On Thursday morning, December 11th, the 250 workers occupying the Republic Windows and Doors factory in Chicago had something to be proud of: they had fought back against one of the biggest banks in the U.S. and had won all of the severance pay owed to them. The workers unanimously agreed Wednesday evening to approve a deal reached between negotiators from their union, the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers, and Republic's creditor, Bank of America, prompting an end to the six day occupation.
While the struggle did not result in keeping the factory open and jobs in place, the UE workers were able to win an important partial victory by winning the money owed to them. Bank of America agreed to pay $1.7 million into a fund to pay the workers' severance and back vacation pay as well as health benefits, a demand the financial giant (which is set to receive $25 billion in another Wall Street bailout) had previously refused.
The occupation began on Friday, December 5th when Republic workers voted to occupy their workplace, after learning that the company had canceled health benefits and would be closing down the Chicago factory and relocating under a different name to a new location. Republic Windows and Doors' owners tried to take the workers by surprise by giving only a few days notice of the closure, violating the 60 days notice or equivalent pay that is mandated by the federal WARN Act, and sought to excuse their violation of federal law by pointing to the cancellation of the company line of credit through Bank of America. It was revealed in the press that the laid-off workers' non-union replacements at the owners' new facility would be paid significantly lower wages and receive only sub-par benefits. The workers replied to the actions of the company and the bank by occupying the factory.
The occupation itself was carried out in a very orderly way, with workers going into the factory in large groups at a time, so that individual workers could not be arrested or intimidated by police. Workers entered and left the factory in this way in three shifts each day. The discipline followed by the workers ensured that there were no incidents of violence by the police or provocateurs. Inside the factory, two committees were set up: a Safety Committee, which was responsible for ensuring that no factory equipment was damaged, and a Cleaning Committee, which shoveled snow, salted sidewalks, cleaned bathrooms, mopped floors and cleaned windows during the occupation. The workers also established strict rules inside the factory: no alcohol, no smoking, and no non-union members were allowed on the shop floor.
The occupation at Republic Windows and Doors, along with the unprecedented media coverage it received, has given an emboldening example to the millions of other workers across the country who also facing cuts and workplace closings. While an upsurge in the number of strikes is not certain in the immediate period, due to the fact that many working people across the U.S. are worried about holding onto their jobs in the midst of the recession, the Republic struggle shows how quickly a defensive struggle can become transformed into an offensive one.
Moreover, the fact that the Republic workers were confronting a bailed-out bank that refused to use public money to maintain jobs struck a sore point not just for the Republic workers but for millions of others across the country. More and more workers and youth are questioning the values and viability of capitalism and many are starting to search for an alternative. This changing consciousness was clearly expressed by one worker quoted in the Chicago Sun Times: “Raul Flores, 27, said he has only been home once in three days to shower. 'The big companies, they get the big money, and what do we get? Just a kick in the ass. . . . I'm not scared because I'm not alone."
Workers, students and activists in Chicago and across the nation joined the Republic workers on site, made donations, and contributed much needed supplies and messages of support. Solidarity came from FRETECO in Venezuela, the Revolutionary Front of Occupied Factories under Workers' Control, from the worker-occupied Flaskô factory in Brazil, from Spanish trade unionists and many others. Many joined solidarity events in several major cities. One event, held outside Bank of America's Chicago headquarters on Wednesday, December 10th, attracted nearly 1,000 supporters.
However, the size of these rallies was smaller than what they could have been. While the Chicago Central Labor Council (CCLC) issued press releases supporting the Republic workers and sent speakers from member unions to the rallies, the city's labor leadership failed to organize a single rally. The rallies were largely organized by inter-faith coalitions and immigrant rights activists. The CCLC also failed to organize any kind of real mass mobilization of the 1.6 million trade unionists in the Chicago area to support the Republic occupation through rallies, marches or other actions. The occupation almost immediately earned the support of workers, union and non-union, both locally and nationally, and if the CCLC leadership had moved to mobilize such actions the call would have been answered.
If this had been done the results of the occupation could have been different. If the AFL-CIO and Change to Win leaderships had combined mass actions with boldly demanding that the federal government nationalize and re-open closed and closing workplaces, this could have further emboldened the Republic workers to hold out until a complete victory, with the factory remaining open and the nearly 300 union jobs it provided staying in place. Unfortunately, none of this was done, and the CCLC leadership effectively side-lined the Republic occupation and despite the fact that these workers are now out of jobs, they have declared the struggle a complete victory.
The Democratic Party actively intervened in the occupation, most notably President-elect Barack Obama and Representative Luis Gutierrez (D-IL). The Democrats stepped into their role of “friends of working people” by acting as “impartial arbiters” between the bosses and the UE. However, as has happened time and again, this party used its role as arbiter in order to steer the struggle into “safe” confines, in this instance by working with Bank of America to give the workers as little as could be given in order to end the occupation. The Republic occupation also gave the incoming Democratic President an opportunity to play-up his carefully cultivated “worker friendly” image in order to buy an amount of public confidence in advance for the economic policies of his administration. But what kind of alternative will Obama offer?
Much media attention was given to Obama's visit to the factory, where he gave a speech in which he said: “When it comes to the situation here in Chicago with the workers who are asking for their benefits and payments they have earned, I think they are absolutely right.” When it came to keeping the factory open, he outlined his own economic recovery plan:
“When you have a financial system that is shaky, credit contracts. Businesses large and small start cutting back on their plants and equipment and their workforces. That's why it's so important for us to maintain a strong financial system. But it's also important for us to make sure that the plans and programs that we design aren't just targeted at maintaining the solvency of banks, but they are designed to get money out the doors and to help people on Main Street. So, number one, I think that these workers, if they have earned their benefits and their pay, then these companies need to follow through on those commitments.” (emphasis added.)
While couching his recovery plan in statements about the Republic workers being “absolutely right,” the plan itself is to simply give the bankers yet more of the taxpayers' money and hope that they will then re-invest into “Main Street.” The problem here is that it is impossible to force privately-owned banks to lend credit in a way that benefits the working class majority. This is because these are profit-making institutions that will only invest in areas of the economy that they believe will give them a good return on their investment, and with the capitalist economy in a complete mess the banks are simply holding onto these funds and further paralyzing the economy through a lack of credit. Further bailouts of the big banks will not turn the economy around anytime soon. It is not the lack of credit that has caused the crisis, but rather, the crisis of the capitalist system itself that is spiraling into a nightmare of collapsing housing and stock markets, rocketing unemployment, and an uncertain future.
So, while President-elect Obama said that the Republic workers are “absolutely right” and should be paid the severance pay that they are owed, the solution he proposes is to give Bank of America (along with the other banks) yet more public funding. Unfortunately, this kind of bosses' “solution” has already been tried but did not prevent the bankers and the bosses from attempting to close the factory in the first place! The only real solution is to nationalize Republic and every other factory that is in danger of being shut down, to be run under democratic workers' control, in the interest of the whole of society. However, given the illusions many have in Obama, his word of support, given because he could not afford to be seen as “anti-worker” in his own city before his honeymoon period has even started, could embolden workers across the country to follow the Republic workers' example. Despite his real intentions and the big business interests he truly represents, the idea that “Obama supports workers in struggle” could potentially unleash a wave of similar struggles, which could take on a dynamic of their own.
“Window of Opportunity”
The Republic factory occupation, the first in the U.S. since the 1930s, has given thousands of trade union militants, youth and activists, who have lived through a long period of defeats and setbacks, a tremendous amount of justifiable enthusiasm. Many union members, activists and organizations have declared the Republic strike a complete victory. While it is certain that this struggle marks an important turning point for the modern labor movement, and that the Republic workers were able to fight back and win at least their most immediate demands for severance and back pay, they were not able to keep the factory open. The nearly 300 union jobs that the factory provided are now gone, and for this reason the Republic strike can really only be called a partial victory, although an important one. The bold action taken by the Republic rank and file to defend their jobs has shown millions of workers – and not only in the U.S. – that a class struggle policy pays and that it is possible to fight back against the bosses' attempts to close our workplaces.
After the occupation ended, the UE announced that it was initiating the “Window of Opportunity” fund, which would be used to pool the thousands of dollars in donations the Republic workers received during the struggle from across the country and world, along with seed money from the national UE union in order to re-open the factory. However, it will be difficult to say the least to re-open the factory based on donations alone. What is needed is a national movement, led by the AFL-CIO and Change to Win unions, that can put millions on the streets to push the federal government to fund our communities and services. The labor leadership needs to mobilize the working class to demand an economic recovery plan to re-open and capitalize closed factories under public ownership, to be run under democratic workers' control. To re-open the Republic factory, along with hundreds of others nationwide already shuttered or threatened with closure, our unions must take up the fight for a working class bailout – let the rich foot the bill! And as they say in the occupied factory movement in Latin America: “A Factory Closed is a Factory Occupied!”
Source: U.S. Socialist Appeal
Videos from the occupation
- USA: Students Occupy the New School! by Karl Berlin (December 18, 2008)
- USA: Messages of Solidarity for the Republic Workers by US Socialist Appeal (December 11, 2008)
- USA: Workers Occupy Chicago Factory by David May in the USA (December 8, 2008)