The Staley Lockout (Thad Williamson)

Second in a series of blog posts by former D&S collective member Thad Williamson, who is teaching a course on social movements at the University of Richmond, where he teaches at the Jepson School of Leadership Studies. This post is on a 2009 book on the struggles of workers at A.E. Staley Company in Decatur, Ill., starting with a lock-out in 1993. The lessons the authors draw are particularly relevant today, as Richard Trumka assumes leadership of the AFL-CIO. —CS

What happens when a union engaged in a strike or lockout shows creativity, spunk and courage, has an activist-minded membership willing to do what it takes to get the message out, shows a willingness to begin to mend long-standing racial distrust among workers, and has the solidarity to stick together and stick it out for months and even years?

That’s the question addressed by Steven Ashby and C.J. Hawking’s rather remarkable book, Staley: The Fight for a New American Labor Movement, published earlier this year by University of Illinois press. Ashby and Hawking provide an insider’s account of the two and a half year struggle of workers at A.E. Staley Company in Decatur, Illinois, a subsidiary of multinational giant Tate and Lyle and a producer of corn syrup and starches. After years of worsening safety standards and increasing worker unrest at Staley, including an effective work-to-rule campaign, management locked out its union workers in June 1993. The bitter conflict would not be resolved for two and a half years.

What makes this book uniquely valuable is that Ashby and Hawking take us deep inside the internal life of a labor union local. Ashby and Hawking were personally involved in the struggle as members of solidarity committees, and literally lived the events they describe. Yet while Ashby and Hawking present the union’s efforts in a positive, at times heroic light, they manage to remain objective and honest in assessing the union, its leadership, and its shortcomings. The result is a book with the level of detail and color you might expect from a top-notch journalist and a solid analytical perspective; or to put it another way, this book marks a landmark of labor scholarship and should and will be read by anyone serious about understanding the predicament of the labor movement in the United States.

As Ashby and Hawking recount, the battle with management at Staley began well before the actual lockout. After acquiring the plant in 1988, Tate and Lyle implemented a rotating 12-hour shift work schedule, while systematically gutting safety practices and placing workers with decades of experience under young supervisors who often had lacked any understanding of the nuts and bolts of production. The company’s systemic neglect lead to deadly consequences in 1990 when a worker was gassed to death in a corn starch processing tank.

That incident, combined with increasing evidence that Tate & Lyle intended to bust the union, led workers to engage in a prolonged work-to-rule action, under the mentorship of union consultant Jerry Tucker. The union also brought in well-known consultant Ray Rogers to launch a corporate campaign. Matters come to a head in June 1993 when workers staged a safety stand-down in response to yet another neglected safety crisis. Shortly thereafter, Staley locked out its workers.

What happened next is the most inspiring part of this story. Highly mobilized union activists (including several workers who had been fired in the run-up to the lockout) engaged in a variety of activities designed to get the word out about the strike, both in Decatur, throughout the Midwest, and eventually nationally. Workers began producing a newspaper with ongoing updates on the dispute. A documentary film, “Deadly Corn” was produced in which workers plainly but graphically aired their grievances with the company, with particular attention to safety issues. A group of activists termed “Road Warriors” traveled by car throughout the Midwest to spread the word about the lockout to other unionists and potential supporters. Significant outreach was made to religious leaders, and crucial steps were taken to begin overcoming the long-standing racial divide within the union and incorporate African-American workers into the union leadership.

Missteps were made as well. The first iteration of the corporate campaign designed by Rogers was a bust; Rogers pushed for targeting State Farm insurance because of its financial ties to Archer Daniels Midland which in turn owned shares in Tate and Lyle. But those ties struck even union supporters as too tenuous and complex to build a compelling public case on. Later on, the authors suggest that union local president Dave Watts, described in largely positive terms overall, should have more aggressively embraced nonviolent civil disobedience strategies, particularly in an October 2004 march in Decatur when national support for the union was at a peak.

But the authors place far greater blame on the higher levels of organized labor for not matching the local’s committed activism. Officials in the United Paperworkers International Union of which the Staley local was a part offered at first lukewarm support, then later actively sided with dissident unionists who wanted to accept the company’s terms. Worse, at the crucial moment in the fall of 1995, the UPIU literally pulled the plug on a corporate campaign to get Pepsi (like Miller Beer before it) to drop Staley as a supplier.

National-level labor leaders fare no better. In of the book’s most memorable scenes, Staley workers made a pilgrimage to AFL-CIO executive council meetings in Bal Harbour, Florida in February 1995, confronting stunned national leaders inside the luxurious Sheraton Hotel. The demands by Staley workers for greater support for their action became a key factor in John Sweeney’s successful bid to displace Lane Kirkland as AFL-CIO president that year. But while Sweeney made extravagant promises to commit resources to the Staley fight during that campaign, after winning election in fall 1995 no concrete steps were taken by Sweeney to give Staley a reasonable chance of winning.
In the end, the Staley lockout was a crushing defeat for the union local. With the corporate campaigns called off and no help from higher levels of labor in sight, a majority of the union decided to pack it in. In December 1995, a 56% majority of the union approved a contract with no significant concessions from management and that provided for a dramatic reduction in union jobs. The majority of the locked-out workers in fact never went back into the plant, and many of those who did go back initially left within the first month.

The conclusion of this epic struggle is a kick in the teeth for anyone who reads this book and comes to sympathize with the many union leaders and activists the authors portray. But Ashby and Hawking’s larger purpose is to provide a kick in the rear for organized labor as a whole. The workers at Staley and their many community supporters demonstrated creativity, commitment and courage over a prolonged period of time, but when they sought support from higher levels of the union hierarchy, they came home empty-handed.

Fourteen years later, the Sweeney era has run its course and Richard Trumka has just taken over as AFL-CIO president. This is ironic, for it was Trumka whom many Decatur unionists blamed for not delivering on the federation’s promises of support. To his credit, Trumka traveled to Decatur to meet with angry union activists six months after the lockout ended, where he argued that the AFL-CIO’s hands were tied because of the lack of support from UPIU for the lockout.

No one can doubt Trumka’s commitment to organizing. Nor can anyone doubt that the rules of the game continue to be stacked against organized labor in ways which make winning conflicts like Staley extremely difficult. The key strategic challenge facing Trumka’s new regime will be how much effor
t to devote to trying to change the rules of that game, how much effort to devote to supporting direct actions of worker militancy, and how much effort to commit to broader union movement goals, such as achieving health care reform.

It’s fruitless to argue in the abstract about which of those goals should be the top priority. What’s not fruitless is spending time reading Staley, drawing on both the positive and distressing lessons this book provides. The book beautifully illustrates the difficulties involved when workers challenge multinational corporations, shows how one union was able to muster sufficient tangible and moral support from a wider community to keep such a challenge going over a period of years, and unsparingly indicts modes of union leadership that simply forgot what grassroots solidarity is all about.

Near the end of Staley, union activist Gary Lamb says “I want the words ‘Remember Decatur’ to haunt Sweeney and Trumka.”
Maybe they still will.

—Thad Williamson

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