Synthesis/Regeneration 10   (Spring 1996)

Toxic Corporations

Staley Struggle Shows Need for Better Labor Organization

by Richard Whitney, National Lawyers Guild

Proposition 1: In a society in which a relative handful of employers controls the means of obtaining a livelihood for the vast majority of people, the people's ability to fight for a clean environment is severely handicapped.

Proposition 2: In a society in which a relative handful of employers controls the means of obtaining a livelihood for the vast majority of people, the people's ability to secure a decent living and work under safe and healthy working conditions is severely handicapped.

Proposition 3: Without more democratic, broader, more unified labor organizations, working people will be unable to overcome these handicaps and enjoy much success in their struggle to win a clean environment, a decent living, or safe and healthy working conditions.

All three of these propositions were amply demonstrated by the 30-month battle waged by the A.E. Staley Manufacturing Co., one of the world's largest manufacturers of corn syrup and other corn products, against 760 of its employees, members of United Paperworkers International Union (UPIU) Local 7837. Despite a valiant and creative effort to combat a company lockout, the workers lost the battle, partly because of the awesome power of the corporation and corporate owners in the modern era, partly because of the poor state of organization of the laboring class generally, and partly because of the outright treachery committed by the leadership of the UPIU.

Staley is owned by Tate & Lyle, a British-based multinational agribusiness giant. Tate & Lyle is enormously profitable, having realized $2 billion in profits from 1991-1993. Of course, in an economy driven by competition, the attainment of such profits requires both intense exploitation of the workers who actually produce the wealth and doing whatever else is necessary to minimize the costs of production. That means cutting corners on waste disposal and worker safety whenever possible. The Workers' Dilemma

As one Staley supervisor put it, after a worker questioned company orders to dump chemical wastes down the drain: "You got a job, don't you?"

When jobs are hard to come by and a relatively few businesses are the only game in town, workers can be coerced into doing the devil's bidding. In some locales, the modern corporation has used its power as the main source of jobs to foster bitter and even violent fights between "workers" and "environmentalists"—even though most environmentalists are workers themselves and most workers realize that their own health suffers when the environment is degraded. In Decatur, the conflict was internalized, as workers questioned but ultimately carried out irresponsible corporate policies due to the fear of losing their livelihood. As one Staley supervisor put it, after a worker questioned company orders to dump chemical wastes down the drain: "You got a job, don't you?"

Thus, the workers were well aware that Staley had been pumping toxins into the air and water and dumping them into landfills. Later, after Staley locked them out, and they had little or nothing to lose, they were able to shed some light on the company's misconduct.

In July 1994, Local 7837 filed a notice of intent to sue Staley over the heavy metals and solvents detected near a creek that flows into Lake Decatur—a major source of drinking water. The toxins had apparently leached from a landfill that the company had used as a dump site from the 1950s until 1986. Workers knew that mercury, paint thinners and PCBs had been dumped in the landfill, sometimes in inadequate containers—because some of them had reluctantly dumped it there themselves.

Although workers had previously requested the US EPA and the Illinois EPA (IEPA) to do something about the problem, those agencies claimed that their tests revealed no environmental hazards. This is not surprising since, according to some workers, company officials told inspectors where to take their soil samples. Independent laboratory tests on the soil, however, confirmed the presence of heavy metals and solvents.

In response to the union's contentions, IEPA spokesperson Dan Rion claimed that the agency "has no documentation that says that there is anything in that landfill except construction debris, waste starch and packaging material." The claim is belied by correspondence between Staley and the IEPA in 1971 concerning the company's plan to "virtually eliminate" its prior practice of dumping mercury compounds into "the sanitary sewers in Decatur." A July 12, 1971 letter from the manager of the IEPA's Division of Land Pollution Control to Staley unequivocally states: "Approval is hereby granted to A.E. Staley Manufacturing Company for the containerized disposal of mercury-containing sulfuric acid waste at the existing subject landfill site." The mercury waste was buried in five-gallon plastic containers.

A study of the landfill site the same year by the Illinois State Geologic Survey revealed that there was a "moderate to high possibility for surface water contamination" from wastes placed there. There is also evidence that aquifers run near the landfill.

Unfortunately, nothing has been done about this environmental threat. The UPIU International, after originally promising to pursue the matter, dropped it after deciding that it was too costly to litigate. The International had some justification for being gun-shy since, union sources say, it was hit by a court order in another environmental case to put millions of dollars into a trust fund, pending the outcome of the suit. Some local members believe that the International had the resources to take on the less expensive Staley litigation, however. They see the International's pullback as part of a larger pattern of betrayal.

Meanwhile, Staley has kept right on polluting. According to the "toxic inventory" that polluters are required to submit to the EPA, the company in 1990 dumped 337,500 pounds of ethylene glycol, 11,400 pounds of hydrochloric acid and 12,700 pounds of sulfuric acid into the air and water of Decatur.

Workers Treated as Disposable Objects

The same profit motive that drives the company to cut corners on pollution control also drives it to cut corners on worker safety. The processing of corn into syrup and starch is now a heavily mechanized process involving the use of toxic chemicals. The push to produce as fast as possible, and at the lowest cost, has repeatedly exposed workers to dangerous chemicals, fires and explosions. Workers at Staley have had to work near open containers of carcinogenic chemicals and wash out containers and tanks that housed toxic chemicals without proper cleaning or protective equipment. They have inhaled chlorine gas and been injured by dust fires and explosions. Underlying many of these incidents is a supervisor who is clueless about safety procedures, but under intense pressure to get things done, ordering a worker to assume terrible risks.

In 1990, Staley's gambling with workers' lives led to the death of Jim Beals. Beals and three other workers had been ordered to repair a holding tank even though none were adequately trained to perform the work. The tank only had a narrow opening through which to climb in and out. While Beals was inside, highly toxic propylene oxide was accidentally released into the tank from a connected reactor. In prior years, there had been a safety policy of not performing such work while a reactor was running. But the policy had been lifted under company pressure to speed up production. Beals was overcome by the vapors before he could escape. In an attempt to rescue Beals, workers grabbed nearby emergency oxygen packs—but all of them were empty.

Beals' death prompted the Occupational Safety & Health Administration to investigate the plant. In 1991, the agency fined Staley $1.6 million for 298 violations of safety and health regulations, most of them serious. Yet despite some cosmetic changes, workers say that safety conditions did not really improve at the plant.

Slave-like Conditions Imposed

Worker safety is also affected by overall working conditions—like working hours. Workers who are fatigued by long hours are more prone to suffer a mental or physical lapse that leads to injury. A conflict over working hours was one of the major issues that led to the lockout. In 1992, Staley demanded the right to impose rotating 12-hour shifts, a disorienting schedule that wreaks havoc on workers' health and personal lives, and virtually eliminates the overtime pay that many workers counted on to make ends meet. The company also demanded an unlimited right to subcontract work, an obvious union-busting tactic. Outrageously, it demanded concessions on the already inadequate safety and health protections in the contract, health-care and grievance procedure concessions and complete control over job assignments.

The next 27 months saw yet another display of the best and the worst of present-day unionism: As in the Eastern Airlines, Hormel, Watsonville Canning and other recent labor battles, a relatively small group of workers waged a long and determined fight in defense of their working and living conditions.

Workers rejected that contract proposal by a vote of 687-29. A few days later, in October 1992, Staley unilaterally imposed its demands on the workers. The impasse continued for months until June 27, 1993, when the company locked out the workers in a brazen attempt to break the union.

At the time, the workers were represented by the Allied Industrial Workers of America. In September 1993, the AIWA merged into the UPIU, amidst promises of support to the Staley workers from the latter, larger union.

The next 27 months saw yet another display of the best and the worst of present-day unionism: As in the Eastern Airlines, Hormel, Watsonville Canning and other recent labor battles, a relatively small group of workers waged a long and determined fight in defense of their working and living conditions. They reached out and received the enthusiastic support of rank-and-file unionists, local unions and other support groups nationwide. Yet at the same time, the larger national and international unions and the AFL-CIO at best paid lip service to their struggle; workers, union and nonunion, continued to make deliveries to Staley and work at other Staley and Tate & Lyle facilities, maintaining the flow of company profits and giving the company no incentive to settle; and the workers' parent union ultimately sold its members down the river.

The local union's tactics included mass street protests, civil disobedience, a hunger strike and a boycott/public pressure campaign aimed at getting other corporations to cease doing business with Staley. These actions called attention to the struggle, punctured the corporate media's general blackout of labor issues in this country, and forged some ties of labor solidarity.

However, the local had to resort to such tactics in the first place primarily because of the absence of a large, well-organized labor movement. If workers were effectively organized, they would be able to shut down the corporations which attack their living and working conditions, which refuse to correct occupational hazards and which recklessly dump poisons into our environment. They could limit, and force changes in, reckless corporate behavior. Ultimately, the people could become masters of the forces of production instead of being used and discarded by the employer class.

Isolated Struggles Aren't Enough

But in the absence of such a movement, it is almost impossible for isolated groups of union workers to win their battles against ever-larger, ever more international, corporations. For one thing, it is extremely difficult for isolated groups of workers to apply sufficient economic pressure on the corporation. For example, there is evidence that Staley was able to keep up production in part by transferring work to other, nonunion facilities, such as its plant in Lafayette, Indiana.

Not coincidentally, workers at the Lafayette plant are facing the same conflict that Decatur workers dealt with—between their interests in keeping their jobs and their interests in living in a decent environment. Last June, the Indiana Department of Environmental Management reported that the Lafayette plant emits 1,700 tons of sulfur dioxide, 588 tons of nitrogen oxides, 320 tons of particulate matter, 34 tons of carbon monoxide and 22 tons of volatile organic compounds per year. Area residents complain of breathing problems, rapid rusting of metal surfaces and sickening odors emanating from the plant. (This didn't stop the IDEM from granting Staley a special permit to increase its volatile organic compound emissions by 25 tons a year, however.) Staley has also been named as a potentially responsible party at a nearby landfill that is now a Superfund site.

Union workers also suspect that Staley's ostensible rival in the corn products industry, Archer-Daniels-Midland, also backed Staley's union busting campaign. Before the last contract expired, ADM built a 3.5 mile-long pipeline between its own Decatur facility and the Staley plant, which apparently was used to ship corn slurry between the plants. The union also learned that ADM owns 7.4 percent of Tate & Lyle's stock, creating a bond between the two firms. Both conglomerates, along with two other major corporations, are now under federal investigation for price-fixing. Apart from these incidentals, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that ADM and Staley have a common interest in breaking workers' resistance to their efforts to squeeze profits out of workers' hides.

In the absence of a larger and better organized labor movement, most nonunion workers fail to understand the stakes involved in a strike or lockout. Thus, when the corporation offers jobs for "replacement workers," many unemployed or marginally employed workers only see a choice between a bad job and no job, in an economy in which jobs are increasingly hard to come by. This is not to make excuses for those who scab. The blame, however, must be shared by the union movement as a whole, which has not done its job of educating workers, organizing the unorganized and persuading the unemployed to realize that it's in their own long-term interests to support their brother and sister workers in struggle.

Thus, scabbery, too, contributed to the downfall of the Staley workers' efforts, as Staley was able to keep the plant running during the lockout, although not without considerable problems. One replacement worker learned about the worker safety issue at stake a little too late. On August 6, 1995, a worker named James Lindsay was fatally burned in a cornstarch explosion after a hose had become clogged and a dust cloud created when the workers tried to unclog it. A subsequent OSHA investigation found that the workers had not received training on how to unclog the hose safely, the wrong kind of hose was being used and an unsafe electric hoist was being used nearby, creating the spark that caused the explosion.

With Friends Like These . . .

After 2-1/2 years of being locked out, and with no effective help coming from the International or the AFL-CIO, demoralization was bound to creep into the workers' ranks. The International seized on that demoralization to engineer the sellout that ultimately ended the lockout.

Two of the fundamental problems plaguing the labor movement today are its businesslike orientation and its undemocratic structure. At some point, from the standpoint of the self-interested bureaucratic leadership of the UPIU, it no longer made good "business sense" to continue resisting Staley. The human lives and principles at stake apparently were not "worth" the cost of maintaining the struggle, let alone expanding and intensifying it.

Two of the fundamental problems plaguing the labor movement today are its businesslike orientation and its undemocratic structure.

UPIU President Wayne Glenn began reining in the Local. He found an ally in Jim Shinall, who ran for the Local presidency. Shinall appealed to the members who were weary of the struggle, especially older members who were open to persuasion by promises of retirement options and severance pay. Some of the more militant members of the union say that Shinall and the International began spreading rumors and lies about them on the picket line, creating discord and division among the ranks. That was the beginning of the end.

Although local members did manage to obtain promises of stepped-up support from the AFL-CIO at its convention last October, they learned that Glenn had later prevailed on the new leadership of the federation to back off, with a "we'll take care of it" message.

On December 12, 1995, Shinall defeated incumbent president David Watts by a 249—201 vote. The International, bargaining on "behalf" of the local, came back with an offer from the company the very next day. The terms were about as bad as those imposed on the workers three years earlier. It still imposed 12-hour shifts with up to four additional hours of mandatory overtime, although rotating every 30 days instead of every 6, almost unlimited subcontracting and take-aways on health and safety issues, seniority, grievances and health care benefits. Perhaps worst of all, the contract accepted a reduction in the union work force from 760 to 349, with another reduction to 250 or less in 1997. About the best thing that could be said about the offer was that it included supposedly "enhanced" severance provisions. It failed to provide any amnesty for seven workers who were fired during the struggle.

Almost as sickening as the offer was the International's hypocritical posturing in pushing it on the membership. In a letter that went out to supporters of the Staley workers, International Vice President Glenn Goss stated that the "agreement was not recommended by the International." In fact, Wayne Glenn overruled the Local's Bargaining Committee and Executive Board in ordering a vote on the pact. In response to one worker who complained about his strong-arming of the Local, Glenn wrote, "Apparently you misunderstood the meaning of local autonomy."

Another International official, discussing the offer on a Decatur radio program, emphasized that the offer was the "last opportunity in the foreseeable future" to resolve the struggle and get the members' jobs back and stated that he would "hate to even think about" the contract being rejected.

With such "fighting spirit" coming from the International, the workers swallowed the pact by a vote of 286—226, returning yet one more group of workers back to 19th century working conditions. Since then, the International and Shinall have continued their assault on union democracy and militancy by trying to force out some of the more militant members. Charges have been filed against a number of members and the rights of some members to speak at union meetings have been suppressed. At one meeting, Shinall reportedly called the police on some of his fellow workers, in order to remove them from the hall.

Realizing a Principle

In principle, unions have the potential to remold society—to change the way that goods and services are produced, bring about safe and healthy working conditions, stop the despoliation of the environment and ensure that people's material needs are met. In principle, they should be natural allies of the environmental movement, since workers, as employees, and as people concerned about the planetary ecosystem, are really fighting the same enemy—a class of rapacious corporate owners and their profit-motivated system, which drives them to minimize "labor costs" and "waste disposal costs" at one and the same time.

In principle, a truly unified organization of workers could turn the tables on the corporate owners and force changes in production, or better still, assume democratic control over production, so that the goals of meeting human needs, creating safe workplaces and protecting and restoring the environment, can be met.

We are not anywhere near realizing this potential and the Decatur struggle illustrates that we have a long way to go. Working people need to regain control over the labor organizations that exist now, and build new ones, with a view toward bringing them under genuine democratic control and practicing real solidarity on the broadest possible level, so that the corporations can no longer play one set of workers off against another, to the detriment of all.

The positive aspect of the Decatur struggle is that it provided a glimmer of what real unionism could become. The workers who led the fight against Staley understood that their efforts are part of a larger struggle that can, and must, continue. In their barnstorming across the country seeking support, they struck a chord among thousands of other workers who also understood that there is a crying need to rebuild a labor movement in this country that is worthy of the name.

Richard Whitney is a student at Southern Illinois University School of Law and a member of the National Lawyers Guild.

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