Chicago Factory Occupation Leads To Inspiring Victory

[by Andrew Pollack]

The stunning victory at the Republic Windows factory shows that even in the midst of an ever-worsening depression, success is possible when workers are willing to do whatever it takes. During their six-day occupation of the plant, sitdowners repeatedly told the media that they were doing it for workers facing the same problems everywhere – which workers around the country increasingly realized, leading to growing solidarity. As sitdowner Heriberto Barriga told the Chicago Tribune, “It was not only for us, it was for everybody nationwide, because they can do the same thing.”

At the meeting when workers voted on the settlement, Bob Kingsley, head of organization for their union, the United Electrical Workers (UE), made a similar point: “The significance of this struggle is that when millions of American workers are facing greater and greater economic turmoil, and with it more and more instances of unfairness, there needed to be a clear symbol of resistance.”

250 workers began their sitdown at Republic Windows on December 5th. The mostly Latin@ and African-American members of UE Local 1110 were protesting being laid off without the Federally-required 60 day notice, as well as the termination of benefits and withholding of pay owed.

Workers noted that the company claimed they had no funds because Bank of America (BofA) had cut off credit. Yet this same bank has received $34 billion from Washington to bail it out, and, like other bailed-out banks, is sitting on the money or using it to buy up competitors while refusing to provide credit to businesses or consumers.

Workers questioned from the start why Republic needed to close, given the still strong market for replacement windows. They asked where machinery being removed from the plant was going. And sure enough, three days after the occupation began, the media revealed that Republic’s owners had bought a nonunion windowmaking plant in Iowa, and had plans to shift production there and pay $5 less an hour with drastic cuts in benefits.

The combined theft and duplicity of Republic and BofA proves once again the need for workers to have access to the books of their employers and the banks providing credit to them.

Mainstream media reported the sitdown had “struck a chord” around the nation, and coverage was unusually sympathetic.

Hundreds turned out at rallies in Chicago and flocked to the plant with food for the sitdowners.

By the final day of the occupation rallies were being held or planned around the country, many as part of Jobs with Justice’s already scheduled “People’s Bailout” week.

Politicians came to the plant claiming to be supportive. Chicago City Council members demanded the city cease doing business with BofA, as Illinois’s governor had already ordered, and sought return of the $9.3 million in city money given to build the very plant being occupied.

President-elect Barack Obama said he was “for” them: that is, for them receiving what is due under the law (which still left the company the option of using exceptions available to it under the Federal plant-closing/ layoff law).

These politicians clearly intended to position themselves to engineer an end to the occupation at minimal cost and as quickly as possible, before other workers got similar ideas.

The settlement totals $1.75 million, which will cover the eight weeks of pay owed under the federal WARN (plant closing and layoff) Act; two months of continued health coverage; and pay for all accrued and unused vacation.

JPMorgan Chase will provide $400,000 of the settlement, with the balance coming from Bank of America. (On the fourth day of the strike it was reported that Chase – whose Midwest Chair is the brother of Chicago’s Mayor Richard Daley – was part-owner of the company.) The money will be put into a separate “third-party” fund to make sure Republic’s owners don’t divert any of the money from its intended purposes.

The occupation, although an isolated action at a small plant, will certainly spark discussion among other workers about militant steps they can take, as well as what political lessons to learn.

It is way too early to say if the sitdown will play a role akin to the 1937 sitdown in auto, which, building on scattered previous sitdowns, was the spark for the tidal wave of sitdowns across the economy that built the CIO.

This sitdown, unlike in 1937, was not a stoppage of production to gain unionization or a new contract, but rather the employment of a tactic common in labor history to protect jobs when bosses stop production. In a way that made it more militant, but it also makes its replication elsewhere more challenging, representing as it did not just a temporary violation to bourgeois property relations (which is the heart of a sitdown’s radical character), but one that poses the more daunting question of who rules, not just in the plant but in the economy as a whole.

But in an economic crisis like today’s the working class’s survival depends on facing up to just such daunting questions.

By taking on Bank of America, the workers set an example for hundreds of millions whose employers’ credit has been shut off by the handful of megabanks left standing, and who will seek to take the cost of that credit cutoff out of workers’ hides. And by making such a bank the target, the victory also raises the question of how classwide demands against these same banks – such as their nationalization under workers’ control – can be popularized and organized around, so that workers are not left to face the banks’ tyranny one employer or even industry at a time.

One unresolved question – the fate of the Republic workers’ jobs – similarly raises other questions of broader strategy.

At the victory press conference, the UE announced it was setting up a “Window of Opportunity” fund to try to reopen the plant. The fund will be started with money from the union as well as donations sent during the occupation.

During the occupation it was noted that the plant’s product – energy-efficient windows – should be in high demand given the need to retrofit homes and businesses for climate change purposes. This fact, combined with demands by many autoworkers for conversion of “excess” plants to making products such as wind-turbines, raises the question of whether the UE victory could also spark a broader struggle for a massive public works program for goods and services needed to address climate change.

One barrier in the way of raising any of these broader demands, much less acting on them, is the dead weight of union bureaucracies weighing down on those workers eager to build on the Republic victory. That dead weight was tragically in evidence in the slow and pitifully insufficient solidarity shown by the union officialdom, with some notable and praiseworthy exceptions, especially by Chicago local union officers and bodies. And in a criminal example of the bureaucracy’s normal response to employer threats during a crisis, as the occupation began autoworker union officials were volunteering massive new givebacks to the bosses of their members’ jobs, wages and benefits in order to secure a bailout for auto bosses. There is no sign yet that autoworkers will replicate the example of UE Local 1110, but we can be sure the precedent is being widely discussed.

The Republic workers had at least two advantages in overcoming such obstacles. They belong to a union which has retained some features of its radical origins, and has, even in recent decades, shown more willingness to fight on both economic and political fronts than the typical AFL-CIO or Change to Win affiliate. And we must remember that in the immigrant worker upsurge of 2006, Chicago was second only to LA in the numbers demonstrating and striking, and second to none in the central role played by majority Latin@ unions. No doubt that militancy and self-confidence played a role in convincing the workers they could use this tactic and gain sufficient support from other workers to avoid a vicious boss counterattack.

Hopefully this inspiring victory will encourage other workers to discuss what unique strengths of their own they can draw on to launch similarly militant struggles, and even more so how they can unite to overcome the various barriers in their way.

For more information on the struggle and the efforts to keep the plant open, see http://www.ueunion.org.