The Staley Lockout

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In the above article, Mike Griffin tells of his disillusionment
with the lack of support he feels that he got
from both the AFL-CIO and his local’s own national
union in the Staley lockout. This was perhaps the most
important and hard-fought struggle by labor in Central
Illinois in recent years. It began after Tate and Lyle, a London-
based multinational corporation in the sugar refining
industry, bought out the Staley operation in Decatur
in 1988. Up to that time, Staley had been a family owned
What the workers first noted about the changeover
was an increased disregard for safety issues. The workers
made complaints to the Occupational Safety and Health
Administration (OSHA) that investigated and found 298
violations of the safety code. Staley (the name was
retained by Tate and Lyle) was fined $1.6million. Even
after this, the workers complained that unsafe procedures
continued in a dangerous industry that uses highly toxic
chemicals such as propylene oxide and runs the risk of
explosion from starch dust as it converts corn into sweetener.
Labor relations continued to degenerate until 1993.
The straw that broke the camel’s back came in the
summer of that year when Staley demanded maximum
“flexibility” over the workforce. They insisted that workers
sign a contract that obliged them to give up the normal
8 hour work day and to work 12 hour days (with an
additional 4 hours overtime when the company felt it was
needed), three and four consecutive days in alternating
weeks. All workers would also be obliged to rotate
between day and night shifts. When the company would
not budge from this position in contract negotiations, the
workers became more militant. They began to rebel by
working to rule, i.e., doing no more than their jobs technically
called for. Staley claimed that they were going further
and sabotaging the work process by disposing of useable
product. The workers denied this, but the National
Labor Relations Board found that Staley’s charge was
credible. Workers who complained to the company were
retaliated against.
On June 27, Staley locked out approximately 760
workers. Following the example set by President Reagan
during the air controllers’ strike, Staley placed advertisements
in newspapers in other areas of the country and
hired replacement workers to take the jobs of the workers
it had locked out. Some of the workers, like Mike Griffin,
became “road warriors” and traveled around the U.S.,
Canada, and even Europe publicizing what had been
done to them and warning other workers that this is what
they too could find themselves up against. They held
meetings in Decatur that many of us from the C/U area
attended. Socialist Forum held support meetings in
Champaign-Urbana where Mike and other road warriors
came to speak. The workers held marches and demonstrations
in Decatur that attracted supporters from
around the country. Some of these supporters blocked
the gates of Staley and were pepper sprayed and arrested
by the police. The lockout and militant resistance lasted
approximately two and one-half years. The giant capitalist
multinational won. But as readers can see, Mike Griffin
is still fighting both the capitalist system that treated
him and his fellow workers so badly and the organized
labor leadership that he felt betrayed them.

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