The Republic Workers Remind Us That Direct Action Gets the Goods

By Jake Carman

At a time when Big Business gets big government bailouts but workers are laid off and tenants and homeowners are evicted, the employees of the Republic Windows and Doors factory in Chicago have taken matters into their own hands. And they have won.

On December 5, following the announcement that the factory of 300 employees would close in three days, 250 of those workers began a sit-down strike; a move that could catalyze a working-class renaissance of resistance in the United States.

Republic CEO Rich Gillman had informed the workers that although Bank of America recently received a $25 billion bailout, it was pulling its loan from the factory. As a result, Gillman gave his employees three days notice of Republic’s closure – well short of the 60 days notice required by federal law.

Facing the grim prospect of joining countless others in the unemployment line, the workers – members of the United Electrical Workers (UE) Local 1110 – refused to leave. The occupation lasted five days and quickly earned attention from the media, politicians and others, shaming Bank of America back to the bargaining table. The well-known activist Reverend Jesse Jackson brought food to the workers, saying, "These workers are to this struggle perhaps what Rosa Parks was to social justice 50 years ago...This, in many ways, is the beginning of a larger movement for mass action to resist economic violence." President-elect Barack Obama also offered his support. "When it comes to the situation here in Chicago," he said, "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."

On December 9, Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich announced that his state's government would boycott Bank of America until the loan to Republic was reinstated. The next morning, however, the FBI arrested Blagojevich for alleged corruption. As a result, media attention shifted from the Republic factory to the Governor’s arrest, and all the cars on the street outside of the factory were towed. The workers inside then issued a call for support, fearing a raid on their plant. The raid, however, never came.

The politicians and corporate media were not the only ones paying attention. According to Giuseppe, an eyewitness to the occupation who preferred to use just his first name, "There is definitely an increased sense of class consciousness...other workers have been inspired." He also said that the mainstream unions, who previously shunned UE, have pledged to use similar tactics, and Republic workers have vowed to offer the same kind of solidarity and support that they received to others struggling in the future.

After only five days of occupation, media attention and the resulting public outcry, Bank of America agreed to reinstate some of their loan, along with $400,000 from JP Morgan Chase. According to the Chicago Independent Media Center, "Late Wednesday night...more than 200 workers and members of UE Local 1110 voted unanimously to accept a $1.75 million settlement that includes eight weeks of back pay, two months of continued health coverage and compensation for unused vacation time." "We fought to make them pay what they owe us, and we won," said Local 1110 representatives.

Republic has stated that it will not reopen the plant, and neither will its landlord, the Mars candy corporation. The union, according to Giuseppe, "has created the ‘Windows of Opportunities Fund’ to raise the money to buy the factory, which would make it essentially worker-managed. There hasn’t been discussion about what that would look like."

As Boston City Councilor Chuck Turner said in an interview, "The workers in Chicago are showing us the way...We see them stand up and say 'If them, why not us?' That's the nature of evolutionary/revolutionary change." Like the Chicago workers who led the 1880s movement that won us the eight-hour day, the workers of the Republic Windows and Doors factory are an example for the rest of us. The government is willing to use our tax dollars to help the richest CEOs keep their companies, but when it comes to defending what is ours – our jobs, our homes, our communities and our futures – the only way to win is to band together and fight back. "They want the poor person to stay down. We're here, and we're not going anywhere until we get what's fair and what's ours," Silvia Mazon, 47, told the New York Times. Mazon is a formerly apolitical mother and worker at the factory for 13 years. "They thought they would get rid of us easily," she said, "but if we have to be here for Christmas, it doesn't matter."

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