Three years ago, a worker occupation in Chicago saved a factory and sent up a flare of resistance. Three years on, workers at the same factory are illuminating not only how workers might resist layoffs but also what they might do next.
“Last time it took six days. This time it took about eleven hours.” That’s union representative Leah Fried describing winning another reprieve last week for the factory formerly known as Republic Windows and Doors.
In December 2008, days after receiving a $25 billion federal bailout, Bank of America cut off Republic’s credit, leading management to fire all 250 workers without pay or notice. With layoffs approaching 500,000 a month around the country, Republic’s workers and their union, the militant United Electrical Workers, voted to resist. They occupied the plant and stayed, winning the hearts of downcast Americans everywhere and inspiring even an incoming US president. Bank of America backed down, giving the factory time to find a new buyer, which it did, a company called Serious Energy.
Last Thursday morning, workers heard from Serious Energy that once again, the plant was to close at once with no notice and no severance. This time mobilization was speedy. As soon as word went out, allies started arriving. Former Republic employees, Occupy Chicago, ARISE, the Chicago Worker’s Collaborative, Jobs with Justice and Stand Up Chicago showed up primed with pizzas and tents and created a supportive cordon as workers negotiated with police. No need to wait for media to catch on; a live stream fed video to the world from the start. As workers inside prepared to bed down for the night, Serious Energy backed down, announcing a ninety-day stay.
“It’s come full circle.” Says Fried. It’s not just that, three years after the occupation at Republic, “Occupy” has acquired a Twitter handle and a whole new frame of reference. “It’s that, in the last few years, there’s been a real shift in our movements towards direct-action tactics,” says Fried.
Now workers are back at work and they and the company have ninety days to find a solution that doesn’t bring them back, three years hence, to this same place. That picture too, is looking different.
In early 2009, Fried and Republic worker Armando Robles, president of UE Local 1110, set out on a national speaking tour. I had a chance to speak with them on GRITtv, in the studio with Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis. Looking back at that segment now, I’m reminded that at that time, workers were occupying plants in Ireland, England and France. Militant tactics were in evidence all across Europe, as they had been for years already in the global South. Lewis and Klein’s film, The Take, documents the Argentinean response to factory closures—not just occupations but, in some cases, worker-ownership of the plants.
US workers needed stronger organizations, the GRITtv panel agreed, also social movements capable of supporting worker struggles. They needed something else too: ways for workers to become owner-operators of their own plants.
Today the workers in Chicago are pursuing exactly that. As it happens, later the same day that they appeared on GRITtv, Klein and Lewis introduced Fried and Robles to The Working World, which helps start and maintain worker-cooperatives. They started talking, and the talks have never stopped, reports Fried. Now they’re talking with The Working World about potentially setting up a fund for donations such that workers could make a bid on the struggling windows and doors plant, and run it as a worker co-op.
They are on an exciting track. If we are going to create an economy of justice, we need not just new popular pressure and new politicians; we need new models of production, distribution, marketing and ownership. In 2009, weatherization money in the Democrats’ stimulus package helped Serious Energy keep Republic afloat. That was stimulus done right. But it wasn’t enough. Now business isn’t booming and Serious wants out. If the plant were operated without fat CEO salaries and with very differently invested shareholders, would the decisions now being made, be different?
Participants in the worker-owned co-op movement believe so. From the venerable Park Slope Food Coop to Madison’s Union Cab, thousands of cooperatives exist in the United States. They're relatively apolitical as yet. As Cheyenna Weber, a co-op activist with the New Economy working group at Occupy Wall Street, puts it:
“This kind of militancy is pretty outside the experience of the average American white worker, but that doesn't seem to be the case with workers with roots in the global South. (That's true here in NYC, too, where many of the Latina worker co-ops have experience in cooperative cultures prior to forming.)”
One small factory in Chicago could be ground zero not once but twice, for a power shift. In 2008, the factory was saved by the workers’ own defiance, their organization and their ability to tell an effective story about bailout injustice at just the right political moment. President Obama had been elected but not yet inaugurated. Voters still loomed larger on his— and the nation’s—landscape than the bankers and bullies of the establishment. As a candidate, Barack Obama trod the picket line with striking hotel workers. President-elect Obama spoke out in support of Republic, but as Naomi Klein pointed out on GRITtv back then, “the Republic workers won without help from any president.”