Workers’ Republic

by Scott McLemee on December 12, 2008

The Labor Beat video group is putting together a documentary about the victorious occupation of the Republic Windows and Doors factory in Chicago. The filmmakers were—unless I’m mistaken—the only media group given constant access to the inside of the factory during this action. They’ve put up a ten minute selection of footage on YouTube:



The reinvention of this tactic after more than half a century probably owes less to the historical memory of the union (considerable though that is in the case of UE) than to the example of actions in Brazil and Argentina that followed the slogan “Occupy, Resist, Produce.”

Either way, it’s an instance of moral economy reasserting itself amidst crisis. I see that interpretation comes up in the short article that Nelson Lichtenstein (author of a biography of Walter Reuther) and Christopher Phelps (now working on a book about strikes and social thought) wrote earlier this week for the CNN website:

Factory occupations are rare because they violate the everyday laws of property, and for the most part American workers are law-abiding people. They occur only when workers feel morally aggrieved, when they sense that ownership has itself violated the law, when the boss has become the outlaw in their eyes and in that of the community as well….

It is hardly surprising that Republic’s workers have laid temporary claim to the factory in which some have given decades of their lives. Its owners and creditors have forfeited their own claims, both moral and legal, to rightful stewardship.

As Sen. Robert Wagner said in response to the 1937 sit-downs, “The uprising of the common people has come, as always, only because of a breakdown in the ability of the law and our economic system to protect their rights.”

{ 25 comments }

1

christian h. 12.12.08 at 7:49 pm

This is a huge success, especially since it was given quite a lot of media coverage in a media landscape usually completely uninterested in labor issues.

It’s this kind of people fighting for their rights that will bring “change”, not some neo-liberal hack in the White House.

(Sen. Wagner got it wrong in ’37, of course: the capitalist legal system was never designed to protect workers’ rights. Resistance occurs therefore not when the “system fails”, but rather when its success becomes glaringly obvious.)

2

Slocum 12.12.08 at 8:24 pm

So apparently Blagojevich used the same methods with Bank of America that he did with the Tribune Editorial page to strong-arm Bank of America into lending additional money to a bankrupt company:

On Monday, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich said he would order all state agencies to stop doing business with Charlotte-based BofA (NYSE: BAC) because of the plant’s closing. The announcement came a day before Blagojevich was arrested by federal agents and charged with conspiracy in a widespread corruption scandal.

http://milwaukee.bizjournals.com/triangle/stories/2008/12/08/daily35.html

Strong-arming banks into making loans to failing companies which loans are unlikely to be repaid…now there’s a good idea in the midst of a credit crisis.

Should more be done for laid off workers? Yes — I’d say unemployment benefits should be extended, for example. But this is just not the right way to do things. With this kind of precedent, anybody thinking of setting up (or expanding) a small manufacturing company in Chicago would have to have his or her head examined.

3

lemuel pitkin 12.12.08 at 8:38 pm

Sen. Wagner got it wrong in ‘37, of course: the capitalist legal system was never designed to protect workers’ rights.

This was not Marx’s view, you know. He called the Union victory in the Civil War the greatest world-historical event of his lifetime and thought that in the United States, unlike Europe, it might be possible for socialism to be achieved constitutionally.

4

lemuel pitkin 12.12.08 at 8:39 pm

(Oops, the dreaded ‘s’ word. Is that ever going to get fixed?)

5

Ray 12.12.08 at 9:13 pm

Slocum – “But this is just not the right way to do things”

No, of course not. This way, the workers got the severance pay they were legally entitled to, and that’s just not on. They should have written a plaintive letter to George Bush, and – who knows? – he might have sent them a turkey.

6

lemuel pitkin 12.12.08 at 9:52 pm

With this kind of precedent, anybody thinking of setting up (or expanding) a small manufacturing company in Chicago would have to have his or her head examined.

Slocum makes a good point: It would be very unfortunate if this kind of direct action remains limited to Chicago.

7

Slocum 12.12.08 at 10:02 pm

“This way, the workers got the severance pay they were legally entitled to, and that’s just not on. “

But who’s to say ‘that’s just not on’ at this point? There have already been legal cases regarding how the WARN act applies to bankrupt employers:

http://library.findlaw.com/2000/Aug/1/127423.html

Why is a governor strong-arming a bank the right way to proceed here rather than the normal legal process? Doesn’t it seem possible to you that the harm done here to the future of these kinds of jobs in Chicago (and elsewhere) may greatly outweigh the value of the pyrrhic victory here? Banks may conclude from this that they need to cut off credit earlier to make sure that any settlement can be extracted from the employer, not them. And employers may conclude that they’d better pack it in earlier, rather than pull out every stop trying to keep going. And then, in a few years, when the housing business picks back up, if you were a member of the family who owned ‘Republic Windows’, would you be inclined to re-open the factory in Chicago or a new one in, say, Alabama?

8

eric 12.12.08 at 10:44 pm

@Slocum: “if you were a member of the family who owned ‘Republic Windows’,”

Do you mean the J.P. Morgan family, which owns 40% of the company — and which has thus far received $25 billion in no-strings-attached TARP money?

9

MarkUp 12.12.08 at 11:22 pm

”Banks may conclude from this that they need to cut off credit earlier to make sure that any settlement can be extracted from the employer, not them. And employers may conclude that they’d better pack it in earlier, rather than pull out every stop trying to keep going.”

Of course if going under is the result either way, then going out with some assets the works may be able to get seems more prudent all around. Of course no one knows where/when the “last stop” is pulled or if down the road there is a future…

10

Steven Attewell 12.13.08 at 12:11 am

Slocum:

All of this concern for legality seems a bit suspect when the same firm seems to be opening up in Iowa under the name Echo Windows. Bankruptcy law is one thing when the firm in question is really going bankrupt (even then, it’s not an excuse to pay people dimes on the dollar on backpay, pensions, etc.) , but it’s something else when it’s an excuse to smash union contracts.

11

Thomas 12.13.08 at 1:46 am

The workers are entitled to pay from their employer, but the fact that they’re owed a particular sum by their employer doesn’t mean they can take it from, say, BofA, or even Ray. But that’s what happened here. Ray, if the employees didn’t get all they were owed (maybe they only got 90 cents on the dollar) would you mind if they took the rest from you? You’re in the same position vis a vis these workers as BofA, save perhaps the fact that you actually think that you being in your position and them being in theirs means they have a right to your money. So, really, get on with giving it to them.

Steven, it isn’t the same firm that’s opening in Iowa. That’s a firm called Echo Windows. It seems that the Chicago firm really is bankrupt, which is an excuse, legally speaking. It may all seem empty formalism, and perhaps the shield of limited liability is a bad idea too, but the way to address those issues is straight-ahead, and not ad hoc for the benefit of some particular group of workers (and for the benefit of a particularly unpopular governor who was trying to change the subject even before he was arrested).

12

bh 12.13.08 at 4:03 am

Did anyone commenting actually watch the movie? I thought it was really well-put together, and quite moving.

And Christian H, it’s worth pointing out that the ‘neo-liberal hack’ about to occupy the White House supported the workers in this case.

13

MarkUp 12.13.08 at 4:20 am

Did anyone commenting actually watch the movie?

There’s not going to be a test is there?

Now only if the UAW had taken a similar action 3 or 4 [10 or 12] years ago, en masse, not over pay and benefit, but over quality and progress in solving issues beyond cosmetic model year changes….

14

christian h. 12.13.08 at 6:00 am

lemuel (3.), I fail to see your point. Clearly, Marx did not dispute that a society’s legal system is an expression of the state of class struggle in that society. He might have suggested once that in the US (at a particular historical juncture), the “social revolution” needed to achieve socialism could be obtained by constitutional means, but certainly that does not imply the legal superstructure of the country wouldn’t be radically transformed by that social revolution.

bh, of course he did. So did Blago and every other politician desiring union support. So? That kind of lip-service after the fact means nothing. It only reinforces the point that it is up to the people to lead the way where the politicians wouldn’t dare tread on their own. The success here was a result of the militant action taken. Had the workers just written a letter to their representative, they would have gotten nothing.

15

Wissen 12.13.08 at 8:24 am

I don’t know that the technique of the occupation was ever forgotten. And I don’t know that the Chicagoans were the first to reinstigate it. This from Germany last year: http://www.labournet.de/branchen/sonstige/fahrzeug/alix_engl.html

16

Paul 12.13.08 at 2:01 pm

Power to the peeps in this instance ! Levellers forever !

17

Barry 12.13.08 at 2:32 pm

Ah, Slocum. If you had bee born several decades earlier, you’d have been among the 25% or so who voted Republican in 1936, and you’d have spent the rest of your life cursing the Democratic president who saved your *ss from a fate richly deserved.

18

bh 12.13.08 at 2:40 pm

@14

It wasn’t lip service after the fact. Obama’s statement was on the 7th, and the action ended on the 10th. I can’t say how significant his statement was for the negotiations, but I do think it’s an example of the moral economy Scott’s referring to.

And more generally, you’re contrasting Obama with the workers in a way that just doesn’t make sense. For actions to be successfully, there needs to be grassroots support and a favorable legal and political environment. If Obama fails to provide that, we’ll both have plenty to complain about, but I think it’s fair to hold fire until he’s, you know, actually president.

And the Blagojevich reference is a classy touch, btw. Kind of like a minor-league version of the you-know-who was a vegetarian argument.

19

a 12.13.08 at 3:36 pm

“Kind of like a minor-league version of the you-know-who was a vegetarian argument.”

Okay, I’ll bite. Lord Voldemort?

20

Henry 12.13.08 at 3:51 pm

Following up on bh’s comments: that certainly was true when the UAW occupied several of GM’s plants in Flint in 1936-37: if Frank Murphy hadn’t been governor, or FDR President, then it would have ended differently.

Which is why Obama’s timely support was so important. Our national discourse has become so poisoned over the past few years; we need actions like this to reframe the debate. And how about appointing Luis Gutierrez to replace Obama?

21

bh 12.13.08 at 4:46 pm

If you want to see a contrasting approach to labor-government relations, you can check out this document:

http://thenewshole.msnbc.msn.com/archive/2008/12/12/1713569.aspx

Henry, I also was impressed by Gutierrez’s performance in the video. I thought he did a really good job of explaining the almost-wonkish point that the workers, through their then-unpaid labor, had a valid interest in the remaining inventory.

22

bh 12.14.08 at 6:43 am

a,

Let’s just say I already hit a Godwin chalk line in 18.

23

MikeJ 12.14.08 at 1:53 pm

I don’t understand the talk about “strong arming” BofA. Exactly how much business is the state of Illinois morally obligated to give to BofA? The only thing they were threatened with was the loss of future business. Are each of us personally required to give them a certain amount of our business, or just the gubmint?

24

engels 12.15.08 at 5:43 pm

[Marx] called the Union victory in the Civil War the greatest world-historical event of his lifetime and thought that in the United States, unlike Europe, it might be possible for socialism to be achieved constitutionally.

This doesn’t have anything to do with what Christian said. I think you are confusing Marx’s opinions about revolutionary tactics (in the mid-19th century US…) with his normative views of capitalism and its legal superstructure.

25

engels 12.15.08 at 5:59 pm

Great to see this getting so much attention, of course.

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