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Love Lane Lives - the boys & girls from the whitestuff

Love Lane Lives

The history of sugar in Liverpool and the effects of the closure of the Tate & Lyle sugar refinery, Love Lane

Blog Home > Sugar and Globalisation

Decatur, Decatur, it’s Matt’s kinda town

Written by Ron Noon at 09:41 on Tuesday, November 10th 2009


IN CASE YOU HAVE NOT SCANNED THE BLOG SUMMARY this is how it reads: “In less than a fortnight a blockbuster movie starring Matt Damon will be on general release. The star of the Bourne trilogy plays the role of Mark Whitacre, a corporate “whistleblower” for a company which was not only headquartered in a town affectionately known as “The Pride of the Prairie”, but which down to the early noughties was the biggest institutional shareholder in Tate & Lyle. Much of THE INFORMANT was filmed in Decatur, a town of 84,000, 175 miles south of Chicago, where not only Archer Daniels Midland was based but so too was Tate & Lyle’s lucrative subsidiary AE Staley Mfg Co.”

Below is an extract from a paper I gave to Jerry Tucker, an inspirational American trade union activist, in 1998. (FROM LOVE LANE LIVERPOOL TO DECATUR ILLINOIS: A BITTER SWEET STORY OF OUR GLOBALISED TIMES.) I’d never been to Decatur, (the closest I managed was Chicago earlier on this year), but because of my corporate watch over Tate & Lyle, my sugar chain had extended from Love Lane to an industrial town of 84,000 in Illinois, the heart of the American Mid-West.  I was keenly aware of the labor battles that blighted this town in the early 1990s, and determined to write about them. I’ve often suggested to students that HISTORY can be too neat and tidy looking back down the tracks from HINDSIGHT STATION so it is very important to try to imaginatively reconstruct the “mess” that so often faced the then contemporaries. Who would have anticipated events at AE Staley and particularly Archer Daniels Midland leading onto charges of PRICE RIGGING?

I read about the locked out AE Staley workers rejecting the company offer in July of 1995 and gaped with amazement at the other summer time news that the FBI had raided ADM headquarters, Staley’s ostensible competitor. It was that raid and its attendant publicity which has led onto Steven Soderbergh’s BLOCKBUSTER movie albeit 14 years later.  Soderbergh’s movie is about CORPORATE CRIME and the role played in practicing and exposing it by bipolar Mark Whitacre, played by Matt Damon.

I’m “dying” to see it on the 20th of November, but I know that the broader context of corporate greed and industrial strife which made Decatur a social metaphor for all that was going down in the HOUSE OF LABOR in the 1990s will not be featured in a movie that has already been described in the New York Times as “a deadly serious comedy about corporate malfeasance”! Soderbergh’s brief was not to view Decatur as a paradigm of the ongoing bitter sweet story of our globalised times but that story has been addressed by activists and present minded labour historians like Steven K Ashby and CJ Hawking. Their excellent book STALEY: THE FIGHT FOR A NEW AMERICAN LABOR MOVEMENT is not to my knowledge the basis of any forthcoming film scripts but it ought to be! Anyway the section reproduced below that I wrote was written in December 1997 and starts off with a reference to another stalwart trade union organiser that I corresponded with at the end of 1995, Art Dhermy.

“Art Dhermy’s response was that ‘they don’t want us back with an offer like that’. To ‘carry on the fight’ was the only way forward and as Mike Griffiths commented in January 1996, how many of us can say that after two weeks, two months, three months that we can still hold our members in a struggle like a strike. These folks did it for over two years and were presented an offer by a corporation that expected it to be accepted and it was rejected. The national… leadership expected it to be accepted as well.’ 

That was the real significance of the July 10th 1995 union membership ballot [at AE Staley where 760 workers and their families had been locked out since June 1993]. Their tenacity and solidarity was also complemented by some other encouraging developments. Around this time the FBI actually subpoenaed ADM and Staley as part of an investigation into price rigging. What added extra seasoning to this unfolding drama was not just the FBI raids on the company headquarters, but the fact that a senior ADM executive Mark E Whitacre, had acted as a government informant on the case, for more than two years. The executive ‘whistleblower’ had ‘secretly taped thousands of hours of conversations and meetings in which price fixing was said to have been discussed’. The investigation known as ‘OPERATION HARVEST KING’ resulted eventually in October 1996 in ADM pleading guilty to charges of price fixing and paying a fine of $100 million, ‘by far the largest fine yet in a criminal anti-trust case’. The settlement requires ADM to cooperate with ongoing federal investigations into lysene, an aminio acid that speeds muscle growth in animals, and High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) markets.”

HFCS was the new sweetener on the block in the 1980s and 1990s and Tate & Lyle had bought into AE Staley in 1988 because before then they had no capacity in this lucrative sweetener market. “The largest fine yet in a criminal anti-trust case” was a Kurt Eichenwald quote from the NYT on 7/18 1996 but in 2004 Tate & Lyle would pay the same amount in what the Washington Post described as “the biggest food antitrust class action in US history”. It had dragged on for 9 years and the London Times reported how “Tate & Lyle protested Staley’s innocence, saying that the settlement had been agreed for pragmatic reasons”! (See the June blog on Bitter Sweet Pensioner Stories.)

Back to the past and in 1999 three of ADMs top officials including its vice chairman Michael Andreas, were sent to federal prison for conspiring with foreign rivals to control the international market for lysine an important feed additive for cattle. In terms of time scale the Justice Department’s investigation was from August 1992 to December 1995 which was a significant month in my research into Tate & Lyle’s American subsidiary. The end of that year was to be the end of the 30 month LOCKOUT and according to Art Dhermy and Mike Griffiths their own union boss, Wayne Glenn, helped steal defeat from the jaws of victory! That broader context and “lessons to be learned” is more likely to be found in this blog than at the movies.

The movie owes much to the New York Times journalist, Mark Eichenwald who published THE INFORMANT in 2000. In 2009 it has been published over here in paperback with an exclamation mark! So depending on the extent to which it captures the film going public’s imagination it looks a likely big seller this Christmas.  That genre of “truth is stranger than fiction”, is always appealling, but nothing surprises me about a film which although not directly focussed on the “white stuff” is nonetheless very much to do with the bitter sweet story of capitalism’s “favoured child”.*


* Kim Moody’s book Workers in a Lean World explains how “by the 1980s they (Trans National Corporations) had reached deep into industries and geographic areas of the United States once dominated by the family firms or larger, but still national or regional, corporations. This brought both a new balance of forces and new work and production methods to many parts of the United States unaccustomed to being a direct part of the world economy.”

Alongside the replacement of family farms by corporate giants was the arrival in 1988 of a SUGAR GIANT made on Merseyside.