The opportunity to do a fair day's work for a fair day's pay is a basic right in a modern democracy and yet successive governments around the world fail their electorate by allowing corporations to make it impossible for workers to earn a living. Moreover, as pressure from the boardroom forces cutbacks on equipment maintenance and training, workers can be putting their lives at risk on the shop floor. And that's one of the inspirations for War on the Workers.
AE Staley was a family-owned corn processing factory founded in the mid-Nineteenth Century in Decatur, Illinois. It became one of America's biggest food processing companies and in the late 1980s it was purchased by a giant wholesale groceries company and, soon after that, 90% of the stock was snapped up by a British multinational agribusiness called Tate & Lyle.
Two years later, in 1990, 43 year-old Jim Beals, a married man with two grown-up sons who had been a Staley employee since 1963, was killed when he was ordered to repair a cornstarch processing tank. The tank filled with deadly propylene oxide which leaked from the reactor to which it was connected - a reactor which should have been turned off during maintenance but which, according to his fellow employees, was left on to avoid a costly halt in output. Beals had filed an official safety complaint immediately prior to entering the tank.
A catalogue of safety failures later emerged, including inadequate equipment and unqualified personnel. Just weeks earlier, Beals had predicted that it was only a matter of time before someone got killed as a result of lax safety. The company was eventually fined $1.6 million for 298 violations of safety and health regulations but never paid a penny in compensation to Beals's family.
"We had problems under the old Staley company," says union leader Bill Strohl, quoted in the book Staley: The Fight for a New American Labor Movement, "but compared to Tate & Lyle, they stood out like a saint. Tate & Lyle did not make any bones about telling you that your value to them was really nothing".
Beals was one of the leaders of Allied Industrial Workers Local 837 and after his death, the Staley workers' dissatisfaction and concern turned to anger and activism under the rallying cry "Remember Jim Beals".
By the mid-1990s, the town of Decatur, Illinois was a self-proclaimed war zone. The AE Staley saga came to a head when dissatisfied workers were physically escorted from the premises and locked out. In due course, union workers were striking in solidarity at nearby rubber and steel production plants Caterpillar and Firestone. And their theme song was War on the Workers by folk singer and activist Anne Feeney.
"In Decatur the myth of global prosperity under the benevolent rule of multinational 'competitiveness' has debunked itself, publicly and forcefully," wrote Tom Frank and Dave Mulcahey in the Chicago Reader in 1995. "At the October 15 rally, folksinger Anne Feeney singled out consciousness as the great difference between the victimized workers of the 1990s and their forebears of ages past."
"In the 30s, people had nothing and they knew it" said Feeney. "Today, people have nothing and they don't know it. They're sitting at home and they're anesthetized."
That was over 20 years ago. And in 2017, that song and many others - including Have You Been to Jail for Justice? and How Much for the Life of a Miner? - still seem so poignantly relevant that fans of Anne Feeney have put together a tribute album featuring 16 cover versions of her songs, with the title War on the Workers.
You can learn more about Kris Deelane here
You can learn more about Anne Feeney here:
About the curator: Jon Ewing
After graduating from the University of Keele in England with a degree in Politics and American Studies, Jon worked as editor of a music and entertainment magazine before spending several years as a freelance writer and, with the advent of the internet, a website designer, developer and consultant. He lives in Reading, home to one of the world's most famous and long-running music festivals, which he has attended every year since 1992.