The Real Audacity of Hope

Republic Windows Workers Stand Their Ground

By Kari Lydersen and James Tracy

This is a web-only article from the website of Dollars & Sense: The Magazine of Economic Justice available at http://www.dollarsandsense.org/archives/2008/1208lydersentracy.html


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The 2008 holiday season is one of high hopes and high anxiety. Barack Obama’s November victory has raised expectations of meaningful change, while the Department of Labor estimates over a half million jobs lost in November alone.

Workers at Chicago’s Republic Windows and Doors weren’t waiting for the White House when they learned that they were losing their jobs due to a plant closing. They occupied their workplace, insisted on receiving their full vacation and sick days pay—and won. Whether it be the shape of things to come or just a fleeting moment remains to be seen. Their action forced the mainstream media to show the faces behind the statistics—ones filled with pride and defiance, not pity and powerlessness.

Last fall, workers at Republic noticed that important pieces of equipment had disappeared from their Goose Island warehouse. Alarmed, they notified their union, United Electrical Radio and Machine Workers of America, Local 1110 (otherwise known as UE), an independent union with a tradition of direct action. Republic’s management assured the union that no plant closure was afoot; and that the equipment would be replaced with modernized pieces.

Not willing to take the company’s word for it, the union covertly monitored the plant, and watched as trucks removed the very machinery needed to produce windows and doors. Meanwhile as the foreclosure crisis unfolded, Republic lost most of its contracts for new home construction.

Then on Tuesday, December 2, employees were told what they feared had been coming for a long-time. Friday, the plant would be shuttered. They were to come pick up their checks and file for unemployment. Company officials blamed the closing on the economic crisis, and on Bank of America, who they said clamped down on their credit despite a federal bailout package of $25 billion in taxpayer money.

“When we arrived to pick up our checks, we were told that we would not be getting paid for our accrued sick days,” said Melvin Maclin, Local 1110’s Vice President and Republic employee of seven years. Their health insurance was also cut off on Friday, December 5, despite an earlier promise it would extend until December 15. “At that point we had been told so many lies, we didn’t know what to believe.”

At look at Republic shows the faces of both organized labor past and present. A warehouse that produces actual products, instead of simply distributing them, is a rarity in de-industrialized America. The workers—largely Latino, many black, and a few white—reflect the shifts in Chicago’s population and the composition of the blue-collar sections of the working-class. Plant closures are a common part of the Midwest experience. What makes this saga uncommon is what the workers decided to do about it.

They voted to occupy the factory in order to force the company to pay their accrued vacation time as well as comply with the federal WARN Act of 1988, which mandates that companies give 60 days notice when plants are closed or mass lay-offs are planned, or pay each employee 60 days severance. Illinois law had actually extended the required notice time to 75 days.

The workers took turns sitting on the shop floor, rotating roughly in the shifts they would have normally worked. Members of local labor and community organizations continuously visited, offering words of support and freshly cooked food. Victor Emeric, a driver with Teamsters Local 705, delivered several boxes of food and underscored what he felt as the importance of the Republic action.

“Support is very important; so is solidarity. We’re hoping that the outcome of this is positive for the workers,” he said. “I hope that elected officials do the right thing, I try to remain optimistic, but past experience teaches me to know better than that.”

The union and company officials had reached an agreement that the workers would not be forcefully removed from the plant as long as they kept it safe and secure and only workers and union staff were allowed on the shop floor. (Supporters congregated in the small lobby and outside on the sidewalk, even in freezing rain and snow.)

Nonetheless, during the first few days of the sit-in rumors flew via text message and email that police would be ordered to evict workers from the plant. But officers keeping watch at the site seemed sympathetic to workers, perhaps another sign of how the economic crisis has affected such a wide swath of Americans and created alliances and empathy among those who wouldn’t have felt it before.

One police officer, dispatched to observe the occupation from across the Republic parking lot, refused to speak on the record about his feelings, or the position of the Chicago Police Department. But from his patrol car, he then eloquently explained how the economy was destroying the futures of everyday people “just trying to survive,” as plants close and pensions plans disappear.

On day four of the occupation, the union began negotiations with company and Bank of America officials, as workers and supporters waited eagerly for word of the outcome. Monday evening crowds waving picket signs and chanting “Si se puede” crowded around a bonfire in a trash can and formed a line to deliver donated food hand to hand into the factory.

Donte Watson, 30, said he was furious at company officials because he was proud of all the effort he had put into this job for eight years and had assumed he would work there for decades more and then retire. He was also angry that the company would close with orders still to fill because he didn’t want customers to be let down. “People put their blood, sweat, and tears into this company; it was our company too, not just the owners,” he said. “They knew this was coming and they didn’t say a word to us. They owed us more respect than that. We don’t want anything extra, we just want what we are owed.” The negotiations were continued to Tuesday, and then to Wednesday. Meanwhile during the day on Wednesday JPMorgan Chase bank offered a $400,000 line of credit to help pay the workers. Finally, on late Wednesday evening workers voted to accept a proposal from Bank of America creating $1.75 million in credit to pay health benefits for two months, severance and accrued vacation time.

It was a huge victory, a group of 260-some determined workers and their supporters convincing a major financial institution to reverse its position. But the bank didn’t agree to the union’s larger demand, that it finance the company to allow it to remain open. This was a tough question to tackle from political, legal and ethical standpoints: if a company is failing financially, to what extent if any is a bank—a private institution—required to subsidize them? And how does the equation change when that private institution has just received an infusion of $25 billion in public money?

The Republic Windows and Doors situation is complicated by insinuations that the owners were trying to move the plant to Iowa, perhaps to avoid having union workers. The owner had incorporated a similar business in Iowa, according to a trade journal cited in the New York Times, and that might explain the moving of equipment.

As this went to press, the workers were thrilled with their victory and the results of their direct action. But they also weren’t satisfied with taking the money—enough to survive for several months—and still having to find new jobs in this cut-throat economy. Yet they clearly demonstrated that in a shifting economic and political context, collective action can bring real results. Protests in support of Republic workers at Bank of America branches Philadelphia, San Francisco and Reno resulted in arrests of activists and added to national attention of the occupation.

The tactic of a takeover evoked memories of the Flint Sit-Down Strike of 1936 that established the United Auto Workers’ presence in the auto industry. Chicago has a long history of labor militancy and events there have often set the tone and tempo of the labor movement as a whole. In 1886, the Haymarket demonstrations, and subsequent massacres and trials of anarchist activists became a hallmark of the battle for the eight-hour day. Turn of the century strike of clothing workers against Hart, Shaffner and Marx in Chicago led by Sidney Hillman, which later led to the founding of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers.

“With this economic crisis and unemployment, there are no other jobs,” said Dagoberto Cervantes, 41, as his five-year-old son danced around with a picket sign on Monday evening.

This example has boosted the spirits of other workers facing what might be the dawn of the next depression. Across town, at the Congress Plaza Hotel, workers have been on strike for five years. Augustina Bahena, a Congress worker remarked, “Republic workers have given us all a lot of hope, and maybe some new ideas. The bailout needs to help workers. A corporation can’t receive millions of dollars just to finance layoffs.”

Back at Republic, the workers are talking about starting a co-op to run the factory, reminiscent by labor movements of the past and the factory take-overs by Argentine workers following the financial meltdown of the late 1990s.

Such a move would be a challenging undertaking, especially in this desperate financial climate. But the economic crisis has given people the sense they can no longer simply survive by laying low and not making waves. The status quo is no longer safe. As the workers realized when faced with the plant’s closing and denial of their wages, people have no choice but to take matters into their own hands.

Kari Lydersen is the Midwest correspondent for the Washington Post. She is a co-author of Shoot an Iraqi: Art Life and Resistance Under the Gun (City Lights Books). James Tracy is a San Francisco economic justice organizer and writer. He is a co-author of the upcoming Keep on the Firing Line: Working Class Whites, Radical Politics and the Original Rainbow Coalition (Melville House Publishing).

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