Most people who complain about High Fructose Corn Syrup and the pervasiveness of corn derivatives in our food are worried about the human health effects of consumption and the unsustainable nature of corn mass-production. In Staley: The fight for a new American labor movement, Steven K. Ashby and C. J. Hawking remind us about another perspective on corn syrup: labor conflicts in the processing plants. The authors report on the events at the Staley corn processing plant in Decatur, Illinois in the early 1990s.
The Staley plant was founded 1909 by Gene Staley, who had very good relations with the workers:
He would talk to his employees. He would ask them what they needed. Sometimes it would be pay advancement, food, or coal, and when that employee got home, he had his food and coal delivered.
Gus Staley inherited the company after his father’s death, and although he had a different style of management, he still viewed the company as having a social responsibility to Decatur, and the company remained profitable. The Staley family’s relationship with the company ended in the 1975, however, with Gus Staley’s death. Thereafter, the working conditions began to deteriorate and reached a nadir when Tate & Lyle bought the company in 1988; their disregard for safety standards lead to the death of a worker in 1990.
In response, the workers utilized innovative labor tactics, called “work to rule,” where workers use their power on the shop floor to take control of the labor process. These legal tactics include slowing down the production process and following safety standards. Production was slowed, but the company reacted by locking out the workers for 30 months.
The book has a unique inside perspective because the authors spent significant time living with and interviewing the Staley workers and community members. The worker’s courage and creativity offers hope for the future of American labor, despite the immense decline that the movement has experience since the 1980s.