from the pages of October 1996

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The WarZone Foundation

By Benjamin Schaeffer

 

International labor leaders converged on Decatur this June 1 for the first WarZone Education Foundation conference. Unionists from France, Mexico, Bangladesh, and around the United States packed the UAW union hall to discuss the recent labor struggles of Illinois and relate them to the experiences of other workers from around the world.

Mike Griffin started the WarZone Education Foundation after his experience as a locked-out worker during the struggle with the A.E. Staley company in Decatur, Illinois. Its purpose is to strengthen the union movement around the world by teaching the lessons learned during the Staley conflict.

Back in 1993, the workers at Staley refused to accept contract concessions put forward by the company. One of the most outrageous demands was that the workers go on 12-hour rotating shifts. What this means is that one week you would work nights and the next week you would work days. This schedule takes a heavy emotional and physical toll on those who follow it. It also makes it impossible to be involved community life in any meaningful way. Put bluntly, such a schedule is inhuman.

Staley also wanted to erode seniority rights and undermine the grievance procedures. The message of the bosses was "We will have total control over the work environment." When the union local rejected this offer, the company locked the workers out of the plant and gave their jobs to "replacement workers", better know as scabs.

The Staley workers fought back. They organized a group of Road Warriors who traveled the nation and the world building awareness of the Staley struggle and raising much needed funds. They built an international network of support groups. This all came from grassroots efforts. The AFL-CIO and even their own international union failed to help them in their hour of need.

They heroically held out until December, 1995 when pressure brought to bear by their international union convinced a bare majority to vote for a contract not much different than the one they were offered in 1993. The action of their international, the United Paperworkers, was a betrayal. The workers had been conducting a boycott campaign against Pepsi, urging that company to stop buying sweeteners from Staley. Sources inside Pepsi assured the workers that Pepsi was indeed going to drop Staley, a move that might have led to victory. Just at that moment, however, the international union stepped in to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

Speakers at the WarZone conference promoted grassroots organization and cautioned against relying too heavily on the union bureaucracy. This theme was certainly shaped by the experience of the locked-out A.E. Staley workers. They were able to build an impressive international solidarity network without the support of the higher-ups in their union or of the AFL-CIO.

Time and time again they got empty promises of support from union officials who should have been standing solidly behind them. For instance, at the recent AFL-CIO convention, John Sweeney, then reform candidate for president of that organization and now president, promised that 40 staffers would be dedicated to helping the workers carry out their boycott of Pepsi. This help never materialized.

Another conference theme was the necessity of building coalitions among union locals and also between unions and community groups. The last few years in Decatur have brought labor unrest to Caterpillar and Bridgestone-Firestone in addition to A.E. Staley. This bound the workers in these union locals together by a common experience of struggle. Speaker after speaker from the Decatur labor movement emphasized the value, both practical and emotional, of forming strong ties of mutual aid between union locals. As a concrete manifestation of this spirit of solidarity, conference participants passed the hat to raise over $300 for locked-out workers in Charleston and Lemont, Illinois.

The conference also emphasized that the larger community has a part to play in union fights. A Decatur priest told how his religious convictions led him to join in the pro-union protest marches. Citizens from central Illinois and beyond contributed generously with food and cash in support of the Decatur workers.

Perhaps the most critical message of the WarZone conference was that transnational capitalism must be met with transnational labor solidarity. If capital can use its mobility across national boundaries to pit workers in different countries against each other, the international labor movement will be seriously weakened. However, cross-border linkages between workers can neutralize this strategy. A good example of such a connection is between American and Brazilian employees of Caterpillar. They have recognized their common enemy in their common employer and are moving forward together to promote their mutual interests.

An important use of international connections is fund-raising. The striking Liverpool dockworkers were able to raise ten of thousands of dollars by going to dockworkers in California, Oregon, and Washington. The Mexico City bus drivers' union (SUTUAR-100), struggling to resist the privatization of the bus system, has been able to raise money in the United States as well. During the lock-out at A.E. Staley, Decatur workers got contributions from around the globe.

One of the highlights of the conference was its international character. The struggles of union people from all around the world share many features. By meeting with fellow workers from other countries, one realizes that the hard times Americans suffer through today didn't just arise by a random combination of events. When the pattern of decreased social service spending, cutting national budget deficits, increased use of temporary workers, increased use of non-union labor, and privatization of essential government services is seen in country after country after country, even the most skeptical must start to wonder if there is something behind it all.

That something is the newly consolidated political power of transnational corporations. The union leaders from France offered an inspiring message of resistance to the New World Economic Order. They had participated in the strikes and protests that followed the French government's attempt to reduce its budget deficit by slashing the benefits of government workers. They vowed that any future French plans to hurt the workers would again be met with strong resistance. Imagine what politics in the United States would be like if the American working class was as militant as the French working class! If capital keeps up the pressure, that day will soon occur!

There was also extensive discussion about the American labor movement. Activists evaluated the Union Summer program of the AFL-CIO. This program put hundreds of new activists for union causes on the streets during the summer. People were pleased about the AFL-CIO's more active stance. However, many criticized the Union Summer focus on recruiting college students. Participants thought the skills of already existing grassroots labor activists should have been better utilized.

There was also concern that the Union Summer program might be turned into a vehicle for the Clinton re-election campaign. Normally, one thinks of unions as being firmly tied to the Democratic party so at first this stance might seem odd. However, the conference had many participants who were on their way to the founding convention of the Labor Party USA in Cleveland. These people seriously questioned whether the union movement can use the Democrats to bring justice to working people. Clinton's refusal to deal with issues important to workers and his betrayal on NAFTA and GATT has made people realize that the Democratic party is just as much a party of the bosses as the Republican party. The Labor Party USA seeks to give workers a political voice to counter the loud political voice of the bosses.

There were many union members who told the stories of their own struggles with capital run amok. Members of OCAW (Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers) 7-517 of the Uno-Ven refinery in Lemont, Illinois told how they were locked-out of their jobs after refusing to accept a contract that would have seriously eroded safety procedures in the sometimes deadly oil refinery where they work. They urged boycotts of `76' and Citgo gas stations, enterprises which are intimately connected to the corporation that runs the refinery in which they work.

Also, UPIU (United Paperworkers) workers from Trailmobile in Charleston, Illinois told how they were locked-out simply for asking for their first cost-of-living wage increase in 3 years. During that time inflation handed them a 10% pay cut. Just because they didn’t want their wages to fall back further, their employer locked them out. Trailmobile is owned by an Indonesian transnational with close ties to the military government that has ruthlessly committed genocide against the people of East Timor. Only in July did Trailmobile relent and let the employees back in the plant.

Bridgestone-Firestone workers urged a boycott of Firestone tires and the Sears stores that carry them. A representative of the SUTAUR-100 Mexico City bus drivers' union told how they were fighting privatization of the bus system. They have had to deal with a wave of government repression that landed many of the top union officials in jail. Only in July did international pressure force the Mexican government to release these prisoners.

A representative of the Bangladeshi workers told how they are resisting privatization of the jute industry and are fighting for a modest wage increase. The government of Bangladesh has met their demands with deadly violence.

This is the true face of global capitalism. Behind the smiling, utopian rhetoric of free trade hides a savage beast eager to destroy anything that gets in the way of its profits. Money knows no morality and today money holds nearly complete sway over international affairs.

What are common threads of all this? Transnational corporations look to squeeze every last possible drop of profit out of an enterprise and then some. Global financial institutions push privatization as a means to take away people's power over their local economic institutions. These global institutions, like the World Trade Organization or the World Bank, also want to break the power of workers, reducing people to burnt-out machines, so that nobody will have the guts to resist their New World Order.

One way to do this is to take total control of the work environment. The corporation of today demands flexible work schedules, which can mean 12-hour rotating shifts, mandatory overtime, sometimes no guarantee of getting 40 hours in a week, elimination of seniority protections, elimination of safety procedures (a critical issue since workers have recently died in the A.E. Staley plant and at the Uno-Ven refinery), and subcontracting-out labor to non-union, low-wage sources. When you top this off with a frequent refusal to grant even cost-of-living adjustments, you can easily see why workers around the nation and the world view themselves as under attack. A union means not only higher wages but also an ability for the workers to control the conditions under which they labor. Human beings cannot be psychologically healthy when they are treated as slaves or robots on the job. Work needs to adjust to human lives, not the other way around. How can anyone sustain a normal family life while working 12-hour rotating shifts? How can anyone keep a semblance of emotional health knowing that, because of gutted safety procedures, each action taken in the plant could result in death?

Over and over again at the conference, workers who'd struggled against incredible odds and suffered the deepest adversity, sometimes for years, said that, if they could go back to beginning and choose whether to do it all again, their decision would be the same. Each worker said that the self-confidence and independent spirit they had gained from standing up with their comrades against corporate tyranny had more than made up for the hardships. They will never again be subservient.

As for the future? The WarZone Education Foundation is up and running and will work to build international solidarity and inform the public. We must create community coalitions with labor unions, and we must work to build the Labor Party USA. The most important thing, though, is to make our voices heard. We should never be silent in the face of injustice. If we ignore it, it will grow and eventually there will be no safety for anyone.

We cannot let money, free of all human decency and feeling, rule the earth. One can imagine how horrible such a world would be. However, there is much cause for optimism that labor, via a new grassroots activism, will rebuild the fortunes of working class people around the world over the next decade