Staley’s Legacy of Struggle,
Lessons of Defeat

— C.J. Hawking

THREE DAYS BEFORE Christmas, 1995, there was a tragic blow to the labor movement. The locked-out Staley workers of Decatur, Illinois brought their more than three-year battle against the multinational conglomerate, Staley/Tate and Lyle, to a close; 56% of United Paperworkers International Union (UPIU) Local 7837’s membership voted to accept the company’s latest contract.

Art Dhermy, one of the union’s leaders in the labor battle that caught the attention of supporters from coast to coast, went to the picket lines that evening to tell the picketers to go home. Some left their picket stations in tears of disbelief.

The contract virtually eliminates safety, seniority, and the grievance procedure and demands the harsh conditions of twelve-hour rotating shifts every thirty days. The same contract, offered by the company in October 1992, had been rejected by 96% of the membership. Members also voted down by 56%, in July 1995, a similar contract which demanded twelve-hour rotating shifts every six days.

Ironically, it appears that a workers’ victory was close at hand.

The Failure of National Labor

Comparisons between the Decatur Staley workers and the Austin, Minnesota P-9-Hormel fight of the 1980’s have led many observers to believe that the Staley workers’ battle was the labor fight of this decade. Four months after going on strike, 56% of the Hormel workers voted to keep fighting; after two years of untold hardship, 56% of the Staley workers heroically voted to keep fighting and thirty months passed before the surrender crowd caught a majority.

Some observers may ask, “Why did the Staley workers surrender?” The real question is “How were they able to last so long?” With pride, several Staley workers point to the fact that 44% were still willing to wage the battle, even after thirty months of enormous adversity.

When locked-out UPIU Local 7837 member Dan Lane ended his sixty-five day hunger strike in early November 1995, John Sweeney, the newly-elected president of the AFL-CIO, promised forty staff members, a dozen of whom would be full- time, to escalate the national campaign against Pepsi.

Pepsi, which accounts for 30% of Staley’s corn sweetener sales, was feeling the pressure as tens of thousands of callers from across the country complained about Pepsi’s ties to Staley. Sweeney vowed to make the Pepsi campaign the number one priority of his new office.

But the United Paperworkers International Union insisted that they were in control of the campaign. Sweeney, reluctant to buck an International president so soon after his close election, bowed to UPIU President Wayne Glenn and apparently ordered his staff to back off.

A reliable source inside Pepsi-Co sent word to the Decatur workers that Pepsi would find another supplier if Staley did not end the dispute by January 1, 1996, the expiration date of their contract with Staley. In spite of the local Bargaining Committee and Executive Board’s vote (12–1) NOT to send the contract back to the membership, which had already rejected it twice, the UPIU International forced the vote.

Glenn wrote to Local 7837 president Dave Watts that he was exercising his power as the International head to overrule the local leadership. Moreover, Glenn’s assistant went on a Decatur radio talk-show promoting the contract, stating he would “hate to even think” about the contract being rejected. The International blatantly undermined the local union leadership, while stating its position was “neutral” on the contract vote.

The UPIU International was quick to cite the $2 million in picket pay provided to the local as a sign of its loyalty. It has also been quick to take credit for the successful campaign to pressure Miller beer to stop buying Staley product. The International in fact did virtually nothing on the Miller campaign. When Miller dropped Staley in November 1994, the victory was the result of tireless efforts by the Decatur local spreading its message against Miller across the country.

The efforts of the UPIU International on the Pepsi campaign were mediocre at best, relying heavily on the solidarity committees already established by the local. Twice it thwarted efforts for effective demonstrations at the Pepsi headquarters in Purchase, New York. Consistently, it cautioned workers and supporters in actions against Pepsi, in fear it would be sued for promoting secondary boycotts.

As of this writing, the UPIU International is attempting to reconstruct the mailing list used by the local for its last issue of The War Zone Newsletter, in which workers wrote of the International’s sellout and lackluster performance. Furious over the Corporate Greed and Wimpy Labor Leaders Team Up headline and articles, the UPIU apparently plans to issue its own damage-control version.

Local Hardship

Back in Decatur, a split in the union became more pronounced when in early December 1995 Jim Shinall became the Local president-elect, unseating Dave Watts who served as president throughout the in-plant strategy and lockout. Shinall did not take office until January, when he was joined by his supporters (who now control a majority on the Bargaining Committee but not the Executive Board).

In addition to the International’s sell-out and blatant undermining of the local’s campaign, sustained internal organizing within the local became problematic. The local became splintered as demands for national organizing grew. Even as the local’s activists were invigorated by the support of unionists across the country and the success of the Miller campaign, attention to the less militant members waned.

Shinall and his supporters took advantage of the militants being on the road by going to the picket lines and organizing disgruntled workers into surrendering. Preaching surrender, hefty severance packages, enhanced pensions, and flagrant lies about Road Warriors stealing money, Shinall found a tired and demoralized audience.

The Betrayal

Shinall’s ticket ran on a promise “to end this within one week of taking office.” Shinall publicly stated several times that he had no intention himself of returning to the plant. He simply wanted his severance and retirement package, regardless of the conditions for those who were younger and still needed to work in the plant.

At the beginning of the lockout, Shinall was Chairperson of the Bargaining Committee. When the lockout reached its fifteenth month, Shinall resigned, opting to take a job as a truck driver with a firm which crossed his union’s picket lines.

The Decatur local media played a decisive role in Jim Shinall’s election. The Herald and Review ran an extensive front-page story the Sunday before the election, citing Shinall as a new leader who could end the lockout. The day before the election, the paper predicted his victory, as did one local TV station. This may have contributed to only a 75% turnout, as compared to the 99% turnout in the July 1995 contract rejection vote.

There is little doubt about Shinall’s close ties with Staley. While chairing the Bargaining Committee, he had frequent clandestine contact with company officials. Once he even secretly brought management to an apartment rented by the union (to house out-of-town strategists) to hold illegal, back-door negotiations.

The day after Shinall’s election, the company announced its new contract offer. The company sweetened the severance, offering workers with over twenty years in the plant a $30,000 severance. The company, however, was deceptive about the pension plan, which Shinall also endorsed.

After ratifying the contract, many of Shinall’s supporters realized they’d been deceived and reportedly made threats against him. Staley responded by sending company security to Shinall’s house, just as they have done for corporate executives throughout the lockout.

The day after Shinall was sworn in to his presidency, he appeared at the Campaign for Justice Office, the space rented by the union for coordinating solidarity efforts. Shinall, with a locksmith in tow, ordered those present to leave and had the locks changed.

The following week Shinall called police to the union hall and ordered them to remove the severed members who “no longer had a vote or a voice.” A unanimous motion had already been passed to allow severed members to stay, much to Shinall’s chagrin. Severed members refused to leave: “We’ve been locked-out of our plant, locked-out of our campaign office, and now we’re not going to be locked-out of our own union hall!” they declared.

UPIU Regional Director Wirges immediately declared the meeting adjourned. While the 11 police cars waiting outside the union hall meant the police were geared for mass arrests, the rage and militancy of the hundreds of UPIU workers instead led the cops to escort Shinall home.

With the International acting on behalf of Shinall in negotiating with the company, Staley is allowing Shinall to retire in April, a special exception which qualifies him to stay on as president. (Workers will complete the transition of returning to the plant by March.)

The Decatur Climate

Many of the Staley workers have already witnessed the destruction of collective bargaining rights as their brothers and sisters at the Decatur Caterpillar plant returned to work in defeat. Workers have been fired without warning for having aged union logos on their lunch boxes. Nationally, over 100 Cat workers have been fired or indefinitely suspended without benefit of a grievance procedure, and thirteen Caterpillar union members have committed suicide, including the president of the Denver local.

The United Steel Workers have had less than half of their members recalled to the Decatur Firestone/Bridgestone plant since May 1995, when they ended their ten-month strike. They have found their twelve-hour shifts to be unbearable, threatening health and family life.

During the month of December, five people were killed at corn processing plants similar to Staley: three at Decatur’s Archer Daniels Midland plant and two at ADM’s Iowa plant. In January, four Decatur workers were rushed to the hospital in critical condition after an explosion in the plant. ADM, which owns 7% of Staley’s stock, has already gutted its union.

In place of a skilled union force, ADM hired non-union contractors with little or no experience and training and unleashed them into its dangerous chemical plant. When the accidents and deaths occurred, ADM owner Duane Andreas claimed no responsibility as the workers were “from another company.”

The morale in the industrial plants in Decatur could easily prompt Bruce Springsteen to release another album of dirges about the Tom Joads of Decatur. Many workers, relentlessly forced back into brutal working conditions with little direction and support from their Internationals and the AFL-CIO, felt a fire in their gut to rebel against inhumane treatment, but have been denied support from their leadership.

The Long Way Back

The locked-out Staley workers were given two weeks to decide about severing or returning to the plant. For the seven workers who were unjustly fired for union activity during the in-plant strategy, there was no amnesty. Of the 760 locked-out workers, only 181 will return to the plant.

Most of those returning are in their late 40’s and early 50’s—too young to retire, too “old” to be hired elsewhere and accumulate a decent pension. After undergoing drug and alcohol testing and a week of “orientation” during which supervisors have already predicted there will be firings, workers will be “trained” by scabs for four months. The contract’s unlimited subcontracting, twelve-hour rotating shifts, loss of seniority, grievance and safety conditions snuffed out fifty years of collective bargaining.

Many returning do so in fear. They fear being falsely accused of stealing, cursing at a scab, etc. and then being unjustly fired by supervisors who are aware of their union activities during the lockout. They fear lack of protection from the union and its new “leadership.” They fear for their very lives. Spouses and children kiss them good-bye as they leave for work each day and live with the fear of not knowing if their loved one will return home safely.

Sparking a National Shift

Although the surrender by the 56% majority of Staley workers is a major and tragic defeat, their fight will have a lasting impact with significant lessons for the future. Not only did they educate and inspire unionists across the globe, their battle changed the leadership within the AFL-CIO.

In February, 1995 seventy union members from Decatur went to Bal Harbor, Florida to confront the AFL-CIO leadership at their annual meeting. The New York Times carried this front-page story as the red-t-shirted unionists questioned AFL-CIO officials in the hallways on their way to meetings. The question was posed with urgency: “What are you doing about the union people in Decatur?”

For the first time in history an AFL-CIO President, Lane Kirkland, stepped down from his position shortly thereafter. Several Washington insiders have revealed that Kirkland could not withstand the pressure brought to bear by the Staley workers and their nationwide network of supporters.

In the subsequent October election, Kirkland’s appointed successor Tom Donahue was defeated by John Sweeney, who ran on a vow that “I’d rather block bridges than build bridges,” referring to the futility of labor-management cooperation and the need for “a new voice” from labor. The newly elected Sweeney invited locked-out Staley worker Dan Lane, who was fifty-seven days into his hunger strike, to address the convention delegates, marking a rare moment indeed that a rank-and-file member addressed the AFL-CIO assembly.

Strength of In-plant Campaign

When Staley first imposed a contract with twelve-hour rotating shifts, loss of seniority and grievance procedures in October 1992, the workers brought in Jerry Tucker of UAW New Directions. Tucker skillfully educated and organized the workers into an in-plant strategy campaign known as “work-to-rule.”

Rather than bring their wealth of experience and skill to the job, workers would wait for supervisors’ instructions and only do as they were told. The supervisors were ignorant of the nuances of each job and subsequently production was cut by one-third.

Tucker built the successful work-to-rule campaign by meeting with individual departments. Tucker’s strategy was to rely on workers’ creativity and give them a sense of their own power and unity. The cohesiveness created by this strategy culminated when virtually all workers walked off the job in late June 1993 over dangerous conditions in the plant.

The company locked out the workers one week later at 3 a.m. on Sunday, June 27, 1993. Three weeks after the lockout the company claimed the union “sabotaged” the plant, but never produced any proof of the charges. Ironically, being locked out rather than on strike served the Staley workers’ solidarity. Whereas Firestone and CAT workers suffered from union members crossing the picket lines (although for Decatur CAT workers, crossing was minimal), no such option existed for Staley workers.

The solidarity built among the Staley workers in the in-plant campaign became the foundation for them to organize outside the plant. From their experience in the plant, they knew of their best rank-and-file leaders. They knew the extent of each other’s creativity, capabilities and commitment, and had a strong sense of shared power. Once locked out, they were able to mobilize skillfully as they quickly spread out to build a national network of supporters.

Building National Solidarity

Close to 100 people attended the founding meeting of the Chicago Staley Workers Solidarity Committee just three short weeks into the lockout. The local welcomed these supporters, union and non-union alike. Solidarity committees were formed shortly thereafter in other key cities. As the local designed its strategy, key leaders from Chicago and other cities were invited to participate and advise. When Local 7837 Road Warriors made return trips to their assigned cities, they disseminated information to and from the solidarity groups, forming strong networks of activists within several major cities.

Solidarity committees were then able to mobilize hundreds of people to Decatur rallies and to pressure Miller and Pepsi. Soon committees were holding their own local rallies in support of the Staley workers. The local welcomed unpaid, full-time organizers from Detroit, St. Louis and Chicago into the Campaign For Justice Office, further strengthening the ties to the solidarity committees.

In contrast, when the unions from Decatur’s Caterpillar and Firestone plants went out on strike in June and July 1994, the UAW and United Rubber Workers (URW) Internationals became fierce gatekeepers of their fights, relying on traditional strategies which discouraged involvement from outside supporters and lacked creativity. Instead, the UAW opted to hire a nationally-recognized public relations firm to design a campaign to draw support.

This top-down approach was also used in their in-plant strategy, where the International would turn the work-to-rule campaign on and off like a faucet, leaving workers baffled and disempowered. Although the UAW and URW workers faced egregious union-busting working conditions similar to the Staley workers, the Internationals halted grassroots organizing that could have invigorated workers and supporters.

At the beginning of the lockout the Staley workers were in the Allied Industrial Workers International, which had a meager 40,000 members. Six months later, the AIW merged with the UPIU, with the UPIU reluctantly inheriting the militant local. One can only speculate how quickly the UPIU leadership would have brought down the local, had they been there from the beginning.

Creative Outreach

Before the lockout, the Staley workers went door-to-door in Decatur explaining the principles of the local’s stance. Most Decatur residents were sympathetic and, when the lockout occurred, hundreds posted signs of support for the local on their lawns. Community outreach continued during the lockout as workers sought a meeting with local clergy and congregations. Workers were encouraged to talk to their pastors, citing the Biblical basis for the dignity of work.

Six months into the lockout, sixty Decatur pastors placed an ad in the local Sunday paper calling for the company to end the lockout. Subsequently, the company met with the pastors, but the result wasn’t exactly what Staley desired: several pastors committed themselves to further strengthen their support for the local. Decatur clergy then reached out to other clergy, nationally and internationally, sparking coverage and supportive actions across the globe.

The African-American workers were organized into a caucus and first undertook building for a labor presence in the annual Decatur Martin Luther King parade. The city of Decatur, which organized and controlled the parade, told the workers that they were welcome to march but that union banners and placards were not permitted because “Dr. King had nothing to do with labor.”

Outraged, the African-American workers defied the order by carrying signs and banners which attempted to liberate the ignorance of city officials. Under Black-organized leadership for the first time, scores of white union members marched, forming the largest contingent in the parade.

Three months after this event came the largest interracial parade in Decatur’s history, as workers commemorated the anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination. After marchers carried banners proclaiming “Labor Rights Equals Civil Rights” and shouted “Black and White, United We Fight,” through the streets, they streamed into Decatur’s largest Black church to hear speeches from national civil rights and labor leaders.

In the same tradition of non-violent civil disobedience, fifty supporters, later to be known as the Decatur 50, staged a sit-in in Staley’s driveway on June 4, 1994, blocking trucks and virtually shutting down the plant for the day.

Three weeks later, marking the first anniversary of the lockout, over 400 people crossed over the Staley property line in non-violent protest. Police sprayed the crowd with pepper gas, with the rank-and-file Staley workers in front suffering the worst of its effects.

Looking Within

The violence by Decatur police became a watershed experience for many of the workers. Prior to the pepper-gassing, the police had been viewed as an ally of the local, even contributing to the lockout fund. The police had been the cordial neighbors, friends and relatives of the local’s membership. Many members were shocked by the gassing and therefore were slow to criticize the police. A year after the gassing, a class action suit against the police was filed by union leadership.

Shortly after the gassing, the company filed for an injunction, which prohibited more than ten people on the picket line. The local respected the injunction for the remainder of the fight and never again engaged in civil disobedience at the plant. A successful sit-in was staged, however, in November 1994 at the Illinois state capitol in Springfield. Thirty-one Staley, Caterpillar and Firestone unionists were arrested for trespassing.

Had the local violated the injunction, some union officers feared they might be personally fined tens of thousands of dollars and lose their homes—with no solidarity forthcoming from the UPIU International or Lane Kirkland’s AFL-CIO. Or else, many believed, the International would throw the local into trusteeship, ending the fight.

As in any union, problems of racism and sexism troubled the local and initially hampered broader support. In the fifty years of its existence, no woman or African American had ever been elected to the Executive Board.

Being only seven percent and ten percent of the membership respectively, a woman or Black candidate would need broad support from the white, male majority. Only once had an African American attempted to run for office.

During the lockout, and as a result of the Dr. King marches initiated by the African-American caucus, Jeanette Hawkins, the first African-American woman to be hired into the plant, was elected to the Bargaining Committee. Three white male candidates who supported diversifying the leadership withdrew their own candidacies and campaigned for Hawkins’ election.

Prior to the King marches, only one African American had been traveling regularly with the Road Warriors. After the marches, a number of locked-out African Americans went on the road, sometimes as a Black caucus but most often with the white workers and appealing to the previously untapped support of African Americans within the labor movement.

At the beginning of the work-to-rule campaign, weekly solidarity meetings were initiated and spouses and children were invited to attend. The support from the spouses, mostly wives, cannot be understated. The wives and women workers later formed a bi-monthly support group during which the women would share the hardships of the lockout on family life.

Garnering support from other women, many wives were empowered to sustain being the main family wage-earner, and others were encouraged to enter or reenter the work force. At key rallies children were brought onto the stage and eloquently stated their convictions about the significance of the local’s fight. In spite of facing ridicule or hardships in school, the children demonstrated the knowledge gleaned from their parents.

Tactical Complexities

Perhaps the local’s most serious mistake was to embrace a campaign against State Farm Insurance, which Ray Rogers’ Corporate Campaign zeroed in on as owning a significant percentage of ADM. State Farm was the local’s target for the first year of the lockout, but the campaign never gained momentum.

Staley’s connection to State Farm was obscure and difficult to explain to supporters. Additionally, one’s insurance premium is built upon years of being a continuous customer; asking supporters to change insurance companies was often met with a lukewarm response. It was during this first year that the local had the greatest number of active members, many of whom became disillusioned with the lack of momentum in the State Farm campaign.

In contrast, once the Miller campaign began one year into the lockout, unionists and supporters were invigorated with an easier, reachable, and ultimately successful, campaign target. Miller boasted about being a union-made beer and its marketers were affected by a drop of just one percentage point. Moreover, Miller workers were able to join the campaign and use internal leverage.

Fight of the Decade

No other local has drawn the line and waged the fight as the Staley workers have done. Defeated, yes. And a tragic defeat it is—especially when one considers the role of the International, the newly-elected AFL-CIO leadership, and the internal division sparked by lies and fueled by personal gain. And the pain of knowing that Pepsi was soon to collapse from the pressure is almost unbearable.

Yet this one tragic defeat also holds 1,000 lessons for the next union to take a stand for the labor movement. The Staley workers should be thanked and congratulated for all they have contributed to lives of millions of present and future workers. Local 7837 members should be proud of a leadership who encouraged the rank-and-file to be creative inside the plant and to speak their minds in the union hall, and who brought in educators and supporters from the outside.

Struggle takes significant self-confidence. Local 7837 should be proud it mastered previously uncharted territory in organizing, public speaking and fundraising. It takes an immense amount of courage. Local 7837 should be proud to have educated tens of thousands of unionists across the country, who were then able to see what was taking place in their own workplace. It takes deep moral conviction to willingly fight for others.

Local 7837 should be proud of establishing Solidarity Committees across the country, groups that have already come to the aid of other workers in struggle. It takes tenacity to build a national network of activists. Local 7837 should be proud of stretching the boundaries in how its members view business, the media, government and the inter- relatedness of the three. It takes open-mindedness to broaden one’s view of the world.

Local 7837 should be proud to have chipped away at racism and sexism, setting an example for other locals to do the same. It takes an openness to risk criticism and allow the fight to be for everyone.

Local 7837 should be proud of those who gave of their lives for thirty long, grueling months and left workers and labor history forever changed.

Thank you, Local 7837. We shall never forget you!

ATC 61, March–April 1996