Inside the Book
Where Are They Now
From 1992 through 1995 the Staley workers waged one of the most hard-fought struggles in recent labor history, perfecting innovative strategies that today are being increasingly debated by a labor movement under siege.
In 1988 Tate & Lyle, the largest sugar conglomerate in the world, bought the A.E. Staley Company and launched a full-scale assault on the union workforce at Staley’s largest corn-processing plant, in Decatur, Illinois. Allied Industrial Workers (AIW) Local 837 responded by educating and mobilizing its members to win a fair contract. Workers ran an “in-plant” campaign for nine months and then built a national solidarity movement when the company locked them out in June 1993.
When the Staley workers were joined on the picket lines in 1994-95 by striking members of the Auto Workers union at Caterpillar and Rubber Workers union at Bridgestone/Firestone, the media labeled Decatur “Strike City.” Decatur unionists dubbed their town the “War Zone.” “Decatur was a turning point,” says AFL-CIO staffer Joe Uehlein. “What happened in Decatur during that period is as big a moment as was the Homestead strike of 1892.”
Despite their tragic defeat, the Staley workers leave an enduring legacy filled with lessons to strengthen today’s labor movement.
This book has three purposes. The first is to tell the workers’ story through their own voices. The Staley workers and spouses spoke with great candor in scores of interviews. We sought to write a book that would be true to the Staley workers’ fight as the workers and their families lived it.
Our second goal is to appeal to readers who are concerned about the deterioration of workers’ rights in American society but do not have extensive knowledge of unions. We hope readers who are looking for a book that will introduce them to the U.S. labor movement, with all its strengths, weaknesses, and challenges, will find this work accessible and compelling. Throughout the book we explain common union terms and describe how unions work, and we’ve included a glossary to further this goal.
The last goal is to write for an audience of trade unionists looking for a how-to manual on standing up to management and winning justice in the workplace. In 1992 the Staley workers were anxious for information that could help them win justice from a multinational corporation that was ravaging their lives. They brought labor educators to their union hall and read voraciously about labor history. Today workers across the country are facing similar assaults, and, as were the Staley workers, they are looking for ways to fight back.
Through the workers’ voices, readers will learn how the members transformed themselves from a typically inactive, complacent workforce to an educated, mobilized, and committed local union. We describe how the union organized its successful work-to-rule campaign, its Road Warrior program, and the activities of the Staley Workers Solidarity Committees. We recount how the union garnered the support of the Decatur community.
We describe the union’s corporate campaign and the workers’ heated debates over strategy. We analyze the workers’ difficult personal struggles over whether to engage in nonviolent civil disobedience, and the many obstacles and risks that unions face when they demonstrate at plant gates. We describe, in frank terms, the deep racial divisions in the union prior to the lock-out, and how the African American workers organized to challenge white workers’ racism and gain the support of Decatur’s black community.
Finally, this work pulls no punches in exposing the weaknesses of the U.S. labor movement. “My idea of a perfect labor movement,” says AFL-CIO president John Sweeney, “is one which consistently re-examines itself and corrects its own imperfections.” In that spirit, this book looks critically at organized labor. The Staley workers did not simply fight Tate & Lyle’s lock-out; they also sought to build a new American labor movement. We tell their story in hopes that other workers will find insights to help win their own struggles against corporate greed. Let “Remember Decatur!” be the cry of a new labor movement, say the Staley workers.
We make no claim to impartiality. The authors were both leaders of the Chicago-area Staley Workers Solidarity Committee, Local 837's flagship solidarity group. We were among the coordinators of the union’s June 1994 civil disobedience actions and attended a number of strategy sessions with union leaders. C.J. Hawking moved to Decatur as a volunteer organizer, staying there from January to July 1994 to spark outreach efforts aimed at the religious and black communities. Where we appear in these pages, we have chosen to describe our roles in the third person in order to maintain the narrative flow. We did not seek to interview Staley or Tate & Lyle officials. We wrote this book to honor the Staley workers and their families -- the most courageous, dedicated, and noble group of people we have ever known.
It has been a privilege to write this book. Many of the Staley workers invited us into their homes and shared candidly about their public and private lives during the lock-out. We gratefully list the interviewees in the appendix.
We deeply appreciate the unionists who collected precious resources, especially Jerry Fargusson, who videotaped every union meeting, rally, and local television newscast for three years, and his wife, Ethel, who shared the videos with us after Jerry’s tragic death. We give special thanks to Mona Williams, who, after three years of diligently clipping and saving every Decatur newspaper article about the union, loaned them to us.
With an eye towards the struggle’s legacy, the following dedicated unionists, advisers, and supporters saved and then graciously loaned us their files: Dave Watts, Art Dhermy, Mike Griffin, Nancy Hannah, Bill Winter, Tamra McCartney, Laurie Clements, Mark Crouch, Jerry Tucker, Ray Rogers, and Michael Szpak. We also thank the United Paperworkers International Union in Nashville for access to its files.
We draw on the skillfully crafted videos produced by the St. Louis-based Labor Vision and the Chicago-based Labor Beat. We are very grateful to the People’s Law Office of Chicago, which allowed us access to the pretrial depositions of the November 2000 trial against the Decatur police.
We were pleased to have access to the files of the beloved Decatur labor priest Martin Mangan, now deceased, located at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His papers became the first items deposited into the Staley Workers archives.
We are indebted to the savvy reviews by Jim Barrett, Peter Rachleff, Jerry Tucker, and Steven Pitts. We give special thanks to Jane Slaughter for her editing expertise. We also value the guidance from our editor, Laurie Mattheson, and our copyeditor, Bruce Bethell, at the University of Illinois Press.
We are forever indebted to the Staley workers, those mentioned in this book and those unnamed, who allowed us and thousands of others to witness a workers’ struggle that made labor history. We gratefully acknowledge the workers for their incredible inspiration and for sharing with us their wisdom, laughter, and tears.
Click here to read an excerpt from Chapter 3
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Prologue: Jim Beals
- The Company and the Union
- Tate & Lyle Comes to Decatur
- The Union Prepares to Resist
- The Temperature Rises
- Locked Out
- Road Warriors and Solidarity Committees
- Debating the Corporate Campaign
- Peacetime Soldiers and Wartime Soldiers
- God as Outside Agitator
- The African-American Workers
- Civil Disobedience
- Strike City, USA
- The Paperworkers
- Mission to Bal Harbour
- Still in the Fight
- In the Fast Lane
- A Winnable Fight