“A message to the workers of America”

June 4, 2010

Lee Sustar reviews Workers' Republic, a documentary on the successful 2008 plant occupation in Chicago.

AROUND 5 p.m. on the cold Friday afternoon of December 5, 2008, the mobile phones of Chicago labor activists suddenly received a surge of calls and text messages: Workers represented by the United Electrical (UE) workers union had occupied their factory, Republic Windows and Doors--and they needed solidarity.

About an hour later, I was inside the plant, along with many familiar faces from the city's labor and immigrant rights movements. All of us had brought food and other essential supplies. We found a calm, determined and well-organized group of workers and union staffers who had secured the property, provisioned it with food and planned rotating 24-hour shifts to keep the plant under their control.

The workers had been told just two days earlier that the plant was closing that Friday, and that they wouldn't be receiving the severance and vacation pay that was due to them under federal law, because Bank of America had cut off credit to the factory's owners. But rather than walk out the door with the faint hope of relief from a bankruptcy court judge someday, the workers decided to seize the moment--and use the factory itself as leverage.

Republic Windows & Doors strikers
Republic Windows & Doors strikers

So in the midst of the financial free fall of late 2008 and the rising tide of layoffs, a group of some 250 workers decided to dig in and fight, no matter what the odds.

"This is a message to the workers of America," Vicente Rangel, a shop steward for UE Local 1110 told me that night. "If we stand together, we will prevail until justice is done, and we get what we're due."

That spirit animates Andrew Friend's inspiring documentary, Workers' Republic. Friend shows us that the occupation wasn't a spontaneous eruption, but rather the culmination of years of struggle in which the workers built a democratic, fighting union.

After the plant's owners began stripping the plant of machinery and sending orders to a separate, nonunion plant in Iowa, workers concluded that owner Rich Gillman was setting up Republic to fail.

So when the boss said the plant would be shut down in 48 hours and workers would get nothing, the leaders of UE Local 1110 held meetings to discuss their options. The local's vice president, Melvin "Ricky" Maclin, sums up the workers' reasoning in one of the film's interview segments. "If I don't fight, I know I'll lose. If I do fight, at least I had a chance of winning. But in the beginning we thought we were going to jail."

INSTEAD OF being hauled off by the cops, the Republic Windows workers found themselves at the center of local--then, national and international--attention. With the world's leading media organizations camped outside the Chicago home of then president-elect Barack Obama, the story spread quickly--and caught the imagination of workers everywhere.

A solidarity rally the morning after the occupation brought out those who typically serve as the backbone of labor solidarity efforts in the area; by the afternoon, union leaders and politicians had begun making the trek to the industrial enclave of Goose Island on Chicago's Near-West Side. Even Obama himself, prompted by a reporters' question, said unequivocally that the Republic workers had right on their side.

Workers' Republic captures this dynamic--and, just as important, explains why the struggle had such resonance. Amid today's economic happy talk about an economic recovery, Friend's skilled use of headlines and commentary reminds us how the financial meltdown nearly plunged the global economy into an abyss similar to the Great Depression of the 1930s.

What you can do

The Chicago premiere of Workers' Republic will take place on Saturday, June 5 at 7 p.m. at the UE Hall, 37 S. Ashland. For more information about the film's availability, visit the Workers' Republic Web site.

While we may have escaped such a fate, that's small consolation to those suffering from unemployment and/or the loss of their home. Friend drives that point home by juxtaposing a recent image of workers standing in line at a Chicago food bank with footage of a 1930s bread line.

The film makes another, even more important connection to the 1930s: the factory occupations that were at the heart of the labor upsurge of that era. Newsreel footage of the Flint, Mich., autoworkers' sit-down strike of 1936-37, mass rallies and old labor songs suddenly have a contemporary relevance. Friend emphasizes those connections by including incisive commentary by Sharon Smith, author of Subterranean Fire: A History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States and a SocialistWorker.org columnist.

WITH SMITH providing historical context, Friend uses interviews from four worker leaders and a UE organizer to explain the workers' motivations, goals and hopes.

UE Local 1110 President Armando Robles describes the Republic Windows workforce--75 percent Latino, including many immigrants, and 25 percent African American. Robles recounts how the Republic workers participated, through UE, in the mass immigrant rights march of 2006, which raised the level of politics and organization in the local. He credits his union for developing leadership in the plant. "I see UE as a factory of leaders--they teach us how to be leaders," he says in an interview segment.

Also featured is Raúl Flores, a rank-and-file union member who emerged as a key activist in the struggle. "When I found out I was going to lose my job, it was like the end of the world for me," he recalls.

Another interviewee, Rocio Perez also conveys the anger and outrage at Gillman's attempt to take the workers' money and run. "These days its really hard to find a job. I'm a single mother. I have five kids. That was the saddest part for me. Christmas was coming and my kids had already asked for certain gifts. I felt worse for my kids than for me."

But that despair soon turned into a fightback. Making use of news coverage, still photography and his own excellent camerawork, Friend allows us to see the workers debate, organize, and take action. We watch Robles, Maclin and others speak to supporters, along with UE organizer Leah Fried, who systematically and tirelessly made the workers' case clear to even the most clueless corporate media representatives.

Also seen and heard from are teachers, hospital workers, Teamsters, public sector employees, construction workers, telephone techs and other union activists. We see religious leaders like Rev. Jesse Jackson deliver food, and student groups organizing solidarity. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, who played an important role in negotiations, is also prominent.

Providing background and an inside look at the union's bargaining is commentary from Mark Meinster, a UE representative who was central to the action. Meinster succinctly explains why Bank of America was willing to make a deal. Having just received $25 billion in federal bailout money, Bank of America was already under intense pressure.

But UE also learned that Bank of America executives had agreed to the liquidation of Republic Windows with full knowledge that workers wouldn't receive their severance pay, even though such a move violated federal law.

But it wasn't just Bank of America that was feeling the heat. Meinster recalls what happened when the final negotiations hit a snag: "The president of the Chamber of Commerce, when things were looking a little dicey, addressed the group, and said, 'Look we've got to settle this. Because if we don't, this kind of thing could start happening all over the country. And if that happens, the whole system could be threatened.'"

Rather than take that risk, Bank of America threw in the towel. The workers got their money, and some of them got their jobs back under a new owner, Serious Materials, which has pledged to rehire the rest of the union workforce when production picks up.

But the sparks from the occupation of Republic Windows & Doors are still flying. Robles remains a key activist in the immigrant rights movement, for example, and he and other workers are regular speakers at labor and community organizing events.

Now, Workers' Republic will carry their voices to the national and international audience that looked to that fight for inspiration for their own struggles. Because as Raúl Flores says in the film, "This is not just for Republic workers. This is the start of something. This is the beginning."

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