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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 > Beyond The Lane

The Local/Global dimensions to sugar blogs

Written by Ron Noon at 17:57 on Tuesday, March 03rd 2009

Hopefully the extract below will serve as a good example of BEYOND THE LANE and the local/global dimension. It was originally entitled FROM LOVE LANE LIVERPOOL TO DECATUR ILLINOIS: A BITTER SWEET STORY OF OUR GLOBALISED TIMES and it relates to what was then a new kid on the sweetener block, High Fructose Corn Syrup. Tate & Lyle bought AE Staley Inc, an American producer of HFCS in 1988 and not long after proceeded to “downsize, re-engineer” and then eventually lock out the labor (Americans can’t spell labour) force for 30 months between June 1993 and December 2005

First of all a little context from a book by Kim Moody:
“Well into the mid-1980s, everything in the small industrial city of Decatur, Illinois, right in the middle of farm country, seemed local and as American as apple pie. Even the multi-nationals like Caterpillar or Firestone Tire were names known across the Midwest farm belt for generations. The AE Staley corn processing plant in Decatur had been a family owned business for nearly a century. Of course Staley like Caterpillar or Firestone, now had plants in many other locations. In 1988, however, the Decatur Staley plant was pulled irretrievably into the world economy when the British owned sugar marketer and processor Tate & Lyle bought AE Staley. Many of the Staley workers attributed the changes that soon took place at work to the fact that the new owners were foreigners not familiar or sympathetic to the way things had been done in Decatur. In fact, it was not the nationality of the new owners that motivated them but the new trends in work organisation sweeping the world in the 1980s. By the late 1980s a new dimension would be added to industries that were being internationalised: lean production…What is different about lean methods is the continuous search for marginal improvements in costs by constantly stressing and readjusting the production system and above all, the labor process. Lean production is run by a system of ‘management by stress’.” Kim Moody

Lean is “mean” and so from the rationalisations of the 70s at Love Lane followed by closure we have another sugar coated euphemism for “the sack and a longer dole queue”.


    “What’s that I smell in the air? The American Dream. Sweet as a new millionaire, The American Dream.” 

      Twelve and a half years after the closure of Liverpool Love Lane, and 180 miles south west of Chicago, abutting corn and soybean fields in the American Midwest town of Decatur Illinois, 760 workers and their families were left to ‘bleed’ in a similar way.“The high cost of running the Decatur plant put it out of step with other Staley plants and well behind the competition. For the Decatur plant to be competitive, major changes were needed: costs had to be reduced, operations needed to be streamlined and outdated work practices eliminated.”  At 3am on Sunday 27th of June 1993, the entire union member workforce of Tate & Lyle’s American subsidiary, AE Staley, were locked out of its giant corn processing plant. The Annual Company Report admitted that this was “a drastic step” but one “necessary to protect the environment, company employees and property”!  Above all else the company chairman claimed, it was vital “to ensure the integrity of product sent to customers”!  This ritual genuflection to HFCS, today’s most successful variant on the “white stuff”, and its sacrostant customers, industrial Giants like Pepsi & Coke, meant that the last thing to be considered, was the integrity of the workers and the devastating social effects that a lockout would inflict on their community.

      Although subsequently described in union leaflets and song as a “war on the workers” the battles with management had a more extended chronology. “It was a family company for fifty years. People liked the company. They boasted about working at Staley. It was a good place to work.”  Stephen Ashby a member of a Chicago Staley support group was making similar comments to those that had been made on the other side of the Atlantic in Liverpool’s Love Lane. By the late sixties however Staley had moved away from the old family spirit. An “outsider” President, Donald Nordlund, defeated a 13 week strike over compulsory arbitration in 1970. Two years later the company could have rode roughshod over contract negotiations with the union. “They could have gutted our agreement, rubbed our noses in the mud so to speak. That did n’t happen and we came out of those negotiations, with our heads held high. Our relations with the Company would experience highs and lows…but one thing would remain constant, the respect by both sides for each other’s autonomous rights.”  That comment by a union regional representative would seem to confirm that the “traditional” reciprocity and mutuality entailed in good industrial relations practices survived, albeit temporarily, the demise of the old paternalism.

        After the hostile take-over of A.E. Staley in May 1988, Tates’ corporate intent to downsize and rationalise was immediately evident. The purchase of Staley, with its four major corn processing sites, was described at the time as a leveraged transaction that had been facilitated by the offers of “golden parachutes” to senior executives. No such favourable terms would be available for downsized workers. The number of hourly paid employees in the Decatur flagship plant had been constant for five years prior to take-over, at 1,250. Given that the corporate zeitgeist in the 80s was increasingly that of “shrinkage” and downsizing and Tate & Lyle were renowned for an aggressive macho management style, such stability in workforce numbers was viewed as unnatural! It was obviously not in synch with the business goals of the new owners.

      Refocusing and “re-engineering” the group’s activities would entail ruthless cost cutting measures. This meant not only downsizing employee numbers, but also the Allied Industrial Workers union which sought to defend them. So in order to secure a negotiated labor agreement which the new management were stalling over, AIW Local 837, actually had to threaten strike action in 1989. That was little more than a year after Tate & Lyle’s “outsider” chairman Neil Shaw had gone along to the union hall, had a beer with the bargaining committee and toasted his new “partners”, assuring everyone “that they would notice very little change in their life at Staley”. Was there evidence of Shaw’s mentoring in the electioneering of Bill Clinton three years later. An AFL-CIO official in his home state of Arkansas said that the Democrat’s nominee “was a guy who would put his arm around you while he pissed down your leg”.  Back in Decatur the Staley workers quickly realised that they were dealing with a new set of bosses that made the previous “tough but fair” former employers seem like philanthropists. The use of ghostly interviewing techniques with the philanthropic founder of the Tate’s empire would have evoked a similar conclusion.

      “The motivation for the take-over was to eliminate competition, and its implementation demonstrated a consistent effort to drive down standards to the detriment of A.E.Staley workers.” That was the claim of two Chicago economists, David Ranney and Paul Schwalb, whose recent study highlighted the extent to which Tate & Lyle’s management style was consistent with a global trend that had been evolving since the mid 70s.  Here the impetus to reduce production costs, resulted in driving down standards of wages, working conditions, workplace and environmental safety, and resisting all “efforts to interfere” with managerial prerogatives. The balance of class forces had dramatically shifted in the 1980s making it a very bleak decade for the House of Labor.  Corporate America was openly on the offensive to achieve its “downsizing” goals and the demand from the boardrooms was for “jointness” with Labor in facing up to global competitive forces. This message was cliched by the time Tate’s arrived in the Mid West and by then many Labor bosses of big international unions, including the United Automobile Workers Union, had too readily acquiesced to the pace-setting corporate agenda.

      Tate’s was never far behind the market leaders in business rhetoric and consistent with its status as world leader in sweeteners and starches, the sugaring on the pill of downsizing, was accompanied by inflated missionary statements of corporate intent. These were ingenuously designed to conceal the basic economic insecurity and dislocation that was being inflicted on Staley workers and their community. Stretching across from Love Lane Liverpool to Decatur Illinois, the links in the sugar and euphemism chain are crystal clear to the rationalised, and downsized workers who found themselves on the receiving end of the bitter company medicine…TO BE CONTINUED