While Congress debates what to do about our economic crisis, a group of Chicago workers have taken matters into their own hands.
Last week managers at Chicago’s Republic Windows announced that the company would shut down in three days, and they promptly cut off workers’ health insurance. The reason? The slump in the housing industry and the withdrawal of a credit line by Bank of America. The short notice violates state and federal laws about advance notice for mass layoffs, and workers are due payment for their accrued vacation pay. Funny thing, apparently the company removed some heavy machinery from the plant over the Thanksgiving holiday leading to speculation that they plan to set up production in a more “business friendly” environment.
Rather than accept their fate, the workers (members of United Electrical Workers local 1110) occupied the factory and sent out a general call for support. And who should respond? Not only Jessie Jackson. Not only two powerful U.S. Reps. But our President-elect himself. According to the New York Times, Obama said of the occupation:
“The workers who are asking for the benefits and payments that they have earned,” Mr. Obama said, ” I think they’re absolutely right and understand that what’s happening to them is reflective of what’s happening across this economy.”
Ah, what a difference an election makes. Granted, it’s not an outright statement of support for sit-down strikes. But can you imagine Bush saying this? Bill Clinton? I can’t. We’re talking about a group of people trespassing on private property and refusing to leave. We’re talking about people taking direct action to confront the economic crisis on the ground. True, all these workers want is back pay, vaction pay, and reasonable notice. In a few days, this will be resolved and the occupation will end. The real question is whether this event is a taste of things to come?
During the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt famously quipped that if he worked in a factory he would join a union. That message was immediately trumpeted by the labor movement to significant effect. It wasn’t the only reason people joined unions in unprecedented numbers during the 1930s. There was, of course, a major change in the legal structure of labor relations, and a hugely creative and determined drive by organizers and rank-and-file unionists. But no one should underestimate the symbolic significance of even vague support from a very popular President. The terrain of struggle is already shifting.
To follow the story beyond the MSM:
Pilsen Prole blog
Chicago Indymedia newswire
There is an interview with union leaders here on the Internet Archive.
Update: The UE announces victory.