Lessons of the Staley Fight


by Steven Ashby

THERE'S AN ARTICLE in the February 1996 Labor Notes on the end of the Staley struggle; a far longer, more in-depth analysis came out in the March/April 1996 issue of Against the Current; and there's also a hard-hitting, last issue of the UPIU 7837 "News from the War Zone."

I'm not going to spend time describing how the fight ended on December 22nd, how terrible the contract is, the treachery of the UPIU international, the false promises that newly elected AFL-CIO President John Sweeney made and never implemented, the bitterness and betrayal the Staley activists feel toward the Local 7837 sell-out crowd and UPIU President Wayne Glenn, the calling of the cops on the militant union members and locking them out of the union hall, etc. 

In the short time available, the most useful discussion is the topic of "what can we draw on from this fight, despite the defeat, that will continue to help our work in the labor movement and other movements."

FIRST--This fight symbolized the changes in U.S. and global capital.  Last year $800 million were spent in mergers.  When multinationals buy out companies, increasingly there are massive layoffs and either demands for massive concessions or an all-out union-busting effort.  Staley is owned by Tate & Lyle, Caterpillar and Firestone/Bridgestone are also owned by multinationals. 

The Staley defeat, alongside that of Caterpillar and Firestone/Bridgestone workers, sends a powerful message to Corporate America.  You better believe that management was watching these fights closely and drew strength from the unions' defeats.  This was the largest use of scab labor and permanent replacements since the 1930s, and it worked.  This was PATCO times ten.  [PATCO was the air traffic controllers' union smashed by Ronald Reagan in 1981.]

What the Staley workers repeated on their thousands of Road Warrior trips--"They're coming after us now, but you're next"--is absolutely true.  The corporations succeeded in defeating two of the founding CIO unions, the United Auto Workers and United Rubber Workers.  And they beat the one that fought the hardest, with the most creativity, the most militancy, and the most energy--the small Staley local.  And that sends a message to every corporation and multinational. 

We're already starting to hear from unionists facing management demanding twelve-hour shifts, massive subcontracting, and the gutting of contracts.  Across the bargaining table management is saying, "Remember CAT and Staley, before you reject this contract."

SECOND--Despite the defeat, this fight can be a positive message, a gleam of hope, to progressives and socialists.  Staley was a typical local union in the 1980s.  They had one strike in the past fifty years.  No big turnout at union meetings.  No tremendous identification with the union by its members.  No special ties to the community.  Ten years ago the work force was what many called "Reagan Democrats."  Hundreds of the Staley workers are Vietnam War vets. 

Yet they were determined to fight.  They organized their membership.  The membership educated themselves and came to understand that this was no normal labor conflict but part of a national and global trend.  They expressed the same ideas that socialists do about there being a class war against the working class and the need for a militant response.  But they said it in down-to-earth, everyday language, in their own words, in better words, in fact, than ninety-five percent of the organized left uses. 

Large numbers of the Staley workers were radicalized on class issues, and on the role of the government, police, and courts.  A couple dozen have developed ideas that are in line with many socialist concepts.  That should give us a great deal of hope and of what is possible.  Especially in these depressing days of the surging radical right-wing Republicans, and the rightward-heading Democrats. 

Looking Ahead: Future Battles

THIRD--Most importantly, Solidarity's emphasis now should be on the positive lessons of the fight.  Despite the defeat, despite the weaknesses of UPIU Local 7837--and there were a number--the fact remains that this small local waged an incredible fight.  This fight wasn't just the fight of the decade, in my opinion.  It surpassed the Hormel P-9 fight. 

Even in defeat, in many ways the Staley workers have shown the way forward for American labor.  I feel quite confident that if the Caterpillar and Firestone/Bridgestone workers, with which they were in alliance, had taken the same tactics, that all three could have won. 

Solidarity's emphasis should be on doing everything in our power to spread those lessons.  The Staley fight can continue to help us push for a rank-and-file run, democratic, militant, anti-racist, and politically independent labor movement. 

For example, during the fight, 350 IUE workers at the Raco plant in South Bend, Indiana considered fighting a planned plant closure.  And they said, "How are we going to get our members involved for something like this?  How can we get the community to care and side with us and speak out?  We're nearly broke--how can we raise the money?  Our international is worthless, how can we win?"

And to every question, there were people saying, "You know what--the Staley workers did it.  We can do it, too."  And the IUE local organized a tremendous labor-community-religious coalition to save jobs.  And, in fact, they won.  Raco backed down. 

What can we learn from the Staley workers' fight?  What lessons should we keep repeating?  What did they do right?

I think there are five themes:

  1. "It happened to us, it's happening to others, it could happen to you."

    This remains a key problem for the American working class: a lack of understanding of what's going on in the national and global economy.  The inability of millions of workers to put what's happening to them in context.  What the Staley workers said was:

    A multinational bought the company out and came after the workers. 

    The multinational wanted to use the Local to start a new pattern in the industry of twelve-hour shifts, gutting health and safety, subcontracting out most union jobs, crushing the union. 

    Our experience with labor-management cooperation backfired on us, was used against us, weakened our union, strengthened the company and helped it in the lock out. 

    We brought in labor educators and talked about how this was a national and global trend. 

    This education led us to come up with idea that it was a "war zone" and "war on the workers," and not just another labor-management conflict over negotiating a fair contract. 

  2. "You can't take on management without the rank and file."

    The Staley workers organized the membership to see the union as their own, as a central part of their lives.  Again, this is a critical problem in the labor movement.  We can talk all we want about transforming labor, but we can't do it without members, and overwhelmingly most workers don't identify with their unions. 

    The Staley local was pretty much like every other local union before they got into this fight: small attendance at union meetings, weak community ties, good relations with the company, enthusiastic participation in labor-management committees, not a strong identification with the Local by the membership.  It was a "family" company for fifty years.  People liked the company--they boasted about working at Staley.  It was a good place to work. 

    They brought in educators and had discussions about what they were up against. 

    They started weekly solidarity meetings and got hundreds of members and spouses to attend. 

    They decided to organize a work-to-rule campaign--and organized one of the best we've ever seen.  That really was the basis upon which the fight began.  The membership was organized through work-to-rule.  It strengthened the union.  Hundreds of workers identified with the union and understood what they were up against. 

    Their awareness of what they were up against and their level of commitment and cooperation convinced ninety-seven percent of the members to raise their dues to $100 a month.  An incredible thing, but it can happen.  You can build rank-and-file participation at every level, and you can get people who whine about $15-20-25 a month dues to raise their dues.  It is possible. 

    They brought their spouses (mostly women) to the solidarity meetings, and the women became an integral part in the fight. 

  3. "Unions, including the Staley workers before the fight, lack broad community support--but they organized to change that in Decatur."

    Another central weakness of labor: We're so isolated; there's so much anti-union sentiment that goes unanswered.  We need to start now to organize broad support, to make allies, to support community and anti-racist struggles.  We need to reach out to the clergy and congregations, to the Black community, to the Latino community, students, to build these alliances now, and overcome our isolation.  This is a central theme of what they succeeded in doing.  No miracles--it wasn't perfect. 

    The Staley workers went door to door in the community over and over again with literature to explain their fight and ask for community support. 

    They organized, and believed the themes of "it's our solidarity versus theirs" and "corporate greed is tearing Decatur apart," which are central for the labor movement if we are going to succeed.  This is not the unions versus a company; this is the workers against corporate greed; this is our community, organized or unorganized.  Everyone in the community is against corporate greed.  We have to convince people of this strategy, and believe it in our hearts.  And they did in Decatur. 

    They worked with the clergy.  They had sixty clergy put an ad in the local newspaper.  The company refused to meet with them, and that infuriated them.  They had a number of churches repeatedly giving donations from their congregations, many of them unorganized workers.  Far more working-class people go to church than go to union meetings.  It was one way to reach people. 

    The clergy were arrested for blocking the company gates.  A Catholic priest became a community spokesperson.  When it was suspected that the union hall was bugged, strategy sessions were held in the Catholic parish, including all meetings when we [the fifty arrested for blocking the plant gates on June 4, 1994] were on trial.  That was an important part of the struggle, an important lesson. 

    And there are lessons from this struggle about dealing with racism.  There had never been a woman elected to the executive board or bargaining committee, and never an African American.  Women were roughly 7% of the local, African Americans were 10%.  There's a fair amount of racism.  There's more than 180 miles between Chicago and Decatur, but Decatur feels more southern--not that we don't have a lot racism in Chicago. 

    The African-American workers organized themselves--they reached out to the Black community, they brought a lot of white workers with them.  And a lot of white workers became more anti-racist because of the struggle, and that was powerful. 

    I don't know if there was much of a civil rights movement ever in Decatur.  But there were 600-800 people marching on the anniversary of Martin Luther King's death, white and Black workers chanting "Black and white, unite and fight."  That was unprecedented for Decatur and for those white workers.  You can build anti-racism "before" a fight or in the "midst" of a fight.  It's an important lesson: You have to reach out to the community, including the Black community. 

    A significant number of workers believed, and organized on the theme, that labor rights are civil rights.  They reprinted Martin Luther King's speeches and tied their fight to the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. 

    The Staley workers weren't afraid to bring in outside organizers.  I don't know where this has happened before.  They brought in Ray Rogers, who initially played a mostly positive role but for two years after the lockout drained and misguided the Local.  They also brought in Jerry Tucker from St.  Louis, who, unlike Rogers, was an unpaid organizer, and they brought in radical organizers from Chicago, Detroit and Champaign. 

    They had open arms to people.  They said, "Help us reach out.  Help us reach out to the Black community, to the congregations and clergy.  Help us build solidarity committees."

    And, of course, they ran an election campaign for labor candidates running on a labor theme for city council.  They made it through the primary, and then Dave Watts lost in the general election.  Again, a positive lesson of reaching out for support in the city.  A lesson we need to repeat over and over again--that is the way forward for the American labor movement. 

  4. The nationwide solidarity campaign was a central part of their fight."

    Inexperienced speakers became Road Warriors--dozens of them--and fanned out across the country.  They touched the minds and hearts of hundreds of thousands of workers.  We haven't seen that in Detroit [newspaper strike].  We've seen a few people going out.  Caterpillar and the Rubber Workers did none of these things; occasionally they'd send somebody out.  But the Staley local sent out dozens of people, who became great speakers. 

    They basically argued when you can use the AFL-CIO bodies, use them.  When you can't--which is most of the time--go around them and put the heat on them.  Build solidarity committees.  Again, when we asked the Rubber Workers and CAT workers, they said they didn't want solidarity committees. 

    It's very important when we can say building solidarity committees worked, and even though the Staley workers ultimately lost, it was an important part of their battle.  They reached out and built solidarity committees, unionists and non-unionists, official union bodies when they could, as in Madison and Milwaukee, and in most cases, unofficial ones. 

    Unionists and unions were their base, including the in the solidarity committees, but the Staley workers talked about how they worked on a national level with students.  The Road Warriors spoke on a lot of campuses.  I believe the Staley fight was one of the important catalysts for the formation of the Student Labor Action Coalition. 

    The Staley workers said, "We can't rely on the media--or the AFL-CIO--to get our message out."  Their two videos were powerful tools.  Thousands of copies were distributed.  With the second video, "The Struggle in the Heartland," I believe 2,000 were distributed in Chicago alone.  These videos played a critical role in building nation-wide support.  And here again is an important lesson for labor. 

    A corporate campaign was a key part of the fight.  You study a corporation's vulnerabilities and organize a massive solidarity campaign to hit the corporation in the pocketbook.  We succeeded in pressuring Miller to end its contract with Staley.  The view is widespread among the militants in Decatur that we were succeeding with Pepsi.  So we need to tell the positive lessons of how the corporate campaign worked.  The nation-wide solidarity campaign was central to their whole fight. 

    Creative Uses of Non-Violence

  5. Cross That Line: Labor law is against you, so sometimes you have to break laws and try creative new tactics in order to fight the fight."

    This was a more complicated part of the fight, issues that were never totally resolved.  But certainly the Staley workers came to understand, and talk about, how the city council, police and courts were tools of the corporation, and used against them.  Before this fight the Staley workers had a lot of respect for local institutions.  But that changed, out of their experience. 

    They organized the June 4th and June 25th civil disobedience demonstrations, which were important civil disobedience actions blocking the gates. 

    They consciously chose a non-violent strategy, to maintain community support.  And that's an interesting discussion, about "violence" or "non-violence" at plant gates. 

    They went to Springfield and sat-in at the Governor's office, with thirty-one arrests. 

    They went to Bal Harbour, Florida and confronted the AFL-CIO leadership.  That action alone was a critical catalyst in bringing down Lane Kirkland and opening up an election in the AFL-CIO, which allowed John Sweeney to run and win.  And that's important not so much for what Sweeney represents, but for what the election represented. 

    There were other controversial tactics, including Dan Lane's sixty-five day fast. 

    They never resolved the question of the injunctions and the threat of massive fines.  Basically they felt that if they did attempt to defy the injunction, the union officers would lose their homes, the AFL-CIO would not be there for them, the UPIU would not be there for them.  The labor left was too tiny.  The fact is that they never got more than 7,000 people to Decatur. 

    I wished they had moved forward for a more consistent civil disobedience campaign at the gates, and that did not happen.  The two actions they did were the best ammunition they had, combined with the video, to get nation-wide support and solidarity.  But the fact that they ran into those obstacles opens up a discussion: How do you stop production in the midst of a lockout or strike when you are faced with injunctions and police?

    So these are the five themes I think we must continue to talk about.  Despite their tactics, the Staley workers lost--but if a big chunk of the labor movement took up these themes, we'd be a thousand times stronger.  The litany of defeats could end, and we could win and keep winning.