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New book offers insider view of pivotal labor conflict

Steven K. Ashby and CJ Hawking
Photo courtsy of the authors

Steven K. Ashby, a clinical professor of labor and employment relations at Illinois, was a solidarity organizer for workers at Decatur’s A.E. Staley plant during the early 1990s impasse, along with his wife and co-author, C.J. Hawking, a Methodist pastor and executive director of the faith-based workers’ rights group Arise Chicago.

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4/20/2009 | Jan Dennis, Business & Law Editor 217-333-0568; jdennis@illinois.edu

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – More than a decade after workers at an Illinois corn-processing plant lost a bitter, three-year standoff with management, a new book says their innovative tactics remain a how-to guide for the evolving U.S. labor movement.

The stalemate at Decatur’s A.E. Staley plant is among the most pivotal labor conflicts of the last 25 years, fine-tuning a host of initiatives to help unions stand up to management and win justice, said co-author Steven K. Ashby, a clinical professor of labor and employment relations at the University of Illinois.

“It was a very, very crucial struggle, especially among activists and reformers in the labor movement,” Ashby said. “What workers did that was so important was to perfect new strategies that really did have a lasting impact, and we hope the book will contribute to that impact.”

He says the conflict left a legacy of tools that workers can use to protect their rights, such as “work-to-rule” campaigns, where workers slow production by strictly following company rules and doing only what they are ordered to do.

Ashby was a solidarity organizer for Staley workers during the early 1990s impasse, along with his wife and co-author, C.J. Hawking, a Methodist pastor and executive director of the faith-based workers’ rights group Arise Chicago. Hawking moved to Decatur for seven months to organize community outreach for the local union.

Their book, “Staley: The Fight for a New American Labor Movement,” is an on-the-ground history that couples the authors’ first-hand experience with 75 worker interviews, media accounts and details on strategy debates culled from videotapes of every union meeting during the conflict.

“It’s fair to say no other labor book has that kind of insider view,” Ashby said. “This is an up-close look at the labor movement, with all of its strengths, weaknesses and challenges.”

The book, published by the University of Illinois Press, explores labor strategies that emerged as a once-complacent union rose up to fight changes put in place after the family-owned plant was purchased by multinational conglomerate Tate & Lyle.

A 116-page union contract was reduced to 17 pages, threatening safety, eroding grievance procedures and creating rotating 12-hour shifts that regularly bounced workers from days to nights, Ashby said.

Workers overwhelmingly rejected the deal, responding with a 10-month work-to-rule campaign that cut production by a third before they were locked out by the company in June 1993. During the lockout, the 760 workers staged nonviolent protests at the plant’s gates and mounted a national “Road Warriors” campaign, during which rank-and-file workers raised $3.5 million as they crisscrossed the country building support and solidarity committees.

“The key lesson for the labor movement is that an apathetic local union can transform itself, and regular people can become activists,” Ashby said. “It was really about building a national social movement that defines what labor needs to be – a protector for workers and families.”

Workers rejected the contract again more than two years into the lockout, but it was later approved in December 1995, with 56 percent of union members voting to accept the deal.

Ashby says the tight vote was a blow to the labor movement because the union was close to winning, thanks to a national solidarity campaign that was putting pressure on PepsiCo to drop its lucrative contract with Staley for corn sweetener.

A union victory, he said, could have made Staley workers national ambassadors for the labor movement, similar to textile worker Crystal Lee Sutton, whose unionizing efforts were the model for the 1979 film “Norma Rae.”

“A win could have put Staley workers on the road across the country, telling workers they can win, too, if they do what we did,” Ashby said.

But even though the effort fell short, he says the Staley conflict left a mark on the labor movement, spawning a new wave of student and faith-based organizations that promote unions and workers’ rights.

“Their efforts touched hundreds of thousands of people, and inspired a generation of activists to redouble their efforts,” Ashby said. “What they did is create a manual of resistance that is still a very powerful force for the labor movement.”

Editor's note: To contact Steven K. Ashby, call 312-996-2623; e-mail skashby@illinois.edu.

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