You know what we are to them? Literally, we’re the same as the corn and the beans that grow around here. We’re a renewable resource.

–Dave Frasier, a striking rubber worker, Decatur, Illinois

There’s a war in Decatur, a war that to outside observers must seem strangely noiseless and inscrutable. Virtually a third of the city’s industrial work force is either on strike or locked out by its employers. The unions that represent these workers at the three affected plants–1,800 at Caterpillar, 1,250 at Bridgestone, and 760 at A.E. Staley–have joined forces, assisting each other in the day-to-day business of battle, sharing experiences and resources, and uniting in a rare instance of pan-union solidarity. To people who live in Decatur, the battle lines in this wrenching contest between labor and management are clearly drawn. Everyone knows which side they’re on and how they got there.

And yet from the outside the Decatur troubles are mysterious, baffling, and nonsensical. The news media are willing to admit that what’s going on in Decatur is important, maybe even historically significant. But no one seems to know why. Even as the Associated Press places the Decatur struggle among the ten most important news issues in Illinois (number four, to be exact), newspapers and TV cannot present the economic agonies of central Illinois as anything but a tragedy–unplanned, unintended, and just plain sad. What’s happening does not fit easily into the narratives of progress, consumption, and corporate benevolence that make up the official version of what’s happening in the late 20th century.

According to the ecstatic voices of the nation’s responsible opinion leaders, the 1990s are supposed to be a golden age of entrepreneurism, the dawning of a glorious new order called the “global economy.” As information technology conquers space and time to an extent previously unimaginable, the final steps in capitalism’s century-long process of “modernization” are finally being taken. Production everywhere is now in the hands of gigantic international mega-corporations. Capital can zip around the globe in minutes, crossing boundaries at whim, pooling wherever benefits and wages can be driven the lowest. Flexibility and impermanence have become the key aspects of all stages of production, and the certainties of the past–including job security and a living wage–must be abandoned in the interests of “competitiveness.”

As business has taken virtual command of the world economy, so its principles have begun to enjoy an unprecedented hegemony over the American mind. No previous period in American industrial history–not even the “conformist” 1950s–has seen such intellectual and cultural unanimity about the unassailable centrality–indeed, the desirability–of the profit motive as the organizing principle of social life. Both parties now compete for the patronage of the same affluent corporations; both scramble to enact legislation favorable to business and business only. The various pseudodisciplines of “business administration” thrive as they become, through default, the only academic fields spared the vicious campus infighting and epistemological questioning of the last decade. Theorists like Francis Fukuyama trumpet the demise of dissent, and politicians like Newt Gingrich do Calvin Coolidge one better: not only is the business of America business, but the culture and learning of America is business also.

The efficacy of the “free market” is now recognized to be a fact of nature: immutable, inevitable, and inexorable. It’s as if the entire country had suddenly come around to the bizarre worldview expressed by the Microsoft Corporation, one of the leading beneficiaries of the new dispensation, in a recent TV commercial: “Business is the engine of society.” It’s the unstoppable bullet train of history. There is nothing outside it–or to be precise, says Microsoft, “no jobs, no products, no competition, no advancements”–and there’s certainly no point in attempting to resist it.

But just watch for a few minutes more, and you’ll witness a curious, inexplicable, and horrifying sight. Last June 25, for reasons known only to themselves, the Decatur police used pepper gas to attack a group of locked-out union workers who were nonviolently blocking the entrance to the Staley plant. Even though we live in a violence-jaded age, the scene that resulted (captured, of course, on videotape) was a horrible thing to behold, perhaps because one realizes that if this could happen to these people it could happen to anybody: masked and gloved cops methodically assaulting people who are sitting, arm in arm, with their backs to the police. The viciousness that ensued was repulsive not only because the workers were visibly incapable of having provoked the attack but because the police involved seemed to derive such obvious joy from discharging their weapons on the helpless, cringing protesters. Officers in the rear reach enthusiastically past their comrades so they too can spray their gas on the screaming, coughing pickets, who are by now rolling on the ground and covering their faces; one officer even turns a helpless man on his back, waits for the opportune moment, and then sprays the stuff directly into his face.

What mysterious passions could have brought on this eminently televisable burst of the small-town sadism so adored by viewers everywhere?

According to the management theorists of the global age, this shouldn’t be happening. The business regime that enjoys such total allegiance is said to be a benevolent one. It promises to look after all of us, all the people who will never make it into upper management, the people who will never pile up enough to invest heavily, the people who just work. As anyone knows who’s ever worked in an office, read one of the various best-sellers by Tom Peters, or picked up an airline in-flight magazine, today’s executive is obsessed with the mystical idea of “empowerment,” the secret ingredient by which the (Japanese) competition may be beaten.

“Empowerment” has brought about a corporate revolution, at least in the public-image realm: the Taylorism of prewar years, the efficiency-crazed process that conceived of workers as automatons, has been abandoned, replaced by a softer system in which workers are referred to by evasively sentimental terms like “stakeholders,” management and workers join forces in “quality circles,” and supervisors subscribe to the cult of “leadership,” according to which management is not merely the whip hand of capital but an association of natural-born “motivators,” people whose God-given task it is to relate the needs of production to those whose God-given task it is to produce. Our corporate masters now value workers as people, they treasure our information about how to do things (what some would call “skills”), and they will look out for us.

But labor unions are a different matter. As a standing rejoinder to the doctrine of the eternal benevolence of capital (“empowerment” had a wholly different meaning in Pullman in 1894), organized labor is just about as antithetical to the business-utopia ideology of Gingrich, Drucker, Microsoft, et al as it’s possible to be. Not only do union wage scales cut deeply into manufacturing profits, but unions challenge business at a basic level, a level on which capital feels it needs no longer tolerate challenges: the level of ideology. Repentant professional union buster Martin Levitt depicts management’s animosity toward unions in his recent Confessions of a Union Buster: “Today there are more than seven thousand attorneys and consultants across the nation who make their living busting unions, and they work almost every day. At a billing rate of $1,000 to $1,500 a day per consultant and $300 to $400 an hour for attorneys, the war on organized labor is a $1 billion-plus industry.”

At worst, unions are portrayed by management theorists and their devotees in politics, journalism, advertising, and TV as nests of demagogues, as quasi-criminal obstacles to the warm friendship and cooperation that would normally exist between owners and employees. At best, unions are obsolete remnants of the distant past struggling to maintain the power of no one but themselves. Either way, their day is done. As a December subhead in the Indianapolis Star characterized the Decatur battle, “Experts [management experts, they mean] see simultaneous strikes in Decatur as last big union fight in new global economy.”

Amid the great tides of capital sweeping the world, places like Decatur are becoming increasingly redundant and obsolete. While global business demands total flexibility, instant change, and an environment of permanent flux, Decatur (and most other industrial towns) is rooted far too securely in the political and cultural values of the past. It’s easy for the doltish TV commentators of Illinois to portray Decatur’s resistance as a wrongheaded rejection of the glories of progress. And clearly the language and the feeling of desperation in this once prosperous town are straight out of the 30s.

But the significance of the three battles in Decatur is far greater than platitudes would have it appear. In Decatur, quite by chance, all the various economic forces and trends that make up the New World Order have come together and, in broad daylight, dealt a sledgehammer blow to the ways of ordinary working people. In Decatur the myth of global prosperity under the benevolent rule of multinational “competitiveness” has debunked itself, publicly and forcefully. And in Decatur there has finally been a spark of resistance, a whispering of innovation in the tired ranks of dissent. While the fight here began over the fate of a small local union, the national labor movement increasingly realizes that its meaning and credibility are somehow on the line. And thus in Decatur, finally, have come the first hints of a long-awaited reawakening.

In 1988 the facts of the global economy were brought home to Decatur. After decades of more-or-less local ownership, the A.E. Staley Manufacturing Company, one of the city’s largest employers, was acquired as part of a hostile takeover of its holding company by the British sweetener conglomerate Tate & Lyle, PLC. To make matters even more portentous, much of the dirty work was done by that paragon investment banker of the decade, Drexel Burnham Lambert. The move was a good one for Tate & Lyle, a company that owns a number of sugar brands, among them Domino. One of Staley’s primary businesses has always been “corn wet milling,” the process of breaking corn down into a variety of chemical components, primarily starches and sugars, which are then developed into industrial ingredients. And the star performer of these ingredients during the 1970s was high-fructose corn syrup, which virtually replaced cane sugar in the U.S. and other markets as the soft drink sweetening ingredient of choice. To maintain a share of the world sweetener market, it was imperative that Tate & Lyle get a piece of the corn wet milling industry.

The international logic of capital may come cloaked in palaver about “competition,” but its fundamental impulse, particularly with respect to agribusiness, is toward conglomeration. In an extremely capital-intensive industry like corn wet milling, the barriers to entry are correspondingly high. In other words, it would have been next to impossible for Tate & Lyle to compete with the likes of Staley by setting up its own operation: the costs of doing so would have been too great. The only way for the company to “compete” in the sweetener business was to acquire one of its competitors.

It is difficult to imagine that such dealing can take place without fundamentally changing the relationship between a company’s owners and its employees. The management decisions of roving transnational capitalists are governed by a different set of values and imperatives than those of a company that grows organically over a long period of time, whose management and directors remain rooted in the community and are subject to the sanction or opprobrium of that community.

According to Local 7837 of the United Paperworkers International Union (which has represented workers at Staley’s Decatur plant since the UPIU subsumed the local’s former international union, the Allied Industrial Workers, in September 1993), inklings of these new imperatives appeared shortly after Tate & Lyle’s takeover. In a 1993 report called “Deadly Corn,” the Staley workers’ local union charges that their company’s change of ownership brought with it “a big change in management’s attitude toward safety.” Among the dangerous new practices alleged are an increased reliance on poorly trained and incompetent subcontractors and a practice of shifting hourly workers into jobs in which they have little experience. The accidental death of mechanic James Beals in 1990 underscored for the union what it claimed had been a general, noticeable deterioration in plant safety. And sure enough, at the conclusion of a detailed investigation in 1991, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined Staley $1.6 million for a total of 298 health and safety violations.

Even more disturbing to Staley workers was a series of actions taken by the new multinational management in the year and a half before their contract was due to expire that seemed calculated to anger the workers. They say management became much more rigid in matters of discipline, verging on what longtime local bargaining committeeman Dan Lane calls “Gestapo tactics.” Work rules were changed, incorporating harsher punishment for minor infractions. Managers started threatening workers with discharge on a more regular basis. Workers were often subject to discipline for conduct as innocuous as reporting to first-aid stations after minor injuries–a strategy, in Lane’s opinion, calculated to intimidate those who might otherwise file grievances. Injuries increased, say workers, in large part because workers were assigned to tasks outside their areas of training or because routine safety procedures were habitually disregarded. Beals, a mechanic, died performing a dangerous task that union officials insist should have been assigned to a boilermaker. Lane claims that his case was not isolated. “We’ve had a large number of near misses,” he says. The company cared more about short-circuiting the grievance process, he alleges, than it cared about safety.

For years Staley had retained the contractual right to subcontract outside labor for in-plant maintenance tasks. By the middle of 1991 many of the unionized hourly workers were noticing larger-than-usual numbers of subcontracted laborers in the plant. There were widespread suspicions that these subcontractors, whom even the union maintenance staff didn’t know, were management spies or replacement workers in training. Their fears may have been justified–Staley later hired much of its replacement labor through the scab firm Harmony Construction in Louisiana.

In the first months of 1992, as workers remember it, Staley management began asking union laborers in the Decatur plant to compose detailed written manuals describing the operations and techniques of their jobs. Even though the company had long sponsored various labor-management cooperation schemes, this manual-writing push immediately rang alarm bells. Workers met it with the same skepticism and resentment with which they’d viewed Staley’s past attempts to court the participation of workers in “quality circles” and the like.

However, managers cast the effort as part of a company-wide “job safety analysis.” “The company’s plan all along,” says Royal Plankenhorn, a senior process operator with 20 years at Staley, “was to force a strike. They’d hand your ‘safety manual’ along to the next guy, the scab that replaces you. You’ve told him how to do your job, and there’s no glitch in production. They don’t miss a beat.”

By the end of 1991, the local union membership was tense. They sensed that Staley was grinding an ax, and they wanted to prepare for a fight. Through a regional union organizer, the local leadership arranged to have Mark Crouch, a professor of labor studies at Indiana University, come to the union hall to advise the membership on their situation and their options. Before visiting Decatur, Crouch asked the local to compile a file of information relating to their concerns. As he went through the data, Crouch was struck by what he terms “clear signs” that Staley management was planning to provoke a strike. Especially clear was the attempt to prepare operations manuals. “Anytime an employer is going to get involved in a strike or a worker replacement strategy,” Crouch says, “he has to know either that there is a readily available supply of people out there with the skills he needs, or that he has a way to capture the skills his workers have so that he can transfer them to somebody else.”

Crouch also noticed a series of management changes that shook out some of the more respected old guard.

Crouch tried to impress on the local’s members his belief that the company was counting on them to react confrontationally, that it was simply waiting for a pretext to replace them. It was important for the workers to come up with a strategy that would allow them to fight on their own terms. The fact that this warning came almost a year before the contract was due to expire gave the union time to reenergize its shop floor communication network and to prepare psychologically for a fight, Crouch believes. The local set about making a budget for the fight the members saw coming, and raised its monthly union dues from $18 to $100.

That almost every union member voted for the increase–and that there was almost complete compliance–reflected the grim reality of recent labor struggles in central Illinois. The members of Local 7837 recalled the recent quashing of a large strike by Caterpillar workers, and they were determined not to succumb to the same fate. “We’d seen just around this area,” explains veteran power systems operator Art Dhermy, “that strikes don’t get you anything but lost pay.”

The contract that was ultimately proposed by Staley’s new management, in September 1992, seemed to the workers designed to force a strike. According to what the company called its “best and final offer,” workers would have to abandon important elements of the seniority system and settle for a less hospitable grievance process. Most objectionable of all, workers were to begin a 12-hour rotating schedule according to which each of four shifts would work a month on a 12-hour night shift, then a month of 12-hour days.

The benefits to the corporation were obvious: an entire shift would immediately be eliminated. But for workers, the demand was an outrage. The struggle for the eight-hour workday is one of the sacred stories of American labor, a cause for which a vast number of people have fought and died (it was this radical idea, among other things, that precipitated Chicago’s infamous Haymarket riot). The eight-hour day allows workers a life and a humanity outside the factory, and this is precisely what Staley’s demands seemed designed to take away.

The 12-hour day “takes these people out of anything and everything that is a community-based activity, related to anything outside of work,” says Crouch. “That’s everything from bowling leagues to little league to church to running for public office. You wind up living to work rather than working to live. People who work in these places don’t even have the same schedules. If you want to see the destruction of the American family, there is no better way than to put the heads of the household on a rotating shift.”

Again the actions of Staley management typify the direction, with all its apparent contradictions, of contemporary business thought. Even as it made demands that it knew its unionized workers could not accept, Staley still talked the “empowerment” line. It sponsored cooperative programs between workers and management, issued statements about “elimination of we/they perceptions,” and mouthed standard workplace pieties like “trust, confidence, and pride at high levels.” While these two aspects of management behavior might seem contradictory, there is in fact no real dissonance between Staley’s “empowerment” patter and its apparent disregard for workers’ safety and expertise. Both are arms of the fundamental management drive to rid their factories of the alien union presence.

“The first principle of the ‘union-free environment’ was to co-opt the ‘voice’ function of unions, to give employees the idea that the boss would listen to them,” historian Peter Rachleff writes. “This principle spawned a dazzling array of programs–quality circles, quality of work life programs, labor-management cooperation, employee involvement, the team concept–all of which were intended to give employees the opportunity to communicate with management, or at least the idea that they could.”

The contract that Staley offered its union workers may have guaranteed their right to remain unionized, but workers believe management’s intent was quite the contrary: provoke a strike, hire replacements, and thus achieve the much sought after union-free workplace. “‘There’s no way the workers will accept it,'” is how Don Rhodes, a feed dryer operator with 20 years experience at Staley, summarizes management’s thinking. “Their second thought was, ‘If they don’t accept it, they’re striking. If they strike, we’ll permanently replace them.'”

As both sides of the conflict are aware, the years since 1980 have been extraordinarily bad ones for organized labor, and, based on their knowledge of events like the bitter Hormel strike of 1985-’86 and the failed Caterpillar strike of 1992, Staley management could count on a victory in case of a walkout. Labor writer David Moberg summarized the situation in 1993 in the Chicago Tribune: “It may seem odd that an employer, not labor union members, would want a strike. Yet during the past decade, many companies have seen a strike as their opportunity to permanently replace longtime workers with nonunion strikebreakers.”

The Staley workers’ union could not agree to the company’s “best and final offer,” but neither could they back up their own position with traditional methods. As Art Dhermy puts it, workers could “either go on strike, accept their conditions, or find the other way. We decided to go the other way.” As Staley management proceeded to impose its contract, including the hated 12-hour day, the union turned to a number of innovative strategies that had been suggested by a pair of labor consultants who were brought in early on.

In June 1992, Dave Watts, president of the Staley local, then 837, invited labor activist Ray Rogers to pitch the local on the idea of running a “corporate campaign.” Rogers, a partner in a firm called Corporate Campaign, Inc., is widely acknowledged as one of the pioneers of the strategy. The basic principle of a successful corporate campaign, according to Rogers, is to bring irresistible economic and political pressure to bear on the targeted company, which can be most readily achieved by alienating the company from the financial and other corporate partners that are its lifeblood. Anything that will accomplish this is theoretically fair play. “A corporate campaign is viewed as having a starting point A and an end point Z,” Rogers is fond of explaining. “Point Z is the total annihilation of the adversary. We know that if we proceed from point A to point Z, there is some point C in between where the adversary will break down and compromise.”

The local union was suitably impressed, and Rogers was hired on as a consultant. With the help of Corporate Campaign’s impressive printing capabilities and mailing list, the local was able to raise money and disseminate literature telling its side of the story. Mailings were sent to union members and labor activists all over the midwest instructing them to boycott not only Tate & Lyle-owned sugar brands, but a couple of bank chains on whose boards two Staley executives served as directors. The banks quickly buckled, and to the exultation of the union, the Staley executives resigned from their boards. Similarly, the Miller Brewing Company, a substantial customer of Staley, severed its relationship with the company when attention was turned to it.

Despite these victories, the extent to which the pressure on Staley’s corporate associates will succeed is still to be seen. Currently the union is trying to pressure Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola, Staley’s largest sweetener customers, to decline to renew their contracts with the company. Judging from the statements of spokespeople for these companies, neither is willing to change its business relationship with Staley at this time. Nor is the State Farm Insurance Company, which was made a target of the UPIU corporate campaign because of its large stake in Archer Daniels Midland, the largest shareholder in Tate & Lyle.

Just last week UPIU 7837 reluctantly terminated its relationship with Rogers, although not because the members felt he was ineffective. “He got us on the map,” said local spokesman Ron Van Scyoc. “We owe him a lot of allegiance.” But many members weren’t happy with the effort being made by the AFL-CIO and even their own international union to help their cause, and they suspected the presence of Rogers was the reason.

Why? Rogers had a history of confrontation with some of the leadership of organized labor itself, most notably during the United Food and Commercial Workers’ acrimonious strike against a Hormel meat-packing plant in Austin, Minnesota. That nine-month strike ended in 1986 when the international went over the heads of the more militant Local P-9, agreed to a new contract with Hormel, and put P-9 in trusteeship. Rogers’s corporate campaign, while overwhelmingly sanctioned by P-9’s membership, was one of several points of contention between the local and the international.

Asked whether deeper involvement by the international in Decatur will come tied to a demand for more control over the campaign against Staley, Van Scyoc said, “We made it clear that we conceded on this one point, and that in return they should allow us to maintain control of the campaign.”

At the same time Rogers was advising Local 7837 on its corporate campaign, members were preparing for a “work to rule” campaign. The latter, a tactic invented years ago by the Industrial Workers of the World, has been popularized of late through the efforts of Jerry Tucker, the leader of a reform movement in the United Auto Workers. Effectively executed, a work-to-rule campaign can cripple productivity more effectively than a strike, with the added benefit that the rank and file remain on the company payroll. Advised by Tucker, union workers began to follow instructions for every task to the letter, adding no initiative or know-how that was not explicitly stipulated in job specifications. Suddenly workers had to be instructed in the basic operation of machines they had run for years–in some cases, machines they understood much better than did the supervisors who had been brought in by Tate & Lyle.

“When they imposed their ‘best and final offer,’ then we chose to work to rule,” remembers Don Rhodes. “To let them know that we do do more than just our jobs. We didn’t just go out there, adjust something, and walk off. We adjusted it, checked it, did this, did that, make sure everything runs properly. So we decided, if they’re so smart, we’re so stupid, we’ll do only what they tell us to do.”

“Work to rule is an innovative tactic in labor, a new way of fighting back when you feel the corporation wants to throw you on strike, and you’re just not strong enough to withstand a strike,” explains Steven Ashby, labor historian and member of a Chicago solidarity committee for the Staley workers. “You slow production down by doing only what you’re told to do. You don’t use all the skills and experience that–what is the average in that plant, 28 years?–you don’t bring that to work with you. You leave it at home. They [at Staley] had cut production significantly; the estimates were at least from a third to a half.”

Working to rule may sound like jolly high jinks, but workers emphasize that it can be difficult to implement. “The work ethics and the knowledge of this group of people are probably some of the best in Illinois . . . so that was really hard for a lot of people to do,” says Dick Schable, a sheet metal worker with 27 years experience in the Staley plant. “We’re all law-abiding citizens, pretty much; we’re all, pretty much, over the age of 40. So this isn’t some rebellious young group that just came to the work force and are trying to make waves. These are people that have been well-established in this plant for a number of years.”

Ashby agrees. “It’s very hard to not do your job if you take a lot of pride,” he says. “When you work for a living, you tie up a lot of your integrity and take pride in the fact that you know more than the foreman. To turn your brain off makes life miserable. To not do a good job is more difficult than to do a good job.”

What makes work to rule so effective is its vivid political implications. By working to rule, laborers strike at the heart of the above-mentioned contradiction in current doctrines of “empowerment.” Suddenly all those cherished notions of worker-manager cooperation evaporate, all those “quality circles” are broken, “leadership” seems not to reside in the “leaders” after all. Workers know how to run the plant; management doesn’t. And by simply withdrawing that knowledge, workers provide a maddening reminder that workers are empowered already, that they understand “cooperation” better than any MBA can ever imagine, and that they will approach management on their own terms.

“One of the powers that I think work to rule gives you,” continues Don Rhodes, is this: “For years you went out there and you did your job, see, and the companies really didn’t have to do that much except for making sure you’re there. They didn’t have to make any decisions. I think the thing that scared the company the most was when they realized that to work to rule, we started using this [our heads] instead of this [our backs]. They looked over and said, “Hey, they’re using their minds. We have lost control. If they start using their mind and target it towards us, we’ve lost control of that plant.’ And they’ll spend millions of dollars [getting it back]–that’s what this is all about, control. And we took that power and control away from them.”

Working to rule was a political attack on the theories so beloved by Staley’s multinational management. And in business literature the tactics of the Staley workers were discussed explicitly in political terms. As usual, one must turn to the private literature of business to find such theses stated explicitly: the most enlightening account of business thinking about the troubles in Decatur that we could find was expressed in something called the Employee Relations Law Journal, a publication dedicated to pseudoacademic discussions of how labor unions might best be fucked over.

The work to rule strategy, legal scholar Herbert R. Northrup argued in March of 1994, is a much greater threat than its immediate challenge to efficiency makes it seem: taking for granted the validity of contemporary “leadership” pronouncements about management benevolence, Northrup recoils in horror at work to rule’s tendency “to destroy not only cooperation with management, but also any loyalty or respect for, or relationships to managers.” Singling out the doings of the Staley employees for particular censure, he insists in classicly clunking managementese that “this trashing of the management-employee relationship can be more destructive of the enterprise than the trashing of equipment because it may well take longer to rehabilitate effective relationships than to rebuild machinery,” and that it “may, therefore, have impacts that are more damaging than those that emanate from a traditional strike.”

Work to rule also seems to have been understood as a political attack at Staley headquarters. By June of 1993 plant efficiency had been seriously reduced; and, charging its union work force with “sabotage,” management resorted to perhaps the only technique for dealing with labor that will still put you on the wrong side of American public opinion: the lockout.

The crucial third part of a successful labor struggle, according to Steven Ashby, is community outreach. “We have to show that we can overcome our differences; we have to reach out to the African American community, the clergy, and so forth. That’s the meaning of the slogan, ‘It’s our solidarity against theirs.'” Shortly after the Staley workers were locked out, Ashby, his wife C.J. Hawking–a minister–and two colleagues formed a Chicago solidarity group. One of their first activities was to hold a demonstration outside the State of Illinois Building to advocate full unemployment benefits for the locked-out workers. Their demonstration, which coincided with a demonstration by a group of workers at the state capitol, apparently sent the point home to state legislators: for the first time in Illinois’ history locked-out workers were granted unemployment benefits. The Chicago group has pitched in mightily, raising over $125,000 and organizing a number of benefits, including one by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

While Ashby and Hawking are willing to put their years of organizing experience to work, they express deep admiration for the members of UPIU 7837 who have made of their adversity an opportunity to transform labor politics. And that has meant tackling the difficult issue of race relations. Black members of the local invited white members to join them in Decatur’s 1994 Martin Luther King Day parade, and together they marched carrying labor placards in defiance of a city ban. Not only were they the largest marching party in the parade, they also put on what turned out to be the largest interracial demonstration in the city’s history. Jeanette Hawkins, one of the march’s organizers, a few months later became the first woman and the first African American elected to the local’s bargaining committee.

Men and women who have spent decades as hourly laborers are now being sent around the country, to union halls and to Ivy League business schools alike, raising funds and relating the experiences of the Staley workers to anyone who will give them a sympathetic ear. “I know I’m not fluently educated in English,” admits Frank Travis. “But people in America are getting tired of people getting up and fluently speaking, fluently cynical and full of bullshit. They’re tired of it and they want to hear honesty.”

Travis has a witness in the person of striking rubber worker Dave Frasier. Last July, Frasier’s union, the United Rubber Workers, went on strike against six Bridgestone/Firestone tire plants, including the one in Decatur, for many of the same reasons that have caused the Staley workers to be locked out. Like Staley, Bridgestone/Firestone wants to impose rotating work shifts. Its “best and final offer” also cuts premium pay for holiday work, increases employee health-benefit contributions, institutes a two-tier pay scale, and ties pay increases to company-set productivity targets. “These guys saw the handwriting on the wall,” Frasier says of the UPIU local. The URW is in a relatively weaker position, having been lured into a strike few outside the union think they can win. “You could see what was going on with the labor movement, that they were doing their best to break us. And our people did not respond; their people did.”

The significance of this struggle is not lost on Frasier: his bosses have more to gain from breaking the strike than a list of concessions. The Wall Street Journal opines: “Analysts think it would be tough for the United Rubber Workers to maintain its clout in the industry if Bridgestone prevails in the strike.” Rubber workers are fighting what Mark Crouch sees as an attempt by the tire industry to establish a new pattern for contract bargaining. Soon after buying Uniroyal/Goodrich, Michelin approached workers at four of its plants and demanded rotating 12-hour shifts, threatening to shut plants down if the workers didn’t cooperate. The only union local to resist, in Fort Wayne, Indiana, was crushed in the spring of 1993. If the URW fails at Bridgestone, the pattern will be all but established.

This is ironic because “pattern bargaining,” as it was developed from the 1940s through the 70s, was meant to protect union labor from downward wage competition within a given industry. For example, the United Auto Workers has traditionally arranged similar contracts for workers at different companies in the agricultural implements industry, such as Caterpillar and John Deere. In fact, in the contentious contract negotiations of the late 80s and early 90s, Cat workers’ UAW representatives faithfully invoked the recent Deere contract as Caterpillar endeavored to break the pattern.

The “war zone” imagery now used by the striking and locked-out workers of Decatur was first invoked by the UAW during its five-month strike against Caterpillar plants around the midwest that ended in April 1992. When management threatened to permanently replace the workers, they returned to their jobs under conditions of Caterpillar’s final offer, which Cat workers felt was inferior to the contract recently ratified by the UAW and John Deere.

Although the strike had been defeated, many UAW locals were determined to maintain pressure on Caterpillar. “Contract action teams” were formed in Caterpillar plants to coordinate an “inside” campaign that incorporated a range of strategies from the concretely damaging, like working to rule, to the symbolic, like wearing red T-shirts and buttons with inflammatory slogans. Cat management responded with stricter and more frequent disciplinary action–what the union claims was harassment and other unfair labor practices. In June 1994 the UAW went back out on strike, mainly to protest the firing of a number of union activists.

The failed Caterpillar strike of 1991-’92 showed that pattern bargaining was no longer a guarantee for organized labor. The Staley lockout and Bridgestone’s intransigence revealed it to be a means for management to impose harsher working conditions and to ratchet down benefits.

For its part, management explains its position toward its workers by using the language and logic so commonplace in this era of global conglomerates: “competitiveness.” The Decatur plant, according to Staley spokesman J. Patrick Mohan, is just not efficient enough. “Decatur was being subsidized by our other plants, and returns were inadequate,” he explained to Britain’s Guardian in July. (Mohan would not return our phone calls.) “As we modernize, we need modern labor agreements.”

An official Staley newsletter puts it even more explicitly: “To succeed in business, companies must constantly work to improve efficiency and competitiveness. Staley is no different. We are changing the way we work in our Decatur plant to make it a strong, efficient operation that can compete effectively in today’s tough marketplace.”

This line of argument will be familiar to observers of public policy debates raging all across the country. Premonitions of damaged competitiveness cut a lot of ice with timid state and local politicians, who quake in fear of creating–or, more realistically, being accused of creating–the buzz-killing “bad business climate.” Meanwhile, large corporations blithely threaten workers at facilities in Rust Belt states that they can easily relocate in the land of “right to work”–places like Bill Clinton’s Arkansas.

The failed Caterpillar strike of 1991-’92 showed that pattern bargaining was no longer a guarantee for organized labor. The Staley lockout and Bridgestone’s intransigence revealed it to be a means for management to impose harsher working conditions and to ratchet down benefits.

For its part, management explains its position toward its workers by using the language and logic so commonplace in this era of global conglomerates: “competitiveness.” The Decatur plant, according to Staley spokesman J. Patrick Mohan, is just not efficient enough. “Decatur was being subsidized by our other plants, and returns were inadequate,” he explained to Britain’s Guardian in July. (Mohan would not return our phone calls.) “As we modernize, we need modern labor agreements.”

An official Staley newsletter puts it even more explicitly: “To succeed in business, companies must constantly work to improve efficiency and competitiveness. Staley is no different. We are changing the way we work in our Decatur plant to make it a strong, efficient operation that can compete effectively in today’s tough marketplace.”

This line of argument will be familiar to observers of public policy debates raging all across the country. Premonitions of damaged competitiveness cut a lot of ice with timid state and local politicians, who quake in fear of creating–or, more realistically, being accused of creating–the buzz-killing “bad business climate.” Meanwhile, large corporations blithely threaten workers at facilities in Rust Belt states that they can easily relocate in the land of “right to work”–places like Bill Clinton’s Arkansas.

If state and local officials are intimidated by the taint of diminished competitiveness, UPIU Local 7837 denies that it threatens Staley’s operation in the least. Says Royal Plankenhorn: “Today, the average grain mill worker makes $200 an hour in pure profit for his company. That’s after you pay for the materials, the power, the taxes, the building.”

As part of its preparation for the long fight ahead, the union consulted in 1992 with Professor Laurie Clements, director of the Labor Center at the University of Iowa and a scholar with experience analyzing the wet corn industry. His findings are a startling refutation of Staley’s official line. The average value added, per worker per annum, in the wet corn industry grew from $353,367 in 1988 to $425,783 in 1989. The figure for 1991, the most current available, reflects an average value added of $526,758, a towering figure for any industry. Furthermore, average revenue growth from 1973 to 1991 in the corn wet milling industry sailed along at an average rate of 8.8 percent per annum. Of 141 industry groups surveyed, only one–audio/visual equipment–experienced such a high rate of growth. In fact, only 11 of the 141 industries even sustained half the growth rate of corn wet milling over the same period.

Certainly, overall trends in an industry may not necessarily reflect the fortunes of every company that operates within that industry. But when an industry exceeds the norms of business in general to the extent that corn wet milling has, it is difficult for any single player to fail. And Staley certainly has not. In recent years, Tate & Lyle’s most profitable sectors have been in the North American corn processing industry. In an open letter to the mayor of Decatur, union officials stated as much, declaring: “Before we can give up any of the things that our members have earned over the years, we must have proof that the Staley Decatur plant is not competitive. The union’s bargaining committee has repeatedly asked the company to show exactly how Staley has lost its competitive edge, and never received any information.”

If the logic of competitiveness were as all-important as it is said to be, Staley’s chief rival would be agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), which is also based in Decatur. Instead, as the locked-out Staley workers frequently point out, the two companies constructed a slurry pipeline between the ADM and Staley plants in Decatur during the tense months leading up to Staley’s labor negotiations. Workers are convinced that this was an intimidation tactic designed to show that ADM would come to Staley’s aid in the event of a work stoppage. They further point out that ADM holds the largest ownership stake in Tate & Lyle (7.3 percent), giving its competitor considerable control over the fate of Staley and its work force.

“Narrow business logic says that if one of them is economically in trouble, its competitor should be in a position to take advantage of that in the market,” Clements points out. “What we have here is the direct opposite. They can move the slurry across the city to keep whatever plant going. The notion of open competition sounds very dubious to me.”

“Competitive with whom?” asks Ray Rogers. “It’s very clear who they’re not competing with. As far as we’re concerned, this is simply collusion between two companies during contract negotiations.”

More nettlesome, then, is the question of why Staley is willing to risk so much to extract concessions from its Decatur workers. “When you look at the profitability and productivity figures for this industry,” wonders Laurie Clements, “on the face of it you would say there is so much money being made in this industry at the moment, why would you want to jeopardize that by not having people working?”

Never in our lifetimes have labor unions constituted a force of real opposition to the order–economic and philosophical–of corporate America. Sure, as students of history we were aware that trade unionism was once a dynamic political force, and so on. But in the years since World War II, labor had settled into the comfortable, complacent pattern that is now referred to as “business unionism.” It was forever proclaiming its partnership with big business, affirming the foreign policies of Republican presidents, protecting its own interests as sedulously as any investment banker.

But in Decatur, this has slowly begun to change.

Last October 15, some four months after the violent gassing of the Staley workers appeared on national TV, over 7,000 union members, their families, and supporters from across the country gathered in Decatur. The vacant lot next to the UAW hall teemed with people in red. “We’ll NEVER Forget Labor War of ’94,” read one T-shirt. “Union spouse with attitude,” announced another. A speaker instructed the vast audience in the tactics of nonviolence. “Injury to one,” he shouted at the conclusion of his speech. “Injury to all!” the crowd responded–the slogan of the old IWW, for years but a dead memory. The podium even made a reference to Joe Hill.

As the workers marched out onto one of Decatur’s main streets, orderly, well organized, and bearing a profusion of American flags, they were watched at every step by worried police who scrambled ahead of the parade to radio which way it’s turning, which streets it’s going to be blocking. Their concern was justified, since the workers carried banners with such menacing legends as “Corporate Greed Is Tearing Decatur Apart,” and “Labor Rights Civil Rights.” And yet there was no question of gassing this time, the throng was too immense. The enforcers of order could do little more than get out of the way and keep the good people of Decatur at least a block from the parade, at one point even abandoning a police cruiser, its flashing lights left turning inconsequentially, in the middle of an intersection where it was quickly engulfed by the marchers.

The parade mounted an enormous viaduct that passes over the Staley plant and stopped in the very middle. Below on all sides were the Staley buildings, and the odor from the chemical processing within was intense, a graphic illustration of why the Staley workers’ concerns about job safety were so urgent. People could barely breathe. Everywhere they were clamping handkerchiefs over their noses and mouths. High up on a catwalk inside the plant a lone uniformed figure videotaped the parade, which now stretched far into the distance, red shirts, placards, and American flags challenging, just for this one day, the country’s official corporate order. The tableau put one in mind of a Capra movie, with portly old corporate men (of course they are in fact tanned, slim, well tailored, and completely assured in their righteousness) cowering in their offices as the People reclaim the geography of their town for themselves. Father Martin Mangan of the Saint James Catholic Church in Decatur came forward and did the honors, rechristening the bridge “Workers’ Memorial Viaduct” in honor of Jim Beals, the man who died on the job at Staley in 1992.

The march came to an end about an hour later in an enormous intersection near the Caterpillar plant, where operations mysteriously had been called off for the day. On the way we were videotaped by uniformed paramilitaries on the grounds of the Firestone plant, videotaped by uniformed men in the backseats of slowly moving police cruisers, and probably also videotaped by the noisy state police helicopter (perhaps the noisiest they could find) that droned in circles overhead all day. The powers-that-be in Decatur were doing their level best to make these people feel like criminals.

Everything we saw that day put us in mind of the labor radicalism of the 1930s and before, the years of labor’s great accomplishments. The lethargy and complacency of the postwar years were nowhere to be found: they had dissolved in the clouds of pepper gas back on June 25. What we saw was a new phenomenon, a social movement that had no place in the orderly world of people who had been born since the war.

The impassive, mechanical, almost porcelain face of a reporter for some TV station (“3!” read the microphone in her pocket), no doubt a well-known figure to viewers in Champaign or Peoria, emerged like clockwork from a van at the march’s beginning and ending. Who knows how she explained it to her audience.

In his study of the landmark Hormel strike of 1985-’86, Peter Rachleff suggests that after years of disheartening defeats, labor may be on the verge of one of its periodic resurgences. While “business unions,” top-heavy with bureaucracy, seem to be capable of little more than slowly negotiating their own extinction, elements of a new labor movement are emerging in response to the hostile climate of the 1980s. Echoing many of the tactics and slogans of the old IWW, this new unionism involves a much greater role in decision making for the union rank and file, as well as an ideological commitment to the working class as a whole, rather than limiting their efforts to their own immediate interests. Both ideas have been manifested powerfully in Decatur.

Locked-out Staley workers that we talked with noted again and again the participation of the membership as a whole in the making of important union decisions, and were careful to describe this involvement of the rank and file as a crucial element of their battle with Staley. “The leadership saw that they couldn’t do things in a conventional manner, and they . . . wanted more of a democratically controlled system, so that everybody had a voice and could participate in this,” says Dick Schable. “That’s really what unions are about, and I think that unions as a whole have lost some of that throughout the years and we need to gain that back. Because it is the rank and file that run a union. . . . It is the rank and file that make decisions.”

“Dave [Watts, president of UPIU 7837] realized that a fight of this magnitude is not won and fought by the leadership,” agrees Royal Plankenhorn, speaking to us at a packed solidarity meeting. “It takes the whole union to fight back. And if they don’t have the knowledge of what’s going on they can’t fight back. Unions at the local level are more democratic than at any other level . . . ’cause we are the union. Not those guys sitting up front. It’s us sitting here at this table and everybody else sitting out here in the audience tonight. We’re the union. We run this show.”

In fact, as its proponents point out, the union’s work to rule strategy is impossible without the near-unanimous participation of the membership. “You don’t do work to rule successfully unless the ranks take it up,” says Steven Ashby. “They went unit by unit, department by department, and took the contract and discussed it line by line. They’d talk about it in groups, and in the bars after work and in the plant. And they did this until everybody understood. . . . The idea of work to rule definitely came from the ranks. They had advisers giving them suggestions, but it was taken up wholeheartedly and the tactics were devised very creatively on the shop floor.

“You can’t do work to rule from the top down, by definition,” Ashby continues. “If you don’t have the membership involved, leading the campaign, then it won’t work. It’s exciting that it’s being brought up, but at the same time it’s very threatening to many traditional trade union leaders that do not encourage membership involvement.”

There has been a similar change in the language and ideology of labor in Decatur. In opposition to management’s talk about “competitiveness,” the striking and locked-out workers speak of “solidarity.” In Decatur one sees and hears the word everywhere: on T-shirts, on bumper stickers, as graffiti on overpasses. But while “competitiveness” has been emptied of meaning, the events in Decatur have done the opposite to “solidarity,” giving new significance to what was, until quite recently, a platitude, a slogan that leaders might throw around when rousing the troops for strike action, but that was forgotten as quickly as demands were met.

Don Rhodes offers a succinct example of the word’s new meaning when he says that the only way to combat multinationals is by “uniting in solidarity.” The fight is “for all working people all over the world. Not just union people.” If the events in Decatur have any greater significance, ideas like this one are where it begins: the rediscovery of the working class. The workers in Decatur have realized that what has happened to them is part of a global pattern–a pattern that can only be successfully resisted by the united action of all working people, regardless of race or nationality, of what union they belong to, of whether they belong to a union at all.

“This struggle is about winning a fair contract,” observes Steven Ashby, “but it is also about uniting a divided and forlorn working class, which is . . . divided along racial lines and gender lines and age lines and so forth. And it is about reinvigorating and reforming and mobilizing a labor movement, which is a big task about the future of the country.”

But while the concept of class seems simple on the surface, it is in fact a political mine field, as commentators from Paul Fussell to James Loewen have recognized. For decades it has been high-school-civics orthodoxy that America is a “classless society,” that our fabled prosperity has made virtually everyone a member of the Great Middle. Just watch as politicians wiggle this way and that to avoid uttering the dreaded words “working class.” Although sociologists and historians use notions of class quite routinely, it is considered vaguely treasonable in politics and other public forums to talk about class at all. This unwillingness to recognize the realities of social class is, we have noticed, a class marker in itself: people born to substantial means seem to have no trouble talking about what it is that makes them different and who it is they are different from; even members of the lesser bourgeoisie know that no matter what misfortunes they encounter in life, they will never work in a factory.

But paradoxically, class has for years been a taboo subject for the American working class. Class is, of course, the fundamental activating principle of organized labor. The primary weapon of labor unions, the strike, depends on class consciousness–either overt or latent–to succeed: it can only be effective if other working people, recognizing that the victory of the union is a victory for everyone, refuse to cross a picket line. But in the aftermath of the great victories of the 30s and 40s, union leaders insisted on describing their followers as “middle-class.” Measured strictly by income, this was clearly true, and organized labor could justly pride itself on the fact that it had singlehandedly democratized American prosperity, made the comforts of life available to working people.

As they abandoned the idea of the working class, though, American unions fell into the complacent pattern for which they are so often criticized today. Organized labor became satisfied and sectarian, concerned narrowly with improving the wages of particular workers in particular industries and largely forgetting about everyone else. Some assert that union weakness today is a direct product of labor leadership’s unwillingness to grapple with issues of class. After World War II, Steven Ashby observes, “They . . . gave up this class consciousness, class struggle perspective of “all workers everywhere.’ They took what they could get for themselves, the union leaders at least. And that led to significant isolation, and that is still something we’re struggling with today.”

As the workers in Decatur are realizing, today such a limited perspective is rapidly becoming impossible. Since no single union acting alone can prevail against a multinational, labor must rediscover the principle of class not just for reasons of politics but simply to stay alive. And this perhaps is what makes the Decatur events so portentous: with the concept of solidarity the strikers there are addressing themselves to the entire working population. They aren’t just looking to get back to the more-or-less comfortable ways of the past while the rest of the country’s workers are slowly forced into longer hours and lower wages.

“We have to get back to the concept of the IWW,” locked-out Staley worker Royal Plankenhorn maintains. “One big union. Because we built these walls of internationals and locals and stuff, and it’s worked against us. It’s been, “Well, that’s his fight. Don’t bother me. He’s the one going through that. I’ve got a job.’ We can’t do that anymore. The fact is, we have to break down the walls that divide us because his battle is my battle, my battle is his battle, and your battle is my battle. We can’t succeed any other way.”

Speaking on the same theme, Mike Griffin, another locked-out Staley worker, insists that the complacency of recent union leadership, its abandonment of the all-encompassing working-class vision of people like Big Bill Haywood, has enabled the multinationals to roll back workplace gains that everyone assumed had been won for all time. “Big business needs an alternative work force, and that’s the scab,” Griffin says. “The scab is stealing your standard of living. But he’s also stealing your heritage, what the generations of workers before you fought to give you. And he’s stealing what you can give to your children and your children’s children. We went to sleep in the 60s and 70s, the labor leadership. We forgot our heritage, we failed to teach our kids. And now we’re paying the price. We’re fighting for the eight-hour day. Do you understand what that means? We have to fight a battle labor fought a hundred years ago! We’ve pissed away a legacy. Damn us!”

The rediscovery of class has had a profound effect on the Decatur workers’ vision of society and politics. When the Staley workers entered into their battle, most no doubt expected a fair shake from media, politicians, and police. They regarded themselves, after all, as patriotic, law-abiding citizens engaged in a self-evidently just cause. Instead they have seen their struggle ignored, distorted, and (especially in the case of the police and local politicians) attacked outright–in the classic 19th-century pattern. The concept of class provides an explanation for these otherwise baffling antilabor biases in the nominally ‘objective’ fields of government and media: they are economic constructs like anything else, and they serve the needs of their creators.

“These are average American workers who have become politicized in their struggle,” Ashby says. “It’s been an education to find that the courts and the judges and the city council and the police and the company work hand in hand and are working against the workers. And the media as well. . . . There are not tens of thousands of Marxists running around Decatur, but there are a lot of people waking up to the fact that there are two classes and that the corporate class has a lot of institutions on its side. You’ll hear in very everyday language radical things said that come directly out of people’s experience, including when they got gassed by the police. This was a big shock to them, and it took a lot of education and discussion to figure out that the police individually may be nice people here and there, but ultimately they do the bidding of the corporation.”

The frustration was evident at the Staley workers’ union hall a few weeks ago, when, speaking from the floor, one locked-out worker told his colleagues, “Solidarity is the working-class politics. Not the Republicans, not the Democrats. Solidarity’s your politics.” Solidarity is “the ultimate answer for turning this thing around. Workers, black and white, men and women, are going to have to be shoulder to shoulder.”

Another man rose to speak. “The system is crooked and corrupt, totally corrupt,” he said. The only reliable politicians are the ones that “come from working-class backgrounds, that are working-class people.” By District of Columbia standards, where almost every member of Congress is a lawyer by profession, this would mean, uh, none.

“There is no tin god in Washington, D.C.,” this worker continued, “just a bunch of jackasses they call Democrats, and elephant asses they call Republicans.”

Striking rubber worker Dave Frasier was even more blunt. “The rich have got two parties,” he told us. “We need one.”

Attitudes toward the police have changed dramatically in Decatur since June’s pepper-gas incident. Before, the unions had gladly cooperated with the local police. According to one locked-out Staley worker, “Up till June 25, we had always talked to them about what our plans were–we’re going to do this demonstration on this day at this time–and that was all well and good until they pepper-sprayed us. This floor [the members of UPIU 7837] said, “That’s enough. We will no longer talk to the police. This is how they treat us. We will not put up with it anymore.’ So when [the rally on] October 15 rolled around, they didn’t know what we were doing because we didn’t tell ’em. And it drove ’em nuts.”

Workers think differently about the police now. “They’re hired thugs,” one man told us. “They’re not police.”

Workers have also perceived an antilabor bias from the Decatur media. Again, the pepper-gas incident was instructive. As locked-out Staley worker Art Dhermy remembers: “The Decatur station had their camera people there. In fact, their reporter got sprayed with pepper gas. They had the six o’clock news, she’s still got the runny nose, watery eyes, and the whole bit, and she reports about children being sprayed, this, that, and the other. Ten o’clock news–no mention of it.”

Nor can the media be relied upon to communicate the facts of the Decatur struggle to workers elsewhere. “You can’t base your life on the media,” one worker told us. “Because the media’s not gonna do us any favors if we’re not gonna do it ourselves.”

The workers in Decatur have set about spreading the gospel of solidarity, sending teams of “road warriors” around the country to speak to whatever groups will listen, to tell the story of the Decatur battle, and to “educate” workers everywhere. They have discovered that multinationals use similar strategies against labor wherever they do business, while workers remain fragmented and isolated in their individual unions.

“I’ve covered everything in the northern quarter of this country,” says Royal Plankenhorn. “I’ve been from Minnesota down to Missouri, and I’ve been all the way up the east coast. . . . And every time I go out and tell the story about what’s happened to us, these guys say, “You know, that’s happened to us, too.’ Everywhere we go.”

Without communication and solidarity among workers, though, the multinationals cannot be resisted. “Until somebody came and told them what was going on,” Plankenhorn continues, “they didn’t see what was going on. The same way we didn’t see what was going on until somebody came and told us what was going on. It’s education. We go out and educate these people. And they go out and educate somebody else. Somebody has come and said, “Hey, this is what has happened to us. You need to look for these warning signs.”‘

American labor is only beginning to comprehend the size and power of the forces arrayed against it, only beginning to understand the ramifications of capital’s international scope. “This goes beyond Decatur, Illinois, and beyond our national borders,” observes Mike Griffin. “What you’re looking at here is an all-out effort . . . to destroy the labor movement. They’re doing the same thing in France and Honduras and Canada and Haiti–I met with labor leaders from those countries two months ago in San Francisco. In order to generate this new world order–you’re looking at the IMF, the World Bank, the World Trade Organization, trying to create a worldwide two-class system. What is happening in Decatur is the cutting edge of a class struggle worldwide. They have to take out organized labor to get what they want. . . . We had better wake up as workers, union or nonunion, in America or elsewhere around the world. They have to destroy those that have the means to fight back and organize. . . . It has biblical proportions.”

As the strategies of the unions in Decatur have been designed to confront the business theories of the global economy, so has their discovery of solidarity confronted the prefabricated consciousness that is such a pervasive part of “information age” capitalism. The war in Decatur has been as much about conflicting ideologies as it has been about workplace conditions. As such, it strikes at the heart of the new international business order.

The single most remarkable business fact of recent years is the rise of the entertainment industry to national preeminence. Beneath the continual flood of business articles about this movie-giant (sorry, “content-provider”) merger and that cable-and-telephone system (“delivery-system”) buyout lurks one simple unspoken premise: sometime in the last 40 years or so consciousness became the foremost product of American business. As consuming grew more and more frantic, the molding of the public mind became ever more serious. And as information technology has washed away the local and particular in matters of production, sweeping unhindered across national boundaries, so it has done in matters of culture as well. The TV, movies, and popular music that are produced for us by the various culture industries have become the stuff of real life for most Americans. The imperatives of corporate America now dominate our thoughts as well as our working hours.

The genius of such a culture-intensive economy was made clear last November: it is a system without opponents. Unlike previous forms of capitalism, the obvious excesses of this one have energized no muckrakers, no populists, no socialists or anarchists. It has brought with it a politics in which even the feeble concessions to compassion of the Great Society are beyond the pale of acceptable discourse. So despite the rule-breaking fantasies of Wired magazine and the awestruck 20-something rebels whose images promote the IBM OS/2 Warp, the Information Age, it seems, is a regime without dissenters.

More depressing still is the sense of the absolute futility of doing anything about these changes that pervades intellectual discourse. The consolidation of power by the new class of Information Age executives is a fait accompli, and, as Christopher Lasch wrote, they have already quietly abandoned things like cities, public services of all kinds (especially schools), and even national identities. For common people the world is changing dramatically for the worse, but since the wealth of the new elites is secure, nothing–absolutely nothing–will be done. Our duty is not to ponder such matters, but to sit placidly in front of the TV, enjoy its 90-channel bounty, and let Schwarzenegger fight our battles for us.

Against such a backdrop, the rediscovery of the working class in Decatur is a remarkable thing, an awakening that could easily become the first step in a wider movement. At the October 15 rally, folksinger Anne Feeney singled out consciousness as the great difference between the victimized workers of the 1990s and their forebears of ages past. “In the 30s, people had nothing and they knew it. Today, people have nothing and they don’t know it. They’re sitting at home and they’re anesthetized.” But Jack Spiegel, a veteran of the labor battles of the 1930s, says, “The spirit is coming back.” By insisting on the hard, undeniable realities of class and exploitation, by refusing to forget the bitter struggles and the bloody victories of the past, the Decatur workers have put an ugly crack in the smooth, banal facade so recently perfected by the consciousness industry. In addition to the fight for jobs and conditions, the people of Decatur are struggling to reclaim the populist myth at the heart of the American imagination, the idea of a country organized around the real needs of its vast working population.

Perhaps it would be asking too much of mainstream media to report on the growing disaffection with the world they themselves have built. But the media are only too happy to present to you the world according to United Airlines (hard-working, satisfied executives returning in slow motion from strange but prosperous lands to Hometown USA in time to see little Caitlin in the school play), or the world according to General Motors (cars doing stunts and hard-working, satisfied executives sighing heartily in slow motion, dealing with people from strange but prosperous lands and looking out over this great country that they have built). This, then, is precisely the workers’ problem, as a veteran dissenter like Noam Chomsky never tires of pointing out: giving union representatives “equal time” to express their views on television (not that this is ever done, of course) can never allow them real parity. Capital controls the terms as well as the immediate content of the televisual discourse, and it is the myths of capital, not the stories of the Ludlow martyrs or the sainthood of Joe Hill, that are drummed into viewers’ heads 24 hours a day. To offer a spokesman for labor a few minutes (or a few seconds) in which to dispel the vast edifice of fable and ideology that is built up on television all day long is a farce that not even the most sympathetic and liberal-leaning network newscasters come anywhere close to redressing.

As Royal Plankenhorn observes, the media are not out to do labor any favors. If the newfound truths of the Decatur war are to survive and grow, they will have to be carried by the workers themselves, discussed in local union halls and on shop floors across the country. What is going on is fundamentally outside both the ideology and understanding of official American discourse. It cannot be made understandable or sold as a prepackaged life-style, and no matter how it progresses it will never be speakable on TV.

In the development of their thoughts and experiences, the workers in Decatur have followed a classic trajectory that some would call “radicalization.” Suddenly finding themselves on the receiving end of the grotesque, brutish demands of the new global business order, they have begun to perceive the system in ways that had been literally unthinkable. What were once normal, routine aspects of American life are now strange and menacing. Those who have experienced the war in Decatur will never again be able to watch the news without suspicion, to marvel innocently at the doings of Rambo, or to sit through the monotonous banquet of business fantasy that constitutes American mass culture without an overpowering sense of disgust. The doings of A.E. Staley, the media of central Illinois, and the Decatur police force have accomplished what a century of modern art could never do: they have transformed ordinary people into outsiders.

We wondered if, as such, the locked-out Staley workers were worried about being labeled “radicals” for the ideas and strategies they were using. Red-baiting has, after all, played a large and ignominious role in labor history. But what Decatur’s owners would no doubt denounce (if the sorely missed cold war was still on) as dangerous Red subversion is understood by the workers themselves as their patriotic, community-minded duty.

“Right now, a “radical’ is somebody that stands up and says enough’s enough, we ain’t taking no more,” says Art Dhermy. “Instead of taking what they give you and run. Standing up for what you believe in, standing up for what your grandparents and parents have fought for for 50 years to be able to give you as an inheritance. Is that too radical? It’s up to me now to stand up for my kids, and my grandkids. In fact, it’s almost too late for my kids. Its time for me, really, to stand up for my grandkids, so they have somebody for them to look up to and say, “My grandfather saved this and gave this to me as an inheritance gift,’ like my grandfather did for me when he fought the coal mine wars here in central Illinois. . . . If we don’t do it, where’s it gonna stop? It’s gonna stop when my grandkids are working for a dollar and a quarter an hour like I did when I was first married.”

“This is the resurgence of the labor movement. It’s not the end,” Plankenhorn says to those who perceive in the Decatur struggle a relic of the distant, benighted past. “Those people will fall by the wayside. Because they don’t have the guts to fight back. They’ve taken it so long and given the concessions to keep jobs, where they’ve forgot what we learned in the 30s and the 40s: that nothing was given to us, it was fought for. We didn’t fight for it; we’ve done our damnedest to give it away. Now it’s our turn. And if we don’t do it, then the middle class as we know it in this country will die. There will be two classes, and it will be the very very poor and the very very rich.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Steven D. Arazmus/Tom Frank, video courtesy Labor Vision.