A rallying point for labor
reports from Chicago on how the struggle at Republic Windows & Doors took shape.
A FACTORY occupation in Chicago that began as a show of defiance by 250 workers has been transformed into a focus of national and international labor solidarity.
Grassroots activists, rank-and-file union members, labor leaders, members of Congress and Rev. Jesse Jackson have all come to Republic Windows & Doors factory just north and west of the city's downtown to show their support for the overwhelmingly Latino workforce.
In a matter of a few days, news of this fight has spread far and wide--even gaining the attention of President-elect Barack Obama, who declared that the workers' struggle was just.
The occupation of the Republic factory began December 5 when workers on the afternoon shift voted to stay in the plant rather than accept a shutdown on just three days' notice--and without the vacation pay or severance money mandated under federal and state law.
The workers, members of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) Local 1110, were prepared to be arrested to make a statement about the Republic owners' violation of the law--and about the refusal of the company's main creditor, Bank of America (BoA), either to extend credit to the company to keep it operating or to make good on management's obligations to workers.
Republic workers are angry that BoA received $25 billion from the U.S. government as part of the Wall Street bailout--taxpayer money handed over to banks specifically to stimulate lending. Instead, the bank's Chicago managers were sitting on the money while Republic prepared to toss workers into the street and cut off their health insurance.
As a result, workers said, the decision to occupy was an easy one--whatever the consequences. Suddenly, an American factory occupation--something usually relegated to dusty labor history books about the 1930s and nostalgic speeches at union conventions--was a reality.
IF REPUBLIC'S owners considered calling the cops to evict the workers, they perhaps thought the better of it given their own obvious violation of the law.
Within a few hours, said UE International Representative Mark Meinster, the company reached an "understanding" with the union: Workers would keep the plant clean and safe, and a handful of company security guards would stay away from the cafeteria where the workers have set themselves up.
Workers have another very practical reason for guarding the plant--to make sure that management would no longer be able to move out critical equipment. In recent weeks, important and expensive gear had disappeared--including brand new presses that showed up on the loading dock one day, but were never installed.
"They said we were cross-docking," said Local 1110 Vice President Melvin Maclin, referring to the practice of taking delivery of items and shipping it out the same day. "In more than 20 years, they've never cross-docked." Maclin and other workers suspect that the owners are either selling off equipment or preparing to restart production in a separate, nonunion company--a practice perfected in the trucking industry in the late 1980s and adopted by other employers since.
Republic workers were determined it would not happen this time--not without a fight.
Hours into the occupation on Friday evening, local labor and immigrant rights activists began turning up at the plant's entrance with bags of takeout fried chicken, coffee and soda. Others who rushed over without stopping for food dug into their wallets instead, handing cash to union organizers to get more supplies. Meanwhile, more than a half-dozen TV news vans crowded the street outside as reporters prepared to do live broadcasts.
E-mail alerts, text messages and reports from the mainstream and independent media circulated around Chicago to promote a vigil to be held at Noon the next day. At the appointed hour, there were more than 300 union members and supporters on hand, as prayers gave way to an exuberant solidarity rally and fundraiser.
Rev. C.J. Hawking of the Chicago-based Interfaith Worker Justice committee led prayers--and revved up the crowd with her fiery pro-worker message. Several Republic workers spoke, explaining to the crowd why they decided to draw the line.
U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, who had tried to broker a meeting between Republic management, BoA and the union--the owners didn't show--was the featured speaker.
"Somebody said to me, 'Those windows don't belong to them. What do you mean they're staying with them?'" Gutierrez told the crowd. "It seems to me that it was [the workers'] labor that put together those windows. It was their creativity, it was their work, their commitment to quality that made this company successful...Those windows belong to the workers until they are paid for."
Veterans of other labor struggles spoke--such as Rich Berg, president of Teamsters Local 743, who took office earlier this year after a long fight for democracy in a union notorious for corruption. Other speakers included James Thindwa, executive director of Chicago Jobs with Justice, and Jesse Sharkey, a delegate in the Chicago Teachers Union and member of the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE), a union reform group. UE Western Region President Carl Rosen closed out the rally.
BY THAT afternoon, the Republic occupation was international news. The mainstream media, usually clueless where labor issues are concerned, got the essentials across: BoA has $25 billion of taxpayer money but it wants to cut off credit to a viable company and toss more than 250 workers on the streets.
Sunday morning saw Jesse Jackson bring 200 turkeys to workers as UE staff set up a food distribution system. "These workers deserve their wages, deserve fair notice, deserve health security," Jackson said at a press conference. "This may be the beginning of [a] long struggle of worker resistance, finally." U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky also arrived to tour the plant and pledge her support.
Barack Obama felt compelled to address the Republic struggle at his own press conference. "The workers who are asking for the benefits and payments that they have earned," Obama said. "I think they're absolutely right, and understand that what's happening to them is reflective of what's happening across this economy."
While the political figures have dominated the media's attention, the crowded foyer of the plant has become a rolling solidarity meeting involving union members, social movement activists and students.
On Sunday, a young Chicago bus driver and union activist was there to show support--and make activists aware of the Chicago Transit Authority's attempts to eliminate mechanics' jobs.
Rich De Vries, business agent for Teamsters Local 705, visited the plant, as did Gerald Colby, president of the National Writers Union, who came as part of a delegation from the U.S. Labor Against the War national leadership meeting, held just outside Chicago over the weekend. "This struggle shows that working people are not going to be pushed around--that they are going to stand up for their rights--and that they have rights at the point of production," Colby said.
James Thindwa of Jobs with Justice made a similar point. "This is the end of an era in which corporate greed is the rule," he said. "This is the start of something new."