ONE WIFE'S STORY OF THE
(Editor's Note: I met Jan Griffin at a recent conference. I knew that she and her husband Mike had been active in the Staley Lock-out. For nearly a year, union members carried out an in-plant strategy of ''ork to rule," fighting for a new contract. Then Staley locked them out of the plant for 27 months. When I asked what her life had been like in the four years of struggle against Staley, Jan replied with some very moving stories which she has been kind enough to retell for our readers. Mike Griffin was a rank-and-file leader during the in-plant struggle and then during the lock-out.)
I first began to notice something was wrong with Mike’s job at Staley's when we came home from vacation in 1992, and found that Mike had been scheduled to work on the last day of his vacation, which was a Sunday. He went into work on Monday and asked if he could have that Sunday as one of his days off for the week and his boss refused the request. His troubles multiplied after that at the plant, and thus my fear began.
Mike said his boss was trying to fire him. He constantly had to watch his back, making sure he did nothing wrong to give them a reason. He was under a lot of stress and started losing weight. The last Christmas he worked at Staley's, they made him work Christmas Eve day, Christmas Eve, and Christmas Day, in a building that was shut down.
That year was hell for both of us. I worked and tried not to worry about Mike losing his job. They created a shift just for him and isolated him from the other employees. He was put in the basement of a filthy building by himself and he had to do jobs that were two and three man jobs by himself. They said he took too long fixing a pump and sent him home for ten days with a warning. He got several warning letters over a long period. They were setting him up with letters that said, "This is your first warning," "second warning," and "third and last warning." We knew it was just a matter of days.
The plant started 12-hour rotating shifts and each person in Mike's department was assigned a partner. Mike was put with a person that he didn’t want to work with because, as Mike put it, "He'll either get me killed or fired." He got Mike fired. He fell into a hole they were working over. The company said it was Mike's fault because he didn’t have the hole covered.
I was afraid coming home from work everyday because, if Mike's car was sitting out in front of our house, I'd know he'd been fired. I told Mike that when it happened, not to come to work and tell me, but to wait until I got home. Well, he couldn't wait. His boss called him at home and fired him over the telephone, so when he walked in the back door of my workplace at 9 o’clock in the morning, I had no clue what was coming.
On May 19th, nine o'clock in the morning, our lives changed forever. It was almost a relief when it happened, since we didn’t have to worry about it anymore. The first week, for me, was devastating. I had to work, but it was hard to have a happy face and greet people with a smile. Inside I was crying and screaming, asking God why. Mike assured me he would get his job back, because he had done nothing wrong. I held onto that hope for a month.
On Monday, June 27, 1993 Staley locked all the union employees out of the plant. A sad day for all. To feed the families we had to have money, so the "Road Warriors" were formed—union members going on the road to help feed the locked-out families. Mike got active and became a road warrior. We had never been separated over-night before except when I was in the hospital giving birth. Even when he had to work during the summer when the children were out of school, he never wanted me to visit my family in the South without him, so we'd wait until we could go together, even though it meant taking the children out of school. After 27 years of marriage, I found myself alone.
I didn't like what was happening to our lives. We seemed, all of a sudden, to be going our separate ways. I felt left out. I knew if I asked Mike to give it all up and go get a job, he would, but he would never be happy and I'd lose him for sure then. So I did what any loving wife would do—I joined him.
It was hard. I worked days and traveled with Mike at night and on weekends. The generosity and love we received from strangers brought me to tears many times. People opened their homes to the "Road Warriors," giving their help and support any way they could. If there ever was anything good about the lock-out, it was all the wonderful people we met. We made lots of good friends, ones that wouldn’t desert us in a time of need like our old friends did.
Yes, we lost good friends during the lock-out. Some became scabs at Staley and hoped we'd never find out. Others just seemed to fade away. We lost our church—that hurt us the most. After 27 years and raising six children in that church, they would not support our struggle.
All our children, except two, had union jobs. They all supported and respected our picket line. Our youngest son refused to cross the picket line, so his boss sent someone else into the plant. We've always been a very close family, being there for each other. Our children's support and our love for each other, plus our new-found friends, saw us through this struggle.
God provided for us, sending wonderful people to our aid. All through the long struggle, we never went without. When Mike and I went to San Francisco for a fund-raiser, the week before we left, we got a card through the mail with a fifty dollar bill and a note that said, "Enjoy your trip to San Francisco." Another time, we got a fifty dollar bill and no note. People gave money to the union to buy food, clothes, and school supplies. They collected toys for Christmas and brought them to us by the semi-truck loads. These are the people that will help rebuild this labor movement and make a better place for our future generations.
Many times during the lock-out I was scared. Mike was so vocal and active, it made him a prime target for everything that happened. In the spring of '94, Mike had a visit from the FBI. An executive at Staley's had received a threatening letter plus a Christmas card from a mom reprimanding him for locking out her son, who was a Vietnam vet. Since Mike is a vet, and his mother lived in Taylorville, they'd decided he'd written the letter. He refused to give them any information, and it wasn’t long before he got a notice to appear before a grand jury in Springfield. About twenty-five friends went along and we picketed out front of the building. Mike pleaded the Fifth and they sent him home. A couple of weeks later he got a court order from the judge to comply with the wishes of the FBI. He went to Springfield and gave the FBI his finger prints, photo, and a handwriting sample. The funny part of the whole thing was that Mike is left-handed and the letter was written by a right-handed person. We never heard anything else after that. That for me was a very scary and stressful time. I was afraid Mike would be framed and sent to prison.
I was taught to respect those in authority. I learned that you can't—that most, if not all of them, are crooked. They don’t care about the public or the working class. I’ve become a very suspicious person. The lock-out ended with the UPIU [United Paperworkers International Union] International selling us out to the company. All the families' dreams for a better future were shattered, and their hope for a good retirement from Staley gone. I lost something I’ll never have again, trust and respect for those in authority over me.
My point of view is: You have to win a struggle within the first six months. NEVER let scabs inside your plant. If you do, then you have lost. Stay focused on winning. Don't let petty things sidetrack you. Work together for the same goal—winning! If you don’t want to help win, then step aside: don’t undermine your fellow union members who are working to win. Encourage each other, help when you can and where you can. Everyone working together can and will build a strong labor movement in this country. If the International or the AFL-CIO don’t want to help fight, then step over them and kick them out of the way and move on. After all, it's our futures at stake, not theirs. The cliche, "United We Stand, Divided we Fall," is very true. It happened to us.
I think of the days and nights I spent on the road, the rain I stood in, the freezing weather, the hundred-degree heat, selling T-shirts to raise funds for the families of Local 7837. Was it worth it? Yes, because without the struggle I never would have known the blessing of meeting such wonderful people all over the country. Thanks to all of them, I am by far a richer person.
Originally published in New Democracy Newsletter, July-Aug 1997.