Saturday, June 20, 2009

An afternoon in Decatur, Illinois

A few days ago I decided to head out for Decatur, check out some independent bookstores, and reflect upon the Madison college days when I traveled down here with the Student Labor Action Coalition to support the Staley strike. Today, Saturday, I made a day of it, taking in the sights. Decatur looks much like I remember it back then. It seems much more of a working-class town than Bloomington-Normal, with a much larger industrial base, with a much more diverse working-class. The town itself seems bigger than it appears on the map. I actually had to just look up the population to be sure it wasn't bigger than Bloomington-Normal. At around 80,000, it is about the size of Bloomington alone; its metropolitan area is about 2/3 the B-N metro area, so they are comparable.

My main purpose was to check out Cheryl's Old Barn Bookstore and Novel Ideas Bookstore, two indies in the Decatur area. After Novel Ideas, I ate downtown, walked around a bit taking pictures, and happened upon the Juneteenth Festival in a park in downtown Decatur. I then headed out to the A.E. Staley corn processing plant, owned by Lyle and Tate, the scene of a couple of very large demonstrations in the 90s around the Staley strike. At the time, the labor movement was calling Decatur "the War Zone" because the town had three high-profile strikes occurring simultaneoulsy: Staley, Caterpillar and Firestone/Bridgestone. There was so much hope around the Staley strike because the workers and their union had reached out for solidarity and groups of students organized on campuses to support them. In fact, the spread of SLAC groups and similar labor-focused student groups had its start with the Madison group organized around Staley. When going to Decatur, I remember seeing a lot of labor activists there, including the precursor to the Labor Party, Labor Party Advocates. The first time I went, there was a standoff between labor unionists and police at the gate, which led to tear gas, a scene that came to represent the struggle and can be found in different sources. My pictures included here show the scene there today. In walking by the plant, past the Staley headquarters building, and over the bridge that traverses the innards of the processing plant, you can't help but feel sick from the industrial hell that surrounds you. For me it gets connected to the defeat imposed on the workers there: slashed pay and benefits, imposed 12 hour shifts, etc. The nauseating feeling inside is compounded by the sickening smell of the corn being processed, a sweet smell that reminds one what our Millers and Pepsis are made out of. (It smells like Miller or Coors beer to me.) Anyway, when people say our food is filled with corn syrup, A.E. Staley is where it is being produced.


K-sky said...

A.E. Staley has been on my mind since I saw The Informant! this weekend. Thanks for refreshing my memory about the "war zone".

Corey said...

I just saw the previews for The Informant and was intrigued by the film. It's definitely on my list!