When Illinois was the war zone

October 15, 2009

Lance Selfa reviews a new book chronicling the important events and debates of the struggle at A.E. Staley--the centerpiece of the 1990s Illinois War Zone labor battles.

FOR NEARLY three years in the 1990s, the central Illinois town of Decatur was the epicenter of a series of labor battles that crystallized many of the crucial issues that faced the labor movement. Strikes at Caterpillar Inc. and Bridgestone/Firestone and the lockout of the more than 700 workers at the A.E. Staley corn-processing plant pitted older unionized workforces against ruthless multinational corporations determined to turn back the clock to the pre-union era.

At one point in 1994, an estimated one in four blue-collar workers in the city was on strike or locked out. Workers in Decatur described their city and state as a "war zone." Soon, labor activists around the U.S. began to refer to the three struggles as the War Zone struggles.

Of all of the War Zone conflicts, the one that stood out was the fight of the 700 locked-out workers at the A.E. Staley plant, owned by the British multinational Tate & Lyle. Although the workforce at Staley was the smallest of the three in the War Zone, it was the most politically advanced and innovative.

Marching in Decatur to support the Staley workers and others on strike in summer 1995
Marching in Decatur to support the Staley workers and others on strike in summer 1995

Steven Ashby and C.J. Hawking's account of struggle, Staley: The Fight for a New American Labor Movement, captures the history and feel of the fight, as well as drawing out a number of important issues the War Zone raised for the U.S. labor movement.

The authors, both key organizers in solidarity with the Staley workers, make excellent use of interviews and video documentation of union solidarity meetings to infuse the narrative with a sense of immediacy, despite the passage of a decade and a half. As a result, the voices of the workers--the key activists who kept the struggle alive for almost three years--comes through.

As a member of the Chicago-based Staley Workers Solidarity Committee who worked closely with the two authors for almost three years and participated in many of the events they narrate, I can say that their account both rings true and provides a number of insights that only people involved in the day-to-day organizing can convey.

Their description of the internal work organization in the plant, and their history of women and African American workers, told largely through oral testimonies of the workers themselves, stands out. These were important aspects to document because, through the course of the Staley struggle, the workers fought to overcome divisions based on skill, sex and race. They succeeded to a great extent.

The sight of this union--primarily made up of middle-aged white men from rural Illinois--marching in celebration of Martin Luther King's birthday through Decatur's Black community, was an important moment in the struggle.

BEFORE THE company locked them out in 1993, the Staley workers had run a disciplined "work-to-rule" campaign inside the plant after their union contract expired in 1992. Knowing that they faced a company intent on forcing a strike to impose draconian concessions, the Staley workers instead remained at work and followed the company's procedures to the letter. This had the effect of greatly impeding production and shifting much of the control of day-to-day plant operations to the workers.

The work-to-rule campaign helped to convert a previous passive workforce into a mobilized and activated base. As union adviser Jerry Tucker, who brought the experience of the "in-plant" strategy from a successful campaign that he directed in the United Auto Workers union, noted:

Some workers are born leaders and throw themselves into the campaign. But for most, there was a threshold moment when they went from passive to active in the struggle. They went from being a relatively good, docile, following-orders employee to somebody who was going to find a way to resist.

It came to a point at which the company felt it was losing control of the plant, and in June 1993, management escalated the battle by locking out the entire unionized workforce, and hiring scabs to run the plant. Having lost the shop floor power they had held, the workers were forced to apply pressure on the company from the outside.

For the next two and a half years, Staley workers' representatives--who called themselves the Road Warriors--traveled around the country (and even outside the U.S.) to seek support.

Unlike many union struggles of that period and earlier, the Staley workers openly campaigned for support from whomever was willing to offer it, whether they were union locals, Chicago Symphony Orchestra members, student groups, religious organizations, socialists or other radicals. A network of solidarity committees, whose "flagship" operated in Chicago, provided crucial financial, activist and political support.

The union used a variety of tactics, from boycotts of Staley customers like Miller Beer to nonviolent civil disobedience to running union president Dave Watts and other striking workers for the notoriously pro-company city council (Watts lost). But as the activist core around the Road Warriors reached for a tactic that would break the company's will, a growing conservative faction plotted surrender on the company's terms.

Ashby and Hawking capture a number of the debates and disputes that arose over the course of the struggle. For instance, workers and supporters were divided on the union's choice of boycott targets. Union adviser Ray Rogers--whose Corporate Campaign Inc. earned the astounding figure of $28,000 per month, plus expenses, plus 15 percent of any money he helped to raise for the union--insisted on targeting State Farm Insurance.

State Farm had a number of indirect corporate connections to Staley that the union found difficult to explain in seeking to build support. Miller, a purchaser of Staley products, was a much more tangible target--and much more open to pressure. While the State Farm campaign petered out over months, the later decision to target Miller bore immediate fruit as Miller canceled its contract with Staley.

A MORE momentous debate turned on how and whether to stop scab production in the plant. Here again, disagreements opened up between the most committed activists, who wanted to find some way to impede production for at least some period of time, and the Watts-led union leadership that was hesitant to pursue this strategy.

The union settled on a series of civil disobedience actions modeled on the experience of the civil rights movement and Gandhian nonviolence. At the largest of these, a phalanx of Decatur police pepper-sprayed dozens of workers and their supporters when we marched and sat down inside the plant gates.

"The whole concept of shutting down the plant," union activist Dan Lane told Ashby and Hawking, "even if you can only sustain it for several hours, is potentially like a spark under kindling, which grows into a great flame...Nobody can ever convince me that [our] people weren't willing to much further than the leadership or Ray Rogers were willing to let them go."

As the struggle moved into its second and third year, workers faced the reality that despite all of their brilliant outreach and solidarity, they were unable to stop the Staley plant from operating with scab labor. This was due, in no small part, to the complete uselessness of most of the official labor leadership.

The Decatur Trades and Labor Council refused to stop union trades workers from servicing the plant. AFL-CIO chieftains rushed off in their limousines rather than meet with a delegation of Staley workers who crashed the federation's winter meeting in Bal Harbour, Fla. The Staley workers' international union, the Paperworkers, forced the Decatur local to fire Rogers and ban Tucker from the bargaining table as it sought a way to end the lockout.

Given these obstacles--in addition to a ruthless company, a hostile city government and a local newspaper that read like a company newsletter--it was a credit to the determination of the workers and their supporters that the struggle continued for as long as it did.

The Staley struggle ended in defeat when the local accepted the company's concessionary contract in 1995. Although the Staley struggle was lost, it had helped to revive some of the best traditions of the labor movement--and to expose some of the worst aspects of the modern-day labor union bureaucracy.

For bringing these lessons to light, Ashby and Hawking's Staley is a vital contribution to a discussion of how to rebuild the labor movement today. What's more, it's a tribute to the men and women who gave their all during the Staley struggle--people who those of us involved in the solidarity campaign will always remember as some of the finest we've ever met.

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