Lessons from the War Zone

March 25, 2011

During the mid-1990s, the struggle of workers at the A.E. Staley Manufacturing plant in Decatur, Ill., became the central fight in a labor upsurge in central Illinois--renamed by workers at Staley, Caterpillar and Bridgestone-Firestone as the "War Zone"--against corporate greed and the accelerating drive toward globalization and neoliberlaism.

In the midst of an era when unions remained in retreat mode, the Staley struggle showed the best face of the American labor movement--the determination of rank-and-file union members to confront management with militant and innovative tactics and the solidarity of workers and activists who embraced the Staley fight as their own. But the struggle also revealed the treacherous role of entrenched union leaders, as well as the difficult questions about rebuilding the labor movement.

Art Dhermy, Dan Lane and Lorell Patterson became rank-and-file leaders of the struggle in Decatur. Socialist Worker's Lance Selfa, Carole Ramsden and Paul D’Amato talked with them about the lessons of the Staley struggle. The roundtable was published in the January 19, 1996, edition of Socialist Worker.

THE-TWO-and-a-half year lockout of workers at the A.E. Staley Manufacturing Co. in Decatur, Ill., ended December 22, 1996. The workers, members of the United Paperworkers International Union (UPIU) Local 7837, voted to accept Staley's "best and final offer," a contract worse than the one they rejected in October 1992.

That contract called for 12-hour work shifts, weakened seniority rights and gutted the grievance procedure. In addition, the company refused to respond to workers' concerns about safety hazards at the plant, which led to the death of one Staley worker, who was asphyxiated while cleaning a chemical vat in 1990.

The 760 Staley workers launched their campaign for a decent contract in late 1992 with an "in-plant" strategy--a "work-to-rule" campaign promoted by union adviser Jerry Tucker, organizer of the New Directions Movement in the United Auto Workers union. By the time management locked out the Staley workers on June 27, 1993, the "in-plant" campaign had cut production in half.

Locked-out Staley workers and their supporters get pepper-sprayed by police
Locked-out Staley workers and their supporters get pepper-sprayed by police

Staley workers launched a "corporate campaign"--the brainchild of adviser Ray Rogers, of Corporate Campaign, Inc.--against State Farm Insurance. They also organized a series of marches and rallies in Decatur. At the largest of these, on June 25, 1994, more than 5,000 unionists and supporters came to Decatur to show their solidarity. The rally ended with a sit-in at the Staley plant gates at which Decatur cops pepper-gassed dozens of workers and supporters. In its last year, the struggle became a war of attrition as union activists focused on pressuring PepsiCo--one of Staley's main customers--to dump Staley.

But the Staley workers received little more than lip service from the official leaders of the U.S. labor movement. Only toward the end of 1995--when the labor wars in Decatur became an issue in the AFL-CIO leadership election--did the AFL-CIO provide money and staff to aid the struggle.

For its part, the UPIU International approached the Staley struggle as a battle that it would rather not have been a part of. In fact, UPIU officials forced last month's vote on Staley's proposal--after local leaders refused to recommend the company's offer to the membership.

Still, the story of the Staley struggle is not simply one of a courageous local "sold out" by its international and the AFL-CIO. Local 7837 never settled on a consistent strategy to shut down production at the scab-run plant. Local leaders, facing court injunctions, discouraged mass pickets to confront scabs or unions which crossed UPIU picket lines.

Although the Staley struggle ended in defeat, the Staley workers--together with their brothers and sisters striking Caterpillar Inc. and Bridgestone-Firestone in Central Illinois' "War Zone"--helped to breathe sorely needed life into the tradition of solidarity in the labor movement. Staley workers won wide support from labor activists and socialists across the country.

YOUR FIRST response to Staley's concessions demands was the "in-plant" campaign. What was the value of that strategy, and how did you approach organizing after the company locked you out?

Art: The in-plant strategy brought out people together. It was a hands-on technique where everybody felt like they played a part.

Looking back, I think we fell off after we got locked out. The only things that really involved a majority of our people were a few of the rallies. We needed to do more right after the lockout to keep the membership mobilized. The longer we went without doing things, the more people we lost. We spent too much time patting ourselves on the back for a good action or a rally, and it took us too long to refocus on the next step that we had to take.

RAY ROGERS of Corporate Campaign, Inc., was involved at this point. Rogers promoted a boycott of State Farm Insurance, one of Staley's stockholders. How do you evaluate Rogers' Corporate campaign strategy?

Dan: [Rogers produced] "The Crisis in Decatur," which was an explanation about why the struggle was going on. And it was a good piece. But Ray's role before the lockout was less than Jerry Tucker, who basically facilitated the in-plant strategy. When we [got locked out], there was a decision by the local leadership that Ray--because of his background and because this was his forte--should be given the reins to lead the thing forward.

The problem with the State Farm boycott was that our own people simply didn't buy it. Most people couldn't figure out why you go after State Farm, who will in turn go after ADM, who will in turn go after Tate & Lyle, who will in turn do something about Staley. It wasn't long before people started feeling like this wasn't a good strategy.

Art: I see Ray's role in the beginning as somebody to rally around. He is a motivational speaker. People will listen and believe in him. So if nothing else, he was a sort of focal point. He did, in a sense, hold our membership together for a while.

After being part of the leadership, I also know some of his down points. But in the beginning, if it wasn't for him, I don't think we would have been able to mobilize and be as vocal as we were. Rogers ended up leading a number of the demonstrations.

Dan: It seemed to me that Ray would talk about an action in the street, but he wasn't using it as an organizing tool. He saw it more as part of a media campaign. In fact, at times, I heard him say, "Okay, I got the pictures. Let's get people out of here."

People see that for exactly what it is--nothing more than a media event. And people just don't feel like there's anything coming out of it.

Lorell: There were a lot of people saying that they didn't think [the corporate campaign was] working, and it seemed like they were blown off.

I think a lot of confusion came about because we were told that we were all in this together to make the best decisions for the local. But people found themselves being ignored from the floor [of union meetings]. I think that produced a lot of resentment from a lot of people said, "Well, the hell with it if you're not going to listen to me."

Dan: [During the in-plant campaign], people got used to working in a community-type atmosphere--in groups where people had input as to what was going to happen in the plant. When people are empowered, it's unreal the things they're willing to do.

And the company knew they couldn't do anything about it. We were beating their butts all over the place. We would have beat them on the outside if we had come out swinging with both fists. But instead, we had a leadership that all of a sudden decided that it was going to get in control and take this in a different direction.

LORELL MENTIONED that there were discussions of alternative strategies. One of those was the idea of shutting down production, stopping the scabs and appealing to unions that were crossing the picket line.

Art: I know for a fact that the Teamsters, the IBEW, the Steelworkers and the Laborers--just to name few--had letters written to them as late as June 1995, asking them to promise that their members would not cross our lines anymore. We never received one reply that I know of.

We were fought here on our own home front by the skilled trades unions--where they said that if don't cross your picket line, they're going to send a scab in an take our jobs, too.

Lorell: I got hired in the 1990s, and I would sit in the audience [at union meetings] and listen to some of the local leadership and members talk about the strike of 1970 [at Staley]. They'd talk about the court injunction against the union then, and one of the things they said was that if get an injunction, it's over with. I think there were a lot of people spooked by that.

I have no problem with breaking an injunction, but I also realized that there were some people who were terrified of this sort of thing. But I think there were a lot of people who had no problem with breaking injunctions--because they felt that an injunction was simply another way for the bosses to keep you in line.

Dan: I think the whole concept of shutting down the plant is very important for a couple of different reasons. Even if you can only sustain it, say, for several hours, it's potentially like a spark under kindling, which grows into a great flame.

In November 1993, we had a rally that was jut a total failure. People were talking about marching to the plant and shitting it down, but the leadership undermined it. We could have shut down the plant again at the demonstration in February 1994. We had [strikers] from Caterpillar and Bridgestone-Firestone and a lot of our people.

Lorell and I were at the same gate on the east end of the plant, and we had that thing shut down for about an hour and a half to two hours. A lot of the other local leaders were having a heart attack.

Nobody can ever convince me that people weren't willing to go much further than the leadership or Ray Rogers were willing to let them go.

WHAT WAS the impact of the June 25, 1994 demonstration, when protesters sitting in at the Staley plant gate were pepper-gassed by police?

Art: It showed what we were up against. People had to think back to how demonstrators were treated in the late 1950s and '60s, during the civil rights movement and the antiwar campaign.

A lot of the people who got pepper-gassed were grandfathers--we're talking middle-aged and middle class. Nobody could say the police were physically threatened in any way. So as far as that particular rally goes, it probably helped us and helped the labor movement.

Lorell: It shocked people, but it also woke up this community--and not just union members, but also people who weren't in unions.

At first, many said the unions were wrong and the company was right. But when [the gassing] happened, it gave people a whole new look at the company. There were a lot of people who said, "I'm not in a union, but I couldn't believe that they would pepper-gas people for demonstrating."

And this was coming after a rally of the Ku Klux Klan on the steps of the county courthouse. People saw the police protecting them, but arresting and gassing us. You didn't see people running out of their houses to join rallies, but when you talked to them, you could tell that their sense of trusting the cops or trusting the system had changed.

MANY OF the more than 5,000 people who attended the June 25 demonstrations came prepared to participate in civil disobedience. But after the cops pepper-gassed us, leaders of the local tried to end the demonstration. It seemed like an opportunity missed. What do you think?

Lorell: Maybe I didn't hear him correctly, but could I swear that [Local 7837 President] Dave Watts told those people [who had been pepper-gassed], "If you don't leave the gate, you will lose our support." I thought, "Wait a minute, they came here to support us. How can he stand there and say something like that when so many people came to support our struggle?" And other people, who I didn't even know, were asking, "How can he say something like that? We came here to support not only the Staley workers, but the labor movement as a whole."

Dan: The people who were involved in that [action on June 25] were kind of "hard-core" people who knew that this is what was needed. Those cops could have used clubs on us that day, but people were hell-bent and bound and determined not to move from that gate.

You could see that whole state of mind from people. I didn't see anyone leaving who has been gassed. In fact, the next move would have been to send out people to bring in food and get ready to stay for the evening or weekend or whatever. That one statement [by Watts] was probably more devastating than anything the police did to us.

There were approximately several hundred who were willing to participate who got left in kind of a dizzy state. All of a sudden, they found themselves without a lead or a direction. People visualized a more militant struggle than what was really going on--and a much more militant leadership.

LET'S TALK about the boycott campaigns against Miller Beer and Pepsi. Was there a difference between the boycott of Miller, which did stop buying from Staley, and the boycott of Pepsi, which never did stop its purchases from Staley?

Art: We got support from all over the U.S. during the Pepsi boycott. The big problem about the Pepsi campaign was that we didn't see the thing through. We knocked Miller off, and we still didn't get a contract, but it gave us more power to go after the next biggest person. So it was kind of a building block.

Can that kind of boycott strategy work? I think it can, as long as it's done in a timely fashion, starting from the point that you're locked out or on strike--rather than waiting for more than a year to get the strategy started.

Dan: It took too long to get the Miller campaign off the ground. But the campaign itself, once it got off the ground, was very powerful. There were a group of us who were going up [to the Miller plant in Milwaukee] on a regular basis every four to six weeks to pass out handbills and explain what was going on.

As for the Pepsi campaign, we'll never know if it would have succeeded, because we had already caved in by December 31, [when PepsiCo's contract with Staley expired]. By December, there was simply no longer a vision. People were simply worn out. They lost hope because they didn't know what was going on.

WHAT DO you think of as the lessons of the Staley struggle?

Dan: I think there are a lot of things to learn from Decatur. I think it shows that what the AFL-CIO and the unions do nationally can play a very important part in struggle--the larger the multinational, the more important it becomes.

It's a tragedy to think that struggle is simply about winning a boycott or doing civil disobedience once in while. In order to win, the labor movement has to get back to a complete focus--which involves not only workers but the community, and not only attacking customers [with a boycott strategy], but taking on the corporations at its plant gates. We have to not only ask the International union to get involved but reach out to workers at other plants and constructions sites.

The last thing is that there has to be a sense of urgency about these fights. The person who invented the phrase "One day longer" ought to be taken out and horsewhipped, shot and his parts taken up in the sky and scattered around.

Workers never win by waiting. They will do nothing more than bleed--that's what a war of attrition becomes. It's nothing more than bleeding yourself to death.

Art: The thing that I see from this struggle is that I've got more pride as far as being a union member. I had very great doubts about unions when we first started this thing. It wasn't that I wasn't a strong union supporter, but if you read the papers or watch television, you had the opinion that unionism was dying. I can definitely state that grassroots unionism is strong.

The International union leaders and the AFL-CIO are like businessmen. They're standing on the shoulders of the working stiff out there. I don't know about anyone else, but my back is getting awful sore. I'd like them to at least take off their golf shoes.

What has our struggle done for the union movement and unionists around the world? We have been vocal, we have been mobile, and we have been visible. Hopefully, [the labor movement] will learn from our mistakes. If people can learn from our mistakes, I think there's a hell of a chance for a lot of victories out there.

Lorell: There are going to be people who are going to say, "You can't win. Look at the Staley workers--look at the strikers at Firestone and Caterpillar." Well, you only fail if you don't try. That's been my motto in life.

There are going to be companies who are going to try to abuse us. There are going to be leaderships in unions who will abuse us as a reason for discouraging their own memberships from standing up to fight. I hope people aren't manipulated into thinking they can't win.

You also have to keep in mind that the fight isn't about you or I. It's about future generations. One of the things that I always kept in my mind is that if no one would have stood up and fought for my freedom and my rights [as an African-American], I wouldn't have any today.

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