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Book Review: War Zone in America’s Heartland


Just finished reading Staley,The Fight for a New American Labor Movement by Steven K. Ashby and C.J. Hawking, University of Illinois Press, 2009. I heartily recommend it for young activists today. It is not a textbook. You are being told a story, much like a novel. Only this is fact not fiction.

 

The authors were leading solidarity activists in Chicago participating in the “labor war zone” that flared up 200-miles away in the unlikely small southern Illinois industrial city of Decatur in the early 1990s. Towns set in that rural area often shared conservative characteristics of the deeper south and Decatur was no exception. City politics had always been dominated by “Republicans, and whites held nearly every position of power in town….”  

 

So then, how did it come to pass that there would be three big labor confrontations, not just one, in this small, isolated town – a lock out of employees by A.E Staley corn-processing and strikes against Caterpillar tractor and against Bridgestone/Firestone tires? The answers, sometimes described through heart-wrenching interviews, take the reader through the winding journey of how progressive consciousness develops.

 

This is especially revealing in contrast to the right-wing impulses seen today in small-town America.

 

The book largely focuses on the battle at Staley where workers were locked out by the employer, they did not actually go on strike. Having observed an earlier failed 1991-92 strike at Caterpillar, the membership voted instead to approve an extremely militant form of inside plant protest called “work to rule.”

 

These are completely legal tactics that utilize the power of workers on the shop floor to reject speed up and to adjust production according to basic safety standards. All this was done while working and getting a paycheck, a good alternative early in a struggle to actually going on strike. 

 

It was immensely successful. Production was cut by 30%. The company ultimately reacted by locking the workers out. The battle was on, lasting another 30 months.

 

This early book chapter serves as a primer on this important strategy as developed by Jerry Tucker, the country’s best practitioner of this militant approach. Tucker is a much-admired retired United Auto Worker (UAW) mid-west district leader and former national executive board member. He was an experienced hand at organizing these innovative “work to rule” campaigns with an impressive record of important victories. Readers learn how he successfully advised Staley workers to implement a similar approach.

 

Having experienced such “inside” campaigns myself, I can say that it is much easier for workers, because of bad habits and conflicts with supervisors, to work harder and faster than it is to convince them to adopt safer work habits that would actually put the squeeze on the employer to pay attention to our demands.

 

Nonetheless, such a decision was made by hundreds of workers at Staley, but it did not come easily. Each family faced the possible loss of family income and benefits, along with nervous uncertainty about the future. Then, there was the social discomfort among friends, neighbors, church leaders and the political establishment that derives from conflict with an influential company. This was certainly true in Decatur where the three factories were the town’s top employers.

 

All is described, the arguments, people taking sides and the resulting polarization of the town.

 

A Strong Leadership Core Develops

 

Consciousness is not linear, nor do social movements always succeed and move forward. The authors display a great amount of empathy by describing the ebbs and flows of emotions in very human terms.

 

But this personal background also provides essential understanding of the complexities behind political decisions made by workers. Radicals and experienced union militants adopt an ideology of class struggle and solidarity and are willing to make personal sacrifices. But for the overwhelming majority of people, this is not the case.

 

Practical experience leads most Americans to make choices that produce immediate benefits, right here and right now. Most people are very reluctant to make choices that require sacrifices or offer only the long-term possibility of victory. This appears on its face to be eminently reasonable.

 

But, despite raised hopes, there are numerous examples of how these desperate short-term decisions only temporarily smooth over enduring long-term pain which often returns with a vengeance.

 

For example, hundreds of thousands of workers in the steel and auto industry made these seemingly practical choices by accepting major concessions during the plant shutdowns in the “rust belt” of the 1970s only to see them replayed again recently with even more exacting layoffs, wage and benefit cuts for auto workers. In both eras, enormous setbacks were begrudgingly accepted, mostly without a fight.

 

These hardship decisions were forced upon two generations of workers in one sense because their unions failed them. But, it must be acknowledged, the surrender was also made easier because working people chose to cut back rather than fight back.

 

Nothing has really changed in the last thirty years. Yet, for a moment, things were different in Decatur, especially at the Staley plant.

 

All the same concessionary attacks of the 1970s played out but the reaction of the workers took a different turn. Fluctuating moods of optimism and despair were certainly ever present but because there was a leadership always pointing outward toward goals of winning new allies, a sense of hope won out.

 

Until the very end and against all the odds, which Ashby and Hawking describe through very compelling interviews and dramatic personal experience, workers continually rebuffed efforts to get them to surrender.

 

They took on their multi-national employer, the police, the courts, their international union, the national AFL-CIO and, finally, faced off against a growing defeatism within their ranks. It was only after three long years that a demoralized back to work “surrender caucus” grew.

 

 

 

The difference was that a leadership core of Staley workers adopted a set of progressive ideas. The struggle had taught them hard lessons about the overpowering greed of corporate America, the hollow hypocrisy of politicians and cowardly weakness of national labor leaders. The result was that a more radical ideology emerged among this core of leaders.

 

As a result, hundreds of Staley striking “Road Warriors” were assigned to travel throughout the country speaking at local labor councils, in union halls, and before community and religious groups. The purpose was to organize a broad coalition to lobby investors, to boycott Staley suppliers like Miller Beer and Pepsi and to periodically plan large public protests. All this national support activity was designed to keep up the morale of local Decatur pickets for the long, hard bargaining fight to get a decent contract.

 

But these action proposals were in conflict with the entrenched conservatism of United Paperworkers International Union (UPIU) leaders who continually encouraged more vacillating sentiments of the exhausted local membership.

 

Nonetheless, the Staley union leadership persisted by offering a full array of imaginative tactics to keep the struggle going. All are described as they were applied.

 

Today’s generation talks a lot about “keeping it real.” They scorn phony platitudes suggesting “if you work hard, you can be anything you want.” This book does keep it real for young people. You have to organize together, be prepared for conflict from all sides and have ideas that are true to yourselves and the struggle for a better life.

 

In the course of standing up against the power from both the corporation and their international union, we observe ordinary workers becoming transformed into believers of something much larger than themselves – a broad and deep appreciation for justice and fair play for all.

 

Through all the suffering and setbacks, you get the idea that those who understood this dynamic felt better for having put up that good fight, despite the enormous toll it took on them personally.

 

This book should be in the library of those of us who desperately hope working people will soon awaken to their role as the true champions of the change that must ultimately come to this country. The treachery of the UPIU and the betrayal of some of the local union leaders ultimately prevailed but it is not they who produced examples and lessons worthy of being recorded and remembered by history.

 

This honorable distinction is reserved for the Staley workers whose courage, tenacity and strategy will be necessary for our future victories.

 

Carl Finamore knew Stephen Ashby as a young activist interested in learning how workers could win and doing everything he personally could to help. By participating in the Decatur fight and documenting its struggle,  Ashby, now a Professor of Labor Studies, and Hawking have done just that. Finamore is a delegate to the San Francisco Labor Council, AFL-CIO, and can be reached at [email protected]

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