept "rotating shifts, the deskilling of jobs, the elimination of most safety procedures, and other major concessions." (22) Wholesale firings of union-friendly managers, the elimination of one-fourth of the company's white collar employees, and the adoption of non-union contractors signaled the company's determination to restructure. Yet it is the death of employee Jim Beals in a preventable industrial accident that highlights the company malfeasance at the core of restructuring. This is never simply the numbers game that corporate reengineering gurus presented.

Discussing Local 837's remarkable outreach campaign, which saw teams of "road warriors" traversing the country to generate support and foster independent solidarity committees, the authors quote an AFL-CIO strategist commenting on its significance: "When Road Warriors go out in any campaign, they touch people in a way that union newsletters don't, magazines don't, phone calls don't, staff to staff don't, staff speaking to members don't. These Road Warriors ... touch people in their heart and soul, not just their head, and it makes a very big difference ..." (95) The sensitivity to the lived experience of workers raises the calibre of this study considerably.

Yet it's the authors' attention to how this lockout evolved into a social movement that distinguishes Staley from Stephen Franklin's Three Strikes: Labor's Heartland Losses and What They Mean for Working Americans, itself a provocative portrait of how the simultaneous strikes at Stale),, Caterpillar, and Bridgestone Firestone rocked Decatur and organized labour. Franklin covered the story from a sympathetic reporter's perspective, but Ashby and Hawking were both directly involved, the former as a co-chair of the independent Chicago solidarity committee, the latter as an ordained Methodist minister who organized religious outreach and participated in nonviolent civil disobedience. They maintain necessary, though sometimes stilted, scholarly detachment, but they do a marvelous job of humanizing this struggle. In effect, Ashby and Hawking document three stories: the movement for internal union democracy, the regeneration of a moribund labour movement, and the awakening of workers to how threatening the corporate globalization agenda was to basic American values of equality and freedom. Ashby and Hawking capture workers' thinking in terms reminiscent of 1934. Ashby and Hawking quote Dan Lane, a militant Staley unionist who would conduct a hunger strike to protest Pepsi's continued patronage of Stale)', commenting on the lockout experience: "It was scary. But still, it's that kind of exhilaration, and you are exceeding all power that you ever thought you had. It was like being free. You broke the shackles. It was an emancipation." (76) For all the attention paid to anti-globalization resistance movements in the Clinton years, scholars often shy away from a direct discussion of class consciousness and class conflict. Ashby and Hawking do not; their examination of how American workers confronted the limits of their inherited worldview is refreshing.

The authors' engagement also explains the exceptional bank of interviews they've accumulated. They use these sources to develop finely-wrought portraits that illustrate the larger ideological and political transformation of Staley's workers. Jeanette Hawkins' experience is representative. An African American hired in 1974, Hawkins was stunned by the racial antipathy of management and workers alike. The authors recount a harrowing episode of racial harassment that encapsulates the intolerant, antidemocratic tendencies of far too many unions in the postwar era. At one point, Hawkins found herself "precariously positioned four stories above a concrete floor, hanging on to nothing but a rope," while a group of white workers poured buckets of c01d water on her. "One slip and Hawkins could have easily fallen to her death." (153) Hawkins appealed to management as well as union leadership for relief, only to be met by the kind of stonewalling historically responsible for so much African-American disenchantment with organized labour. The authors are careful to point out that Hawkins' experience was not uniformly characteristic of the black experience at Staley. Still, it's a wonder that Hawkins, and by extension, African Americans, African-American women, and white women, for that matter, could ever support a union campaign for anything, considering the level of racial and sexual harassment that Ashby and Hawking document. But they do. Even more surprising, Hawkins joins the Road Warriors and ends up serving on the negotiating team, becoming the first African American to serve in union leadership. That's a measure of how transformative the anti-lockout movement became.

As much as any organizational or tactical question, the alteration of working-class consciousness through collective protest is at the centre of the book. The lockout, the mass rallies, the organized civil disobedience, the unfettered police brutality, the instruction in labour history, the corporate campaign, the astonishingly ambitious solidarity drive, the linkages formed with other striking unions, and the mobilization of religious support transform the conflict from an exercise in picket-line protocol to a grassroots social movement. What this remarkable demonstration of working-class solidarity could not transform was the sclerotic bureaucracy, territorialism, and timidity of the AFL-CIO. The Staley workers' desperate, and ultimately futile, effort to enlist the AFL-CIO leadership in what had become the defining struggle of the era is a sobering and indispensable chapter in this important book. The questions it raises about the future of labour in a country where the Democratic Party pays it lip service, and where major labour organizations expend millions on electing presidents while leaving millions unorganized, are that much more compelling when set against the backdrop of this momentous fight.


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Author:Dennis, Michael
Publication:Labour/Le Travail
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2010
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