Lessons of Staley struggle
mlbooks at mcs.com
Wed Jun 12 16:33:43 MDT 1996
From: Jack Hill, Chicago Workers' Voice
The following article deals with what I feel are some lessons to
be summed up from the Staley struggle. It appears in the latest
issue of the _Chicago Workers' Voice Theoretical Journal_. I
believe some on this list are interested in this question.
Lessons of the Staley Struggle
by Jack Hill, Chicago Workers' Voice
As one of the active members of the Chicago Staley Workers'
Solidarity Committee, I would like to try to draw a few
conclusions from this struggle. The Staley workers showed
remarkable strength and heroism in the face of the powerful
forces arrayed against them. I think they accomplished a lot in
terms of building consciousness across the country of the
possibility and necessity of workers resisting.
The Staley struggle was organized following the more
militant and activist politics represented by Ray Rogers and
Jerry Tucker. The struggle went farther than most of the trade
union struggles that are under the thumb of the mainstream union
bureaucrats. However, this struggle also shows that this
politics has serious flaws. In my article on the history of the
Staley struggle, I go more into some of the main ways this
strategy and tactics developed at Staley.
Many of the Staley workers hoped that their struggle would
contribute to the revitalization of the "labor movement" in the
U.S. They wanted to build a practice of workers supporting each
others' struggles. They also wanted to encourage other workers
to stand up to the employers' concessions demands. They were
against the capitulationist attitude of the mainstream leadership
of the AFL-CIO.
The Staley workers definitely shook up the labor movement.
Despite being ignored and shunned by the "respectable" mainstream
trade union leadership, they got the word out all across the
country and even internationally. Gradually their pressure
forced a few cracks in the boycott of their struggle by the
bigshot hacks. Even Lane Kirkland was forced to make a token
appearance in Decatur. Pressure from the Staley workers was
certainly a part of the force which pushed Kirkland out and led
to the election of Sweeney as head of the AFL-CIO.
Unfortunately, in spite of the hopes of some of the Staley
workers, Sweeney was of no more use to the struggling workers
than Kirkland had been.
To some extent the mainstream AFL-CIO hacks have been
exposed as obstacles in our struggle. This certainly should be
listed as an accomplishment of this struggle.
A big plus from this struggle is that the workers' movement
has gained committed activists from the ranks of the Staley
workers. Two and a half years of traveling the country
organizing support for their struggle has converted a number of
the rank and file workers into experienced and dedicated worker
Why Did They Lose?
It was a big disappointment to all of us who had put so much
time and energy into the Staley struggle when the majority of the
workers decided to give up the struggle as lost. The question on
everybody's mind has been was some particular mistake made in
strategy or tactics or was it just that the multinational
corporation was too big and rich and strong?
Certainly weighing heavily against the chances of the Staley
workers were the huge resources and strength of this monopoly
capitalist corporation. Tate and Lyle has plants all over the
world producing sugar and sweeteners from cane sugar, beet sugar,
as well as corn. These monopolists were prepared to lose a lot
of money on the Decatur plant to break the strength of the union
and impose their terms on the workers. Particularly difficult
for the workers was the ability of Tate and Lyle to get favorable
coverage day after day in the mass media in the Decatur area.
Then of course all the organs of government were at the disposal
of Tate and Lyle. This went to the extent of Decatur city
government forcing the workers to take down the picket shelters
they had built. The hard-nosed response of PepsiCo to the
yearlong campaign to force them to cut off Staley as a supplier
also hurt the workers' morale.
Given the strength of the capitalist side no one can say for
sure that even the strongest, best planned and militant strategy
would have won. However, if the full potential strength of the
unionized workers in Illinois and the nearby midwestern states
could have been concentrated on Staley in Decatur, one would
think that this should be enough to force Tate and Lyle to back
down. One of the biggest reasons this never happened was the
outright betrayal of the Staley workers by the international
leadership of their union and by the leadership of the AFL-CIO.
The Staley workers were shunned by the bureaucrats running the
AFL-CIO. They were afraid of the independence and militancy of
the Staley workers. The biggest strength workers have is their
numbers, but the AFL-CIO leadership was not willing to mobilize
numbers for the Staley workers, and no other force has enough
influence to organize truly huge numbers of workers.
The Staley local responded to the backstabbing from the
official leadership of the AFL-CIO by avoiding getting into an
open fight with them. The leadership of the local and
particularly local president, Dave Watts, insisted on and fought
for limiting tactics to what would not irrevocably alienate the
bigshots of the "labor movement". Everybody knew that the
Decatur Staley local was being stiffed by the hacks, but there
was reluctance to get in a sharp and direct fight with them.
The Staley workers were very resourceful in their ability to
maneuver around this hostility and back-stabbing by linking with
many local unions and with all sorts of political activists.
Several big rallies were held in Decatur with several thousand
workers each time. The Staley worker activists also raised very
substantial sums of money from individual locals, from all sorts
of fund raisers, from the fund raisers of the Chicago SWSC and
other committees. This material and moral support enabled them
to hang on for as long as they did. This mobilization, however,
was only a fraction of the potential power of the workers'
After the fight was lost, the last issue of the "War Zone
Report" bitterly denounced the leadership of the UPIU and the
AFL-CIO. I think that the bitterness of the Staley worker
activists against these fatcat bureaucrats is quite just. I just
think that they should not have held their tongues on this for so
long. I also think that the struggle suffered because, at least
partly to avoid alienating these bureaucrats, the Staley local
leadership limited their tactics.
What Could Have Been Done Differently?
First off it needs to be said straight up that different
tactics would not automatically have had any better results as
far as the Staley struggle is concerned. The basic limitations
of the situation the strength of Tate and Lyle and the relative
weakness of the workers' movement can't be changed that easily.
With the greatest tactics in the world, the Staley workers could
very well have come out the same.
On the other hand, the Staley workers were not predetermined
automatically to lose. It is also possible that the struggle
could have got so hot that Tate and Lyle would have had to back
down. Or the Staley workers might have still lost but in a way
which would have helped made the issues even clearer to rank and
file workers struggling to build their movement.
That said, there are two areas particularly that I would
have liked to see different tactics by the Staley workers. One
is on the need to develop the fight right at the plant gates, at
the point of production. The other is on the need to make a
clearer break with the soldout bureaucrats who are stifling the
real workers' movement in this country.
I feel efforts should have been made to organize mass
picketing at the plant gates to keep out the scabs and stop the
movement of scab product. As long as production continued at the
Decatur plant, Tate and Lyle had a big advantage over the workers
they had locked out. To effectively challenge this situation, a
substantial number of Staley workers would have had to make up
their minds that they didn't care what the legalities of the
situation were, the scabs had to be stopped. Make no doubt about
it, such tactics would bring the workers into confrontation with
the police. The 760 Staley workers by themselves could not hope
to really keep the plant shut down for long. But I believe that
if the Staley workers had taken up such tactics, a substantial
number of other workers could have been organized to participate
along side them.
Some Staley workers did want to make some kind of a stand at
the plant gates. Some activists estimated the maybe 100 or even
more Staley workers would be willing to demonstrate at the plant
gates and risk arrest. However, the leadership of the local,
especially Dave Watts, didn't want to do this, and no one else in
the local organized a sharp fight in favor of such tactics. Dave
Watts still maintains that the bulk of the local membership was
not willing to do this, that almost no one was ready to risk
losing their rights to severance and pension benefits, and that
the international would not have lifted a finger to help those
who were arrested even in a peaceful act of civil disobedience.
The end result was that few of the Staley workers were ready to
step across the line of legality. Some members of the Chicago
SWSC spent a lot of time in Decatur talking with Staley worker
activists and this is also their assessment of the Staley
workers' general state of mind.
However, I should point out that Staley workers were
prominent among those on the front line confronting the police on
June 25, 1994, alongside Cat workers and activists from Chicago
and elsewhere. Especially in the period right after the police
attack on the demonstration that day, the potential was there to
mobilize large concentrations at the plant gates. Failure to
grasp this chance was probably one of the big factors which
started the Staley struggle down the road to defeat.
The strategy of corporate campaign is mixed up in the issue
of whether and how to wage a fight at the plant gates. Ray
Rogers pushed a line that workers don't need to strike or fight
at the plant gates, that an energetic enough corporate campaign
can force a company to give in. Maybe so, in some cases, but
that certainly is not true in general and it definitely was not
true for Staley. I think a more correct view is that corporate
campaigns can be used as supplementary tactics in connection with
mass struggle at the point of production. These campaigns can be
a way of mobilizing supporters in other cities and applying
additional pressure on the target corporation. They are
practical ways that workers can get involved in supporting a
struggle hundreds or thousands of miles away, besides just
sending money and expressions of support.
The early campaigns that Ray Rogers organized against State
Farm Insurance and Domino sugar never seemed to go anywhere.
However, after Ray Rogers was out of the picture, the Staley
workers did hit on a pretty good strategy of targeting beverage
companies which purchased Staley product. Beer and soft drink
companies are particularly concerned with their public images.
They have huge advertizing budgets, and they fight hard for
percentage points of market share. The victory in getting Miller
to drop Staley gave the workers some hope and was a genuine blow
to Staley's bottom line. Although Pepsi played hard ass, they
may have been just at the point of cracking. They were clearly
worried about their public image after a year of attacks even by
the relatively small resources the Staley supporters could
mobilize. If the AFL-CIO had really applied serious resources to
making Pepsi a shunned product in union households all across the
U.S., Pepsi probably would have caved in.
My conclusions on the role of corporate campaigns in the
Staley struggle are
1) The struggle suffered from the view that boycott campaigns
were an effective substitute for struggle at the plant gates.
2) Nevertheless, mobilizing supporters to participate in the
boycott campaigns, especially the Miller and Pepsi campaigns
helped in building a concrete workers' solidarity movement.
3) For a boycott campaign to be effective, the target has to be
very carefully picked both for vulnerability and for logical
connection to the issue at hand. Furthermore, in this type of
campaign the issue of tactics also comes up. It is not effective
to just pass out flyers without combining this with mass
demonstrations and other innovative tactics which can attract
wider public attention. It should be noted that neither Dave
Watts nor any other local Staley leaders ever objected to the
mass demonstrations and civil disobedience type actions which the
Chicago SWSC carried out in the Miller and Pepsi campaigns. The
UPIU international leaders certainly did, but they had no
jurisdiction over us.
Would the Staley struggle have suffered if the Staley local
had openly denounced the state and national leadership of the
AFL-CIO and the international leadership of their own union, the
UPIU (United Paperworkers International Union), for undermining
their struggle and turning a cold shoulder to them? Everybody
close to the struggle knew this was happening. But the leaders
of the Staley local didn't make a public issue of this. The hope
was always there that with just the right combination of pressure
the national AFL-CIO could be made to provide some serious
resources to help the Staley workers.
Late in the struggle, Dan Lane was allowed to speak to the
national AFL-CIO convention while on his hunger strike. This was
after the delegation of Decatur rank and file had harassed the
Bal Harbour winter AFL-CIO meeting and Sweeney was trying to win
the President's post by appearing more struggle oriented than
Donahue. Then, to get Dan to give up his hunger strike, Sweeney
even personally promised him that the national AFL-CIO would
provide about 40 organizers including 12 full time ones to push
the Pepsi campaign. All along the carrot of the full resources
of the national AFL-CIO always seemed to be hanging out there
just out of reach. "Just behave yourselves and we'll give you
all this stuff." This was the implied and sometimes stated
message from the bureaucrats to the Staley workers. The threat
was that if they didn't "behave" they could be drummed out of the
official "labor movement" as splitters and maybe even suffer a
concerted campaign against their struggle.
Although the Staley workers never got anything but pats on
the back and pocket change from the state or national AFL-CIO,
they did get quite a lot of donations from scattered union locals
around the country. If things had gotten really tense with the
national AFL-CIO, one could easily expect that a lot of pressure
would be applied to these locals to cut off Staley. The fact
that there is no big independent movement which could replace
such potential resources placed the Staley local in a bind.
However, the fate of the Staley workers confirms again that
the official so-called "labor movement" led by the soldout
bureaucrats of the AFL-CIO is a positive hindrance to the
workers' struggle. We have to go about building a new fighting
workers' movement in this country independent of all these
traitors. We are not going to get anywhere trying to force these
committed enemies of the workers' struggle to do right. We do
need to wage the fight inside the existing structures of the
"labor movement", but this present structure is totally unfit for
serious struggle. The Staley workers' struggle has taught this
lesson to some activists and workers. But I would have preferred
clearer and earlier statements on what is wrong with the
"official" leadership of the trade unions in this country.
Especially I don't think it was a good idea to put on the
speaking platform at rallies labor bigshots who weren't doing
anything for the Staley workers.
The Staley struggle represents the best that the tactics of
the more activist, liberal, or left wing sections of the trade
union movement can achieve at this time. This one local of 760
members mobilized support all across the country, shook up the
national leadership of the AFL-CIO, and gave an education in
class struggle to countless workers. The problems with this
strategy are that it avoids confronting continued production in
the plant with scab labor and avoids directly exposing and
confronting the AFL-CIO leadership and the international union
leadership who are hamstringing the struggle. I think you have
to do these things for the sake of the immediate struggle and for
the sake of building a national workers' movement which can
really start to change things in this country.
Honor the Sacrifices of the Staley Workers
The Staley workers willingly went forth to very unequal battle
against a monster corporation knowing that basically it was the
760 of them against all that money and power. They stuck it out
for two and a half years through huge financial, emotional, and
physical hardships. They did get substantial help from groups of
activists in Chicago, St. Louis, Madison, and other places. Many
hard lessons have been learned about the nature of the "labor
movement" in this country. Ties have been formed among worker
activists which can help build a real workers' movement. Without
the determination of the Staley rank and file to stand up for
themselves and try to build their fight broadly and as well as
they knew how, none of this could have happened. These workers
have paid a heavy price for their boldness; they deserve the
utmost respect. 
For a free sample copy of the _Chicago Workers' Voice Theoretical
Journal_, send me your mailing address or write to CWV, P.O. Box
11542, Chicago, IL 60611.
Jack Hill <mlbooks at mcs.com>
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