Lessons of the Staley struggle

by Jack Hill, Chicago Workers' Voice
(from Communist Voice #9, August 1, 1996)

. The following article originally appeared in the "Chicago Workers' Voice Theoretical Journal" #10, May 31, 1996, and was accompanied by another article by Jack entitled "For your reference: History of the Staley struggle". We strongly disagree with the honeyed approach of this article, which in the guise of praising the workers ends up reconciling with the reformist union bureaucrats. Jack Hill's article was reprinted and criticized in issue #9 of Communist Voice in the articles "How not to learn from the Staley struggle" and "A comment on the Staley lockout and proletarian reorganization: On Jack Hill's empty optimism regarding the accomplishments of the Staley struggle".

. 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.

Achievements

. 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 activists.

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 Pepsi Co. 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 [Staley Workers' Solidarity Committee] 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' movement.

. 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.

Conclusions

. 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 willing 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.


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