Big Victory in Chicago!

Mark Vorpahl

Having secured an agreement that met all their demands, the 200 United Electrical (UE) workers who had been occupying the “Republic Windows and Doors” plant in Chicago for six days, unanimously voted to end their action on December 10. This was the first large plant occupation in decades and the first labor action linked to combating the effects of the bi-partisan bailout. Because of their audacity and determination, these UE workers have not only won a victory for themselves, they have set an example for the future of the labor movement. In a period of rapidly rising unemployment, while the rich bankers are being bailed out, the win at Republic provides an inspiring antidote.

The workers will receive their two months of wages and benefits as well as unused vacation pay. The total amount is estimated at $1.75 million and comes out to roughly $7,000 per employee. While, under federal law, workers are entitled to such a package when a plant closes without giving 60 days notice, normally this takes months for the employees to receive since the union usually has to sue the company. There will be no such wait for Republic’s workers because of the action they took and the national attention and solidarity it galvanized. $1.35 million will come from the “Bank of America”, the plant’s main creditor. Another $400,000 will come from JP Morgan Chase & Co, who own 40% of the company.

But having won their demands for pay, the workers still faced with long-term unemployment in a declining job market. To address this crucial perspective, UE has recenly proposed a fund to restart the “Republic” plant under new management, and UE Western Region President Carl Rosen, is working with state agencies in hopes of finding financing. What this means for the rehiring of the laid off Republic workers, when, or even if, the plant will start up, and what conditions the workers will be expected to accept under the new management is unknown.

Based on these gains alone, the victory of these workers would appear to be very modest. However, the significance of the Republic occupation victory is far greater than it at first appears. Because of this struggle, many workers’ have learned that they can fight back and win against the effects of the economic recession and the bailouts by strategically using their collective strength at the worksite.

Many workers have also learned of the potential power that exists in our solidarity. Statements of support and donations poured in from around the world. In Chicago, a wide range of union leaders, rank and file union members, and activists came together. They provided food, blankets, coffee, and many energetically dedicated themselves to organizing support vigils and getting the word out. Without all this, the occupation may have failed. The intensity of all these efforts and the national echo they found, compelled even President-elect Obama to voice his support for the workers. By the time he spoke, national opinion was already lining up behind the UE members to such a degree that any other response would have been a public relations disaster.
While the bosses would prefer that, as times turn hard, we submissively bow our heads to their demands and compete with one another for a scarcity of jobs, money, and services, all this solidarity shows that just the opposite can result. In hard times workers can come together to aid one another and win in a struggle against what the capitalists want us to silently endure.

The success of the Republic occupation will likely inspire other similar actions. With this victory, as times grow harder, workers will be compelled to advance their methods and demands. If we can secure a victory at one factory, why can’t we spread an occupation to other worksites at the same time as well? If we can win a battle at a factory that has closed its doors like Republic, why not use an occupation at a factory that is still running to win our demands? And, if we can do this, why can’t we run the factory under our own control when the owners threaten closure? Such questions are particularly relevant now when UAW workers are facing the threats of big auto bankruptcies and bi-partisan rescue packages that demand plant closures, lay offs, and unprecedented attacks on their wages and benefits.

Finally, if we can force a bailout beneficiary such as Bank of America to cough up money for a couple of hundred workers, why can’t we demand that the government force Wall Street to provide the funds to bailout all workers? Quality jobs, healthcare, education, and retirement benefits should be fundamental rights but will never come to be as long as the capitalist’s and their politicians determine our financial priorities. The victory at Republic could prove to be a watershed event for a movement that can grow to challenge the capitalists and their state’s power over our lives and destinies.

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Mark Vorpahl is a unionist and anti-war activist and writer for Workers Action. He may be reached at portland@workerscompass.org