The epic labor struggle in the ‘Decatur war zone’
As the 19th century prepared to turn into the 20th, a cataclysmic confrontation between labor and management occurred in the steelmaking town of Homestead, Pa., pitting the wealthy Carnegie Steel Co. against one of the strongest unions of the day. The workers lost, setting the stage for exploitation, miserable working conditions and depressed wages that would finally be broken in steel by the organizing campaigns of the 1930s.
And as the 20th century shambled toward the 21st, a similar confrontation occurred in Decatur, Ill. This time the combatants were the powerful, multinational corporation, London-based Tate & Lyle, owner of the then-A.E. Staley Mfg. Co. Waging a determined fight against the rotating, 12-hour shifts demanded by Tate & Lyle was Local 7838 of the United Paperworkers International Union.
One of three labor disputes in Decatur — Caterpillar Tractor Co. and the United Autoworkers were engaged in a multi-year dispute, as was the United Rubber Workers of America and Bridgestone/Firestone Tire Co. — the fight at Staley was not a strike. Tate & Lyle locked out the union workers.
While Ashby and Hawking, who were activists in support of the Staley workers during the lockout, understandably focus almost exclusively on that fight, it is important not to lose sight of the overall struggle which came to be known as the “Decatur War Zone.”
For those needing a quick refresher, the details can be easily summarized. Caterpillar Tractor Co. and Bridgestone/Firestone (a Japanese firm), had determined to reduce the powers of the unions representing their respective workers whatever the cost. For its part, Tate & Lyle was equally determined to take back a series of gains won in previous decades by its union workers in such areas as safety and grievance procedures. A key issue at both Staley and Bridgestone/Firestone was the imposition of 12-hour, rotating shifts.
The educated middle classes of this nation, cocooned in good-paying jobs where the physical toll is not great and people are rarely killed on the job, may feel far removed from these decade-old struggles in Decatur — all ending in defeats for the three unions. However, the Ashby/Hawking book is an excellent corrective for complacency.
A particular strength of the book is its exposure of the human toll when a powerful multinational corporation focuses its powers on wiping out a small local union in a city of 84,000 already devastated by a transitional economy. Beginning with the tragedy of Jim Beals, a Staley worker and union activist killed on the job, perhaps due to company indifference to safety procedures, through the selfless efforts of an inner-city parish priest, Father Martin Mangan, to support the workers, the book enlivens detail with humanity.
Heroes and villains abound. Among the latter are the leaderships of both the United Paperworkers International Union and the AFL-CIO. The former essentially sold the local out and the latter gave lip service at best to the struggles in Decatur.
Ashby, now with the University of Illinois School of Labor and Industrial Relations, and Hawking, a United Methodist minister, conclude their book with, not only an analysis of the failure at Staley, but also the things the U.S. labor movement must do to deal with the Caterpillars, Tate & Lyles, and Bridgestone/Firestones that now stride about the global economy like giant robots bent on profit at all cost.
The future will tell whether Decatur, like Homestead, becomes symbolic of increasing disparities of wealth and status, depressed wages and opportunity, and a society that values profits more than people.
Bob Sampson earned his Ph.D. in history at the University of Illinois. He lives in Decatur where he is engaged in researching the life and works of Father Martin Mangan, a Springfield native, who worked publicly and behind the scenes for Decatur workers in the 1990s.