Dateline Decatur Labor Strife Pits Unions against 3 Companies, City

Article excerpt

The picket shack is gone from the west gate of A.E. Staley Manufacturing Co., leaving locked-out workers exposed to the rain, wind and overnight chill.

Fifteen months into the unusually bitter dispute, city officials ordered the shelter removed, saying it violated zoning ordinances.

Now, union leaders want Mayor Eric Brechnitz removed. They say Brechnitz is siding with Staley and two other major employers where workers are off the job.

The unions cite the squabble over the shack, as well as the Decatur Police Department's use of pepper spray against locked out workers and their supporters at a June rally.

Although Brechnitz counters that he has remained neutral, the unions plan to run or support a rival candidate in next April's elections.

"What we're going to do is get involved in the political arena," said Roger Gates, president of United Rubber Workers Local 713, which represents 1,256 strikers at Bridge-stone/Firestone Inc.

Pro-union yard signs have already started popping up alongside those endorsing this fall's candidates.

Tensions, too, are rising as the idled workers at Staley, Bridgestone/Firestone and Caterpillar Inc. prepare for two more rallies.

The unions at the three companies have scheduled a locally oriented rally for Saturday, and a larger rally for Oct. 15 to which they've invited national labor leaders.

Don Johnson, the president of the Illinois AFL-CIO, urged Brechnitz on Wednesday to form a committee to investigate the police actions that marred the last rally.

Johnson said the police, who were clad in riot gear, used excessive force when they twice used pepper spray on union members protesting the lockout at Staley.

"Something went wrong that day; someone overreacted," Johnson said. "This was a family rally."

But Brechnitz said the police did nothing wrong.

The unions have escalated their campaign against the companies in recent weeks, setting up human blockades at plant entrances to frustrate managers, replacement workers and truckers leaving with loads.

Staley went to court and won a restraining order that limits the number of pickets at each gate to 10 and prohibits them from blocking or harrassing people seeking entry.

However, the unions plan still more demonstrations. And they have hired a veteran civil rights activist, George Lakey, to help with acts of non-violent disobedience.

The last time Staley workers sat down at the plant gates and waited to be arrested, Decatur police declined to take them into custody. …