The Multinational Monitor



A Bitter Defeat
at A.E. Staley

by Robert Weissman

GARY LAMB IS 47 YEARS OLD. The Decatur, Illinois resident has worked all his adult life for A.E. Staley, a local corn processor acquired in 1989 by Tate & Lyle, a British conglomerate that markets Domino sugar among other products. After putting in 29 years and three months with the company, Lamb need work for less than one more year to receive full retirement benefits.

He won't be getting them.

For nearly two-and-a-half years, Lamb and 761 other unionized workers had been locked out of their plant. On December 22, 1995, the locked-out Staley workers, members of the Allied Industrial Workers when the lockout began and members of the United Paperworkers International Union (UPIU) after a union merger in 1994, voted 286 to 226 to accept a company contract offer and return to work. The vote ended the last of the three labor battles in the Decatur "War Zone," and like the resolutions of the strikes at Bridgestone/Firestone and Caterpillar, marked a stinging defeat for organized labor.

Pointing out that the accepted contract "is the same, or a little worse in some people's eyes as the one we turned down at the beginning of the fight" by a 97 percent vote, Lamb says he is unwilling to work under its terms, even for nine months.

From a personal standpoint, Lamb says the most distasteful contract provision is the imposition of rotating 12-hour shifts. Under the terms of the contract, Staley employees will work 12 hours for three days, then have three days off (on the first or third of which the company can call them back to work). Every 30 days, employees will switch between the 6-a.m.-to-6-p.m. and 6-p.m.-to-6-a.m. shifts.

"I worked [the rotating shifts] for 90 days after the company imposed them" before the lockout, says Lamb. "I tried to give them a fair chance." With "my sleeping habits turned totally upside down," life was miserable, he says. "No job that I might get will pay as much, but I'm after quality of life. ... I won't work rotating shifts."

Staley did not respond to repeated requests for comment on rotating shifts or other aspects of the lockout resolution.

The rotating-shifts provision was only one of the objectionable elements of the contract, says Lamb, who was elected vice president of the Staley local union, UPIU 7837, in December 1995 but has had to step down in the wake of his decision not to return to the company. The new contract gives the company virtually unlimited rights to subcontract to non-union operations. It fails to provide amnesty for Staley employees who were fired for union-related activities. And it cuts hourly base wages.

Although union members voted to accept the contract, most seem to share Lamb's overall assessment. Only approximately 180 of the locked-out workers have decided to return to work, the rest accepting severance payments from Staley, which plans to keep the workforce at around 350 employees, less than half its previous size.

But for all of the wrongs done them by Staley, the militant Staley unionists reserve their greatest ire for the leadership of the UPIU and AFL-CIO.

Looking for leadership

Once Tate & Lyle acquired Staley, it quickly became apparent to the workers that the company intended to break their union. The company announced plans to downsize and demanded massive givebacks in contract negotiations.

Staley employees responded by breathing life into their union. They refused to be baited into a strike when their contract expired. Instead, advised by Jerry Tucker of the UAW New Directions movement, they employed creative in-plant strategies, working to rule and undertaking a one-day plantwide walkout in response to an unjust dismissal.

After Staley initiated the lockout and brought in replacement workers, the union members launched a corporate and solidarity campaign, with the assistance of Ray Rogers' Corporate Campaign, Inc. They sent "road warriors" across the country to publicize their fight, and they pressured Staley's industrial customers to stop doing business with the Decatur company. As a result, Miller Beer severed its ties with Staley; at the time the lockout ended, workers had set their sights on Pepsi.

Although Staley employees had agreed to enter into cooperative programs with management in the mid-1980s, they quickly adjusted their outlook on labor-management relations, coming to see Staley management as a class enemy.

The Staley workers were never able to accept what they view as the betrayal of the leadership of the UPIU and AFL-CIO, however. Many blame the national leadership for the local defeat.

Dan Lane, a union activist, worked at Staley for more than 19 years. He is one of those who pin responsibility for the defeat on the UPIU and the AFL-CIO. He says they failed to provide vision, energy and strategy for the locked out workers. "It isn't that you can't win these things, it is that you have to have a clear plan, stick with it and have a sense of urgency." Without the help and resources of the UPIU and the AFL-CIO, he says, the small Staley local was unable to hold out against the power of a giant multinational like Tate & Lyle.

With the local struggle flagging in mid-1995, Lane undertook what turned into a two-month hunger strike in an effort to jar the AFL-CIO out of "its whole lethargic attitude." In the sixty-third day of his hunger strike, Lane gave a rousing speech to the AFL-CIO convention in New York at which John Sweeney was elected new president of the labor federation.

With delegates at the convention pledging to support a pressure campaign urging Pepsi not to renew its contract with Staley, and with Sweeney promising to commit the AFL-CIO's resources to the Staley fight, Lane ended his hunger strike.

In the ensuing months, however, "nothing happened," says Lane. "No one ever came to Decatur, and no one ever asked us to go to Washington."

Many Staley activists openly wonder whether, given the militant posture of the new AFL-CIO leadership, the UPIU leadership dismissed offers of concrete assistance from the AFL-CIO with a "thanks, but no thanks" response. As a federation of unions, rather than a direct membership organization, the AFL-CIO has traditionally deferred to national unions on internal matters and conflicts with particular employers.

Asked whether the Paperworkers had instructed the AFL-CIO to stay out of the Staley fight, an AFL-CIO spokesperson said, "I don't know," and referred all queries to the Paperworkers. Dick Blin, a spokesperson for the Paperworkers who also works as part of the international union's three-person corporate campaign team, unequivocally denies the AFL-CIO was asked to stay out of the fight.

A paper tiger?

Blin also says the UPIU lent critical support to the Staley workers from its corporate campaign office, and at the bargaining table. Until the end of 1994, "we let the local call the shots" and continue to employ Jerry Tucker and Ray Rogers as advisers, he says. From the beginning of 1995, international officers and staff led the fight and headed the contract bargaining team, he says.

Tucker was shunted to the background and Rogers was shelved. Blin says this was a local decision. Some local members say the UPIU forced it on them, thereby forcing out their best strategists.

Blin says the UPIU led an aggressive campaign. "I can't remember a time when we [on the UPIU's corporate campaign team] went to [union president] Wayne Glenn with an idea where he turned us down," he says. According to Blin, the UPIU helped organize the anti-Pepsi campaign, publicized the Staley fight nationally and internationally and sued the company under an Illinois state whistleblower statute for improperly benefiting from millions of dollars in tax exemptions.

The battle with Staley was ultimately lost, Blin says, because of divisions in the local. A surrender faction slowly developed within the local union, as members became worn out. When Staley workers voted on a contract in July 1995 which by all accounts was worse than the offer rejected at the beginning of the lockout, it was only defeated by a 57 percent vote. Staley management "was able to read the local like an open book," Blin says. Knowing of the divisions in the local union, Staley knew it could win without making concessions, he believes.

Local opponents of the final contract acknowledge the divisions that grew among Staley employees. Locked out workers received $60 a week in union benefits. Some received an additional $600 a month in adopt-a-family solidarity donations, and others took up new or temporary jobs. In the end, Lamb and others agree, the financial and emotional strain of the conflict was too much. But they argue that national leadership could have kept the local workers united and militant.

"If [AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard] Trumka and Sweeney had come to Decatur and gathered the membership, and Trumka had laid out a plan to get Pepsi separated from Staley, I am quite sure the membership would have given him the time," says Lamb.

Local opponents of the contract also charge that the UPIU actively encouraged a settlement. The local bargaining committee voted in December 1995 not to bring Staley's latest contract offer to a vote, but the international union overrode the committee and ordered a vote by the membership. Blin says the UPIU was obligated to do so, because Staley had made its contract offer conditional on the union bringing it to a membership vote. Failure to have a vote could have subjected the union to unfair labor practice charges, Blin says.

Officially, UPIU claims it took a neutral position on the final contract offer. "There was no way I could recommend this contract," says Glenn Goss, UPIU vice president and the leader of the union's negotiating team. But local unionists claim that the UPIU's pretense of neutrality was betrayed by Gordon Brehm, executive assistant to UPIU President Glenn, who tried to sell the contract in a Decatur radio interview.

However responsibility for the defeat in Decatur is allocated, it is clear that the most militant Staley unionists -- the ones who offer hope for a revitalized U.S. labor movement -- are bitter and completely disenchanted with the labor movement's leadership.

"I want the words 'Remember Decatur' to haunt Sweeney and Trumka," says Lamb. "Not that it will help us, but maybe it will push them to do something" in future labor battles.

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