An account of the December 2008 occupation of Republic Windows & Doors in Chicago.
Labor battles are most often measured in months. Some, like the Congress Hotel strike in Chicago or the recently successful effort to win union recognition at Smithfield Foods in North Carolina, have stretched on for years. Both have been extraordinary models of corporate campaigns and have successfully mobilized community allies, but this alone was not enough to bring a quick victory. When the struggle is over severance pay because of a factory closure, the matter often ends up resulting in a long drawn out legal battle. But it took the workers at Republic Windows and Doors in Chicago a mere six days to defeat a recalcitrant employer, one of the nation’s biggest banking corporations, and to win all of their demands. The success of the workers at Republic, members of United Electrical Workers (UE) Local 1110, has raised the stakes for corporate America and raised the bar for labor unions across the country.
When the workers at Republic Windows and Doors first organized into UE, it was a significant development for the local labor movement. A mostly African-American and immigrant Latino work force had dumped a company union that had agreed to a wage freeze and had allowed dozens of workers to be fired without protest. It was an important gain for UE, which calls itself the “independent”, “rank-and-file”, “member run union.” UE was expelled from the CIO in 1949 because of the leftist politics of much of the union’s leadership. Though small in membership relative to other unions, UE has continued to hold fast to the principals of militant, democratic unionism and in doing so has had an impact beyond its numbers much like the IWW. The organizing of Republic in 2004 was part of a growth spurt for the union in the Midwest and demonstrated its commitment to organize small manufacturing, a sector abandon by many other unions. Little did the organizers or members know that Republic Windows and Doors would make national labor history four years later.
The decision to occupy the factory:
Workers had suspected for a couple weeks that something was wrong. As Melvin Maclin, Vice-President of Local 1110 and a seven year employee of Republic explained, “we’ve had a lot of our machines taken out of the plant at night…and along with the machine goes people’s jobs.” The workers contacted their union representatives who in turn questioned the company about the situation but got few answers. Workers even set up patrols to try to follow trucks leaving the factory with equipment so they could attempt to determine where the materials were going. Despite this, when company management announced Tuesday, December 2nd, that the plant would close its doors at 10:00 AM the following Friday morning, the workers were shocked. What’s worse, the workers discovered that they would not be paid for accrued vacation time, or for the 60 days notice they should have been given under the federal WARN Act. The WARN Act (Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act) guarantees workers 60 days notice of a company’s intention to cease operations. The workers had few options and little time to react. Their first effort was to reach out to community allies. Jobs with Justice helped the union organize an afternoon press conference on Wednesday December 3rd outside Bank of America’s Chicago headquarters. Company management claimed the reason they had decided to close the plant and the reason they could not pay the workers their severance was because Bank of America had cut off their credit. Speakers at the press conference focused on the fact that Bank of America had been provided 25 billion in taxpayer dollars by the federal government as part of the 700 billion dollar Wall Street bailout. They asked Bank of America why, if the intention of these funds was to ensure the flow of credit to keep the economy running, the bank wasn’t using a small fraction of its bailout funds to ensure Republic could meet its obligations to its workers? As Melvin Maclin explains, “We have a saying, you got bailed out, we got sold out.”
But the press conference and the mobilization of community support was just the beginning of the worker’s efforts to fight back. They were particularly concerned that the owners of Republic would remove or sell off the remaining machinery at the plant before they agreed to pay the workers their severance. So at closing time, the workers refused to leave the plant. In doing so, these workers launched the first factory occupation in the United States since the late 1930’s. For the workers, the decision was simple and was reached unanimously fairly quickly. As worker Ricardo Caceres explains, “I no have any choice. The company say, you fired. The company not give me the money for benefit and vacation time. You know what, I not lose anything I stay here and I say, you don’t pay me, I don’t move.” All the workers I spoke to during the occupation at Republic expressed the same sentiment – we had no choice and nothing to lose.
As word of the occupation spread Friday night, supporters began showing up at the factory’s entrance almost instantly, bearing gifts of food, coffee, blankets and sleeping bags. Those who came signed posters taped up to the factories walls with messages like… “Thanks for showing us all how to fight back” and “You are an inspiration to us all.” A Saturday prayer vigil became more of a rally, with hundreds of supporters showing up to demonstrate their solidarity. Press coverage reached a level rarely witnessed over a “labor dispute.” T.V. crew trucks remained parked in front of the factory for most of the six day occupation. A check of Google news for stories on the situation on Sunday had turned up over six hundred hits. That number was in the thousands by Tuesday. And workers began to receive statements of solidarity from as far away as France and Argentina, places in which factory occupations are a much more familiar form of working class struggle.
The bold action of the workers at Republic had struck a deep chord. Working people and the organizations that represent them have been taking it on the chin for at least the past thirty years. We have witnessed the majority of labor battles end in defeat. We have also witnessed union after union accept concessions or push cooperation with management as the only avenue to improve the lot of working people. Than we witnessed the collapse of the ruling neo-liberal economic ideology over the past few months as the country was plunged into the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. We witnessed corporate America’s answer to the crisis, 700 billion dollars in taxpayer bailout funds to the banks who had created the crisis to begin with. Public anger has grown as the funds provided to the banks have proved not to be the answer to preventing a deepening recession. The Republic workers action was the first sign of a working class answer to the economic crisis.
The IWW was among the first workers organizations to respond. Wobblies were on the scene as early as Friday evening. Wobs had a substantial presence at the prayer-vigil-turned-rally was held mid day Saturday. Members of the Chicago GMB organized a Republic Workers Solidarity Committee while members in Minneapolis and San Francisco organized solidarity actions. A caravan of Wobblies from St. Louis made the six hour trip to Chicago to demonstrate their solidarity. In general, union support for the Republic workers was widespread. SEIU, the Teamsters, AFSCME, UNITE-HERE, UAW and UFCW all provided both moral and material support. Unions donated thousands of dollars to a solidarity fund. The cross union solidarity was inspiring but also ironic. Much of the mainstream labor movement has had little respect for UE in the past. SEIU’s increasingly centralized and top down organizational model contrasts sharply with the UE’s member-run union approach. UE has frequently raided Teamster organized plants where the union was poorly representing the workers, as in the example of Republic in 2004. Witnessing these unions paying homage to UE was a symbolic victory for militant, democratic unionism.
By Monday, the politicians had taken note of the mass appeal of the occupation. Fifteen Chicago aldermen declared their support for a proposed City Council resolution calling on the city to divest from Bank of America if the bank refused to offer more credit to Republic’s owners so that they could meet their obligations to their workers. Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich announced that he would direct the state to do the same. At the beginning of the occupation, the workers and UE organizers had dismissed the idea that the plant could be saved, but on Monday, UE Western Region President Carl Rosen announced that he was working with various agencies to find a way to re-open Republic under new management.
Victory for Direct Action:
The occupation had put serious pressure on the company and the bank to negotiate from the very beginning. The scale of public and political support for the workers made the eventual success of their fight for legally mandated severance and vacation pay inevitable. But nearly everyone - the workers, the organizers, their supporters, even the politicians - agrees that if the workers had not decided to occupy the factory, the struggle would never have received the attention it did and success would have been much harder to achieve. As Leah Fried, an organizer with UE explains… “When we found out what was happening, we said look, here are some options - we can stay and fight or basically sit back and hope something will happen out of a lawsuit, and our recommendation is to fight. And the workers said, yeah we want to fight and we are going to do everything it takes.” Shortly after their victory was announced, Maclin and fellow Republic worker Ron Bender were even more blunt when they responded in near unison to the question of whether they could have accomplished what they did if they hadn’t decided to employ direct action: “No! No! No Way! I don’t even have to think about that. No, we would have been out the door.” At the massive rally held outside Bank of America’s main Chicago offices just hours before the workers announced their victory, speaker after speaker emphasized the importance of the worker’s bold move. Members of the UAW who spoke reminded those assembled that they were pioneers of the sit down strike in U.S. history and seemed to indicate that their union needed to return to its roots.
But the big question is whether the occupation of Republic Windows and Doors is just the beginning of a working class fight, a resurgence of the U.S. labor movement. UE staff was certainly aware of the historic import of what the workers were doing. Mark Meinster, International Representative for UE remarked in an interview, “Hopefully this spreads…this is also a fight for the working class as well, and so we really feel like we’ve got an obligation to working class people to win this fight…because of what it could mean for workers in this country.” UE organizer Leticia Marquez echoed Mark’s words, stating, “I just hope honestly that we will see more of this action taken…I just hope that we do see more workers in some way or another, unfortunately having to violate the law. Employers do that every single day, so workers decided to not wait to get a remedy months or years from now. They wanted to take action today, get an answer today.” But the challenges to employing this strategy can’t be underestimated. Larry Spivak, Regional Director of AFSCME Council 31 and President of the Illinois Labor History Society, on the eve of the workers victory was clear on this point, “…it takes a huge amount of courage and the workers here were forced to the brink. Whether or not there are situations like this where workers say ‘hey we can begin to do this’ or ‘we should do this,’ I wouldn’t predict one way or another because in some ways there is a lot of risk involved… But what I am excited about is that Americans are excited and believe this is a good thing.” Of course the greatest risk of all is possible arrest, or worse, by the police. In the case of Republic, Alderman Scott Waguespack of Chicago’s 32nd Ward, where the plant is located, intervened early on to prevent an overreaction by the police. The company itself apparently never asked for the workers to be removed according to public statements by the police. The intense press coverage and public scrutiny was most likely a factor in their decision. Future plant occupiers are not likely to be as lucky.
So it remains to be seen, is the Republic Windows & Doors factory occupation a flash in the pan or a prairie fire? It seems that the workers at Republic certainly have provided the spark, but it may be awhile before we know if it will ignite a fire.