Witness to a historic struggle

December 10, 2008

I WAS able to make it out to the Republic Windows & Doors factory with several Chicago Campus Antiwar Network (CAN) activists. This was an incredibly inspiring experience.

There is a group of 300 or so workers at the Republic Windows & Doors factory who were told on Tuesday of last week that their factory was going to close on Friday. The workers decided to occupy the factory until they are guaranteed payment for the 75 days required by law, as well as the paid time off that they are owed.

Our new president-elect has come out in favor of the workers, as well as congressman Luis Gutierrez, who's helping in the negotiations, as well as Rev. Jesse Jackson (just to name the "big guys)." There is a meeting this afternoon with Bank of America (where Republic draws its line of credit).

So we went out there last night, after taking a collection from our membership, because no matter what, these folks will likely be out of a job (in the middle of winter, no less). We arrived a bit before 10 p.m., and I was shocked to see that several news vans were still on the scene. There was only one police car, so it looks like the workers are being left to do what they like.

We walked into the foyer of the building, which was cluttered with supporters and large posters. One of the workers' children approached us with a sign-in sheet and asked for our e-mails to send updates. So, right away, this was a community event.

The first conversation that I was able to have was with the vice president of the union. He was very apparently exhausted from all of the work he's been doing coordinating this occupation but was still quite appreciative of any and all support and willing to answer questions.

He told us about the process that they'd followed. Apparently, the union leadership met on Tuesday after receiving the news and came up with this plan. They then pitched this idea to the rank and file, who were all almost instantly in agreement. He seemed very optimistic, largely due to the vast solidarity and the global attention being paid to the issue, that they would reach a favorable agreement and get the money that's owed them.

A worker at the plant talked to us about how excited he was about the occupation. He said that although he'd been at the factory for 15 years, and will be out of a job, he was confident that their actions at Republic are both significant and historic. He was excited to be able to tell his future grandchildren about it, and thought (I believe rightly) that this action has the potential to inspire others experiencing similar hardships to organize. When we talked to him about workers who'd done similar things in Argentina and kept the factories working under worker control, his eyes lit up with possibility.

He reiterated what we'd already heard about the process. Everyone was instantly on board, without question. They knew that they had to do something on Friday or they'd have no other opportunity, so they jumped on it.

We also talked about how the same company made him jump through tons of hoops to get paid his workers compensation. after a knee injury. Apparently they counted his recovery time as "time off," essentially stealing his vacation.

There was talk of a police officer who'd said that he didn't want to be there because he thought the workers were right. Although I can't verify this or quote it, I thought it was worth mentioning.

People talked about how, although there was no formal indication that the factory was closing, some had noticed things like machines being taken out of the building at 2 a.m. over the weekend. This says, to me anyway, that they are moving the factory, not closing down.

There were speculations that Republic may try to open under another name (apparently Gutierrez has called for an investigation around this possibility). I heard about another, similar factory, that closed in Chicago and re-opened in the suburbs just so that it could pay its employees minimum wage again.

I was able to chat with a reporter from Channel 7 news. I asked her if her editor asked her to cover the story or if she'd had to pitch it. I was pleasantly surprised to hear that even the mainstream press considers this important news. That's how big of a deal this is.

Other notable moments include: a child in a Che shirt, with fist raised, shouting "on behalf of the workers;" a worker that was so appreciative they hugged us as we left; leaving with more inspiration than I have had since becoming politically active after the invasion of Afghanistan.

Anyway, people should read about this historic event and look forward to the possible immense success story. If things don't go well, there will be a huge opening for solidarity work, and if they do win it should definitely serve as a huge inspiration to every activist.
Graham Shaw, Chicago

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