Unionized workers camped out at the Republic Windows & Doors factory in Chicago after being laid off in December of last year. (Photo: AFP / Getty Images)
Chicago union struggle pays off.
If anyone doubts there is a new mood of change since Barack Obama was elected president, they should ask the factory workers at Republic Windows & Doors in Chicago. Their action, and the support they received from Obama, suggests the White House will no longer be the automatic enemy of trade unions.
At the beginning of December, 240 workers at Republic Windows & Doors in Chicago illegally occupied their manufacturing plant for six days after their employer abruptly told them he was shutting down the factory. The men were all members of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE), a small but feisty union that has always been in the progressive wing of the American labour movement. Their action worked. They had messages of support from all over the United States, including from Barack Obama. And they got what they asked for: 60 days of severance pay, earned vacation pay and two months' healthcare insurance.
This is a far cry from the social conflict that began with the presidency of Ronald Reagan 28 years ago. But even though Obama is a Democrat not a Republican, the speed of his endorsement of the Republic workers' protest showed a rare courage. It was the kind of bold leadership that progressives have been hoping for, but hadn't expected to see so soon. Among Democrats, both Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter before him had been discreet, to say the least, in their support of the union movement. Even Franklin Roosevelt, the iconic liberal leader, didn't embrace worried workers' escalating demands until after his inauguration in March 1933, when a quarter of the workforce was unemployed. The workers' protest, in the deteriorating economic situation, was reminiscent of similar actions by workers during the Depression and by civil rights activists in the 1960s.
Like those earlier protests, the Republic factory occupation was not a spontaneous action, but a well-planned strategy. In November, several workers noticed that equipment had disappeared from the plant. During a late-night vigil, they traced it to a nearby rail yard, and concluded that the company was planning to close their plant. What they did not know at the time was that Republic's owners had set up a new company, Echo Windows, and purchased a window and door manufacturing plant in a small town, Red Oak, Iowa, where the workers are not unionised.
Anticipating the possibility of the factory closing, Mark Meinster, a UE union organiser, talked with Armando Robles, a maintenance worker at the plant for eight years and president of the union's Local 1110, about the possibility of a sit-in. Robles liked the idea, but realised it was risky. He worried that "we'd basically be trespassing on private property," according to the New York Times. "We might get arrested." But when Robles discussed the idea with other Republic workers, they embraced the plan. "We knew keeping the windows in the warehouse was a bargaining chip," Melvin Maclin, a groove cutter and vice president of the union chapter, told the New York Times (1).
"Yes, We Can"
On 2 December, Barry Dubin, the company's chief operating officer, announced that Republic would shut the factory three days later. He explained that the Bank of America had cancelled Republic's line of credit, making it impossible to stay in business - or even to pay employees the severance and vacation pay they'd earned. The company immediately terminated the workers' health insurance. On 5 December, the union organised a meeting in the factory cafeteria. When Robles asked the workers if they would be willing to occupy the plant, all hands went up. The employees - 80% of them Hispanic - shouted "Sâˆšâ‰ , se puede!" (Yes, we can!). This slogan, popularised by the United Farmworkers Union in the 1960s, became the motto of Obama's presidential campaign.
The workers set up three shifts and established committees in charge of cleanup, security and safety. They taped a sign up on the cafeteria wall banning alcohol, drugs and smoking. They peacefully took over the plant, where some of them had worked for decades, and demanded that the Bank of America and Republic management find a solution. They insisted that they wouldn't leave until they got assurances they would receive severance and vacation pay. Some even hoped to find a way to keep the plant open.
The Bank of America, one of the nation's largest banks, said that the cancellation was routine business practice, caused by Republic's cash flow problem in the wake of the nation's declining housing construction. (The company supplies windows and doors for new homes.) When the sit-in began, the North Carolina-based bank issued a statement, blaming the company for the workers' plight. "When a company faces such a dire situation, its lender is not empowered to direct the company's management how to manage its affairs and what obligations should be paid. Such decisions belong to the management and owners of the company." The bank's statement reflected the kind of free-market fundamentalism that has led a growing number of Americans to demand more government regulation of big business.
Although the workers were breaking the law by occupying the factory, no politician called for the Chicago Police Department to arrest them - a sure sign that their action had become a symbol of working families' distress in the unravelling Bush economy. The sit-in began the same day that President Bush reluctantly acknowledged, for the first time, that the country was in a recession. He released a Department of Labour report revealing that US employers axed 533,000 jobs in November, the biggest monthly cut since 1974.
The media were not slow to pick up the story. On 7 December, at a news conference to announce his new Veterans Affairs director, Obama was asked by a reporter about the Republic workers' sit-in in his hometown of Chicago. Obama, a former community activist, replied: "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. What's happening to them is reflective of what's happening across this economy. 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." He continued: "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 programmes 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."
The message was clear: it was up to the Bank of America and Republic to forge a solution.
Representatives of the company, the Bank of America, and the union began meeting at the bank's office in downtown Chicago. Congressman Luis Gutierrez, a liberal Democrat from Chicago, moderated the talks.
"We were cutting out glass for an order for 1,000 new windows last week," 34-year-old Vicente Rangel, a Republic employee for 15 years, told the Los Angeles Times. "There was work to do. Then, the bosses called us to a meeting and said everyone was quitting, whether they wanted to or not." The union workers earned an average of $14 an hour, and received health insurance and retirement benefits as part of their union contract.
Americans Rallied to the Cause
Americans around the country rallied to the Republic workers' cause. Through their unions, religious congregations and community groups, they sent money, food, clothing, blankets, and good wishes. The union set up a website (2) to encourage donations and to keep people informed about the sit-in. During the workers' occupation, protesters picketed Bank of America branches around the country as well as the bank's headquarters in Charlotte, North Carolina. A coalition of unions and community groups, Jobs with Justice, held a rally at Chicago City Hall and threatened to organise a boycott of the Bank of America if the problem wasn't resolved.
Union members and politicians highlighted the irony that Bank of America had just received $25 billion of the US government's bank bailout funds, designed to push banks to start lending money again. The bank's hypocrisy wasn't lost on elected officials. After US Senator Dick Durbin, a liberal Democrat from Illinois and close adviser to Obama, visited the plant, he expressed support for the workers and said: "The taxpayer dollars going into these big banks are not for dividends, they're not for executive salaries," according to the Chicago Tribune. "They're for loans and credit to businesses just like Republic, so they can stay in business and so these workers won't be out on the street unemployed" (3).
A Call for Hearings
Union officials and politicians suggested that the company may also have violated the federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act, a 1988 law that requires employers to provide employees and community 60 days' notice in advance of plant closings and large-scale layoffs. Chicago city officials called for hearings on Republic, which received more than $10m in city redevelopment funds. They suggested withdrawing hundreds of millions of dollars of government funds from the Bank of America.
The combination of the workers' sit-in, support from Obama and other politicians, and the accelerating bad publicity forced the Bank of America to give in. Initially, Republic's Richard Gillman (who earns $225,000 a year) demanded that the bank loan also cover the lease of his company cars - a BMW and a Mercedes S500 - as well as eight weeks of his salary, but eventually he backed down. The bank then agreed to provide $1.35 million for Republic's layoff package. "We never expected this," Melvin Maclin, vice president of the UE local, told Associated Press about the support they've received. "We expected to go to jail" (4). Although the Republic workers are now jobless, the union and Chicago city officials are trying to find a new owner to reopen the plant.
The symbolism of the workers' takeover added credence to Obama's call for a major government-funded infrastructure programme that is expected to stimulate several million jobs - almost all of them in the private sector - and help jumpstart the ailing economy. "There is always a demand for windows and doors," said UE president Carl Rosen. "But with Barack Obama's stimulus proposal, there will be even greater demand for the products made by Republic's workers. It doesn't make sense to close this plant when the need is so obvious."
The Republic factory sit-in wasn't the only sign of a new mood of workers' activism as the Bush era closed down and the Obama regime began. On 11 December, after a brutal 15-year organising battle, workers at the world's largest hog-killing plant in Tar Heel, North Carolina, voted to unionise. The workers at the 5,000-employee Smithfield Packing slaughterhouse had rejected union membership in 1994 and again in 1997, after being subjected to illegal harassment and intimidation by the company in a state known for its anti-union laws.
The workers' vote in favour of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) was one of the largest private-sector union victories in many years and the biggest in the UFCW's history. About 60% of the slaughterhouse's workers are African American.
Peter Dreier is director of the Urban & Environmental Policy Program, Occidental College, Los Angeles.
(1) Michael Luo and Karen Ann Cullotta, "Even workers surprised by success of factory sit-in", The New York Times, 12 December 2008.
(2) UE union.
(3) Robert Mitchum and Deanese Williams-Harris, "Pressure mounts in plant sit-in", Chicago Tribune, 9 December 2008.
(4) "Chicago workers' sit-in becomes rallying point", Associated Press, 7 December 2008.