Decatur unionist on hunger strike since Sept. 1
Jenny Brown
November/December 1995

A Decatur, Illinois unionist hasn't eaten in two months--he's on an "indefinite fast" for justice for the working people of his town and communities all over America. Decatur native Dan Lane has inspired many working people all over the country as he's travelled as one of the Decatur "road warriors", telling the story of over 700 workers who have been locked out of their jobs for more than two years by the A.E. Staley corn processing plant in Decatur. Now he is fasting to try to get Pepsi, one of A.E. Staley's biggest customers, to stop buying products from the corporation. "There is no doubt that if PepsiCo would withdraw its business, Staley would come to realize the serious consequences of terrorizing our community" Lane says.

Lane stopped eating on September 1, to draw attention to the struggle in Decatur of over 700 families affected by Staley's locking them out of their jobs, in a move by the company to bust the union, UPIU 7837 (Paperworkers), which was resisting disruptive and inhuman work schedules and safety hazards on the job. The Staley plant is now being run by replacement workers (scabs), but the problems have not been addressed. In August, a replacement worker was killed in an accident at the plant.

Decatur has been called the front line in America's 'labor war' because while a lot of towns and workplaces all over America have been experiencing a similar squeeze, workers in Decatur have taken a stand against the unfair treatment of workers and the illegal union-busting tactics of the Staley, Bridgestone/Firestone, and Caterpillar companies. Rubberworkers URW/USWA local 713 struck Bridgestone/Firestone for over a year because of unfair labor practices but were forced back to work this fall, and Caterpillar workers (represented by United Auto Workers local 751) have been on strike against Cat for over a year.

"My fasting comes as a difficult decision for me and my family," Lane says. "But even more difficult is to stand by and watch 760 families being brutalized daily for over 2 years. This tells me it's time to take some extra-ordinary steps." Lane, who worked at Staley for 19 years before being locked out, is a father of five and a member of the UPIU 7837 bargaining committee. According to UPIU 7837, Staley's "best and final [contract] offer" imposed on the workers 12 hour shifts rotating from days to nights every 30 days, a drastic reduction in health and safety services, and the wrongful discharge of several workers for participating in union activities. In reaction, the workers instituted an in-plant work to rule campaign, doing only what they were told and nothing more. Staley locked out the entire workforce in August of 1993.

The 12-hour shifts amount to a 36-hour week then a 48-hour week, working days one month and nights the next. Lane told NPR in September, "It sounds real good--12 hours days, four days off and everything. But the reality of the situation is the workers that we have talked to--replacement workers that have quit, are working six days a week, and in some cases because of overtime, they're actually working 18 hours a day, sometimes as often as twice a week. And we have been through something similar to this... in the early to mid-'80's we had approximately 1,500 workers out there and we went through some very severe cuts and we went down to approximately 800 employees at that time. And so what we ended up doing was working a lot of six and seven days a week, working a lot of overtime, and we see this as nothing more than a continuing extension of that kind of effort on [the company's] part."

The company argues that it needs to have these shifts in order to be competitive, although the plant has posted record profits since 1990. Locked out workers say that they want to have a normal life and be a parents and spouses, not just paychecks, to their families. Lane says, "I think as a society, we have to make a decision where we're going to go. Somewhere, there has to be a balance between the community, the workers and the corporation. And you know, right now this whole word around competition is saying that the corporations get everything at the cost of everybody else."

While politicians talk about family values, Lane sees the support structure being pulled out from under families in Decatur. "It's really easy for a lot of people to say, "We believe in ... family values. But I would say one of the bigget problems we have in these kind of issues--just in our case where they're trying to get rid of people--where there'll be unemployment. So what's their family going to live on? Where're these jobs going to come from? ... They can go to work for minimum wages to raise a family, or else they can become a slave to their job. That's the choice that workers are being given out there. And I think this is serious enough that it's worth standing up for." Recent reports (as of November 3) state that Lane has become very weak from the hunger strike.

A lot of people and unions all over the country have been supporting the struggle of the Decatur workers, through donations of money and spreading the word. Support groups from Kansas City to Seattle are picketing PepsiCo outlets such as Taco Bell and Pizza Hut, as well as calling Pepsi's toll-free number, to tell them to stop buying corn syrup from the A.E. Staley company. Supporters urge everyone to call Pepsi at 1-800-433-2652 or fax them at 1-914-253-2070. While Pepsi may state that they no longer buy product from the plant in Decatur, they continue to buy from other Staley plants.

On Monday night, December 11, Staley 'Road Warrior' Mike Griffin will speak at the annual Central Labor Council spaghetti dinner, at the CWA Hall, 1929 NE 27th Ave. (west of Sonny's off Waldo Road) starting at 7 p.m. Bring your checkbook.

Photo caption:
Thousands march for justice on the job in Decatur, Illinois on June 25, 1995, in a demonstration marking the second anniversary of A.E. Staley's lock out of 760 workers represented by UPIU 7837 (Paperworkers). Decatur's striking Caterpillar and Bridgestone/Firestone workers, as well as locked out Staley workers, were joined by unionists and allies from all over the country for the march and rally. Locked out Staley worker Mike Griffin will speak on December 11 in Gainesville at the CLC spaghetti dinner which starts at 7 p.m. at the CWA Hall, 1929 NE 27th Ave.

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