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December 2008   

Unionized Immigrant Workers Win $1.7 Million in Back Pay

   Chicago Plant Occupation Electrifies Labor

Against Mass Layoffs: Workers, Seize the Plants –
Take to the Streets!

On Friday morning, December 5, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that U.S. employers slashed 533,000 jobs in November. Taken together with the BLS’ revised figures for jobs eliminated in September and October, that’s 1.2 million workers thrown onto the street in three months as the credit crisis turns into a full-fledged economic collapse. Curiously, the stock market rose, on the grounds that things were so bad that the government would have to act.

At almost the same hour as the jobs report was released in Washington, the Republic Windows and Doors plant in Chicago was scheduled to close its doors. The owners had abruptly announced three days earlier that they were shutting down, and didn’t even show up for negotiations with the union, the United Electrical Workers (UE), the day before. But the furious 240 workers refused to take it lying down. They fought back, and showed the way to others.

At 10:30 a.m., the largely immigrant and black workers took over Republic and occupied the plant, vowing to hold fast until they won the vacation pay and 60 days severance pay owed them under the Federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act. And they did. On the sixth day of the occupation, J.P. Morgan and the Bank of America, two of the biggest banks in the United States, forked over $1.75 million to pay for Republic’s legal obligations.

(Photo: Chris Geovanis/Chicago Indymedia)

The news of the occupation Friday spread like wildfire through the labor movement. TV reporters and crews broadcast the news of the spectacular action around the Chicago area. By the evening, trade unionists and other supporters were showing up at the plant, located in the Goose Island industrial area of North Chicago, bringing coffee, donuts and solidarity. The next day, news reports reverberated among labor and left activists nationally, and internationally.

From plant floors to corporate boardrooms and broadcast studios, people had their eyes glued on the small plant in Chicago to see what happened. Everyone was well aware that this could be a harbinger of things to come as mass layoffs spread. If 200-plus workers could sit down and win, what would that mean for auto, where the United Auto Workers (UAW) is facing the shutdown of dozens of plants and tens of thousands of firings? Could the Republic sit-in spark a wave of labor struggle using militant tactics seldom seen since the ’30s?

The sense of expectation was heightened by the shift in political climate with the election of Democrat Barack Obama to the White House on a platform of “change” from the despised regime of George Bush. “I have a lot of hope that next year, with a new president, he’ll make good decisions and invest money in industry so I can get another job as soon as possible,” one of the Republic workers, Apolinar Cabrena, told the media (AFP, 6 December). In reality, unemployment is going to get worse, a lot worse, under Obama as the capitalist crisis deepens.

Another, even more fundamental factor, was the sense among the workers that they had nothing to lose. With millions looking for work, the chances of finding another job soon were slim. Unemployment insurance isn’t enough to live on and make payments on home mortgages, car payments, credit card bills and medical expenses. Plus it runs out after a period of months. Republic workers remarked that they could soon lose their homes as well as their jobs.

In fact, with Obama still in Chicago before moving into the White House next month, the pressure on the Democratic president-elect to side with the workers was enormous. The giant Bank of America, which received $25 billion in federal bailout funds supposedly intended to encourage lending to businesses, had refused to roll over the credit line to the employer, who claimed he couldn’t paid the back wages. The BoA was seen as the Grinch Who Stole Xmas.

Meanwhile, people showed up at the plant with donations of food for the workers, a truckload of toys for their children. Celebrities like Jesse Jackson showed up to compare the workers to civil rights hero Rosa Parks and Cesar Chavez. Illinois wheeler-dealer governor Rod Blagojevich made the scene to announce that he was ordering state agencies to stop business with Bank of America. (The next morning he was arrested in his home by federal agents on corruption charges.)

Beyond the expressions of sympathy and grandstanding by the politicos, there were demonstrations of solidarity. The UE held a rally of over 1,000 in downtown Chicago on December 10, while Bank of America offices were picketed nationwide in support of the Republic workers. Internationally, messages of solidarity came from labor federations from Japan to Venezuela and France, declaring, “Your fight is our fight as millions of workers around the world are suffering from the economic crisis that affects more and more people every day.”

Negotiations dragged on as the bankers claimed it wasn’t up to them to pay the workers and company management claimed they didn’t have the cash. But a little digging by reporters revealed that the owners of Republic Windows and Doors last month set up another company, Echo Windows and Doors, which in turn bought a plant in Iowa. Their intent was clearly to save on wages by shifting production to the non-union facility. They were already shipping machinery out in the dead of night and on weekends.

Republic CEO Rich Gillman turns out to be a first-class villain who makes Gordon Gekko in the film Wall Street look like a do-gooder. Not only were they taking away the livelihoods of 240 workers and refusing to pay what they legally owed them, they didn’t declare bankruptcy at Republic until after the plant closure, so workers’ claims would come after other creditors. And while pleading poverty, Gillman demanded that any new bank loan also cover the lease of his BMW 350xi and Mercedes S500 luxury cars and pay eight weeks of his $225,000 salary!

They Dared to Struggle, and Won

The sit-in at Republic Windows and Doors didn’t just happen spontaneously. A few weeks earlier, as they kept a late-night lookout to see where machinery from the plant was being sent, Mark Meinster, a UE organizer, raised the possibility with Armando Robles, president of Local 1110 at the plant. By Friday, when company officials announced that they were not only shuttering the plant but had already cut off employees’ health insurance and were refusing to pay the last week’s work, the angry workers voted unanimously to occupy the factory.

The United Electrical Workers became the representative of Republic workers in 2004 after they voted to decertify the Central States Joint Board, an outfit long run by Laborers Union leader John Serpico, who was notorious for sweetheart deals with the bosses, sweetheart loans from banks and close ties to the Chicago and Illinois Democratic political machine. The UE is relatively more democratic and feisty than the norm for American “business unionism,” and last spring organized a picket at the plant and presented a petition to management listing demands.

The occupation itself had modest goals, to force the company and the banks who financed it to pay money that was legally owed the workers. UE officials also raised the possibility of finding another company to restart the plant and there was talk of running it under an ESOP (Employee Stock Ownership Plan), as Avis Rent-a-Car or United Airlines were for a time. The “worker ownership” of such arrangements is a fiction, making the workers responsible for their own exploitation while management continues to run the company, fire employees, etc.

Various leftists talked of “workers control,” citing the example of occupied plants like the Bruckman textile and Zanon ceramics plants in Argentina. Workers in those plants fought tenaciously to save their jobs in the face of unscrupulous bosses much like those at Republic Windows and Doors. But far from being workers control – which is dual power at the factory level, in which workers contest for power with the capitalists – these are essentially cooperatives, which with limited resources compete from a weak competitive position on the capitalist market.

The real power the workers at Republic had was they were safeguarding the facilities, finished products and equipment in the plant – or holding them “hostage,” as the bosses saw it – that were worth far more than the $1.75 million owed them. After all, these were their tools and the products of their labor. If the banks had refused to settle, and no way was found to save their jobs, the workers could have demanded that the proceeds from any sale of assets be paid to them.

The intrepid band of Republic workers were facing off not just against a real stinker of a boss but against major corporations. BoA is the closest thing to a nationwide bank in the United States, and it turns out (which had not been previously publicized), that 40 percent of the windows plant was owned by the JPMorgan Chase investment bank, whose Midwest chairman is William Daley, brother of Chicago’s Democratic mayor Richard M. Daley. The building belongs to the Wrigley chewing gum corporation, bought out last fall by the Mars candy conglomerate.

In the end, Bank of America caved under the mountain of bad publicity, shelling out $1.35 million while JPMorgan threw in another $400,000. The workers discussed the proposal and voted unanimously to accept it, pouring out the factory doors to proclaim to the waiting media, “We did it!” While some leftists proclaimed it as a “resounding victory” (Socialist Worker, 11 December), the fact is that Republic workers are still out of a job, with no prospect of getting work. But it was definitely, as a UE official said, “a victory for workers everywhere.” 

Fight Layoffs with Militant Labor Action

What does the Chicago workers courageous plant occupation mean for working people around the country? For one thing, Republic was an inspiring example of solidarity of Latino and black workers, putting the lie to the bosses’ propaganda (repeated by some fake leftists) that immigrant workers are too cowed to be militant. Here the mainly immigrant workers set an example of audacious action for all labor in the U.S. Also on December 11, Latino immigrant and black workers at the giant Smithfield hog processing plant in Tar Heel, North Carolina voted for the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) after a bitter 14-year fight, overcoming management efforts to set different ethnic groups against each other (see box).

These are signs of a shifting political climate, but despite the fervent hopes for “change” by many who voted for Barack Obama, the example of Republic workers will not simply multiply. As the capitalist crisis deepens, hard class battles are coming, in which the Democratic president will back the bosses. This time, as a small group of workers won national sympathy, Obama could make a grand gesture and declare that the workers were “absolutely right” in demanding what was legally owed to them. But while he is the first black president in the history of the United States, a country founded on slavery and marked by racism throughout its history, Obama represents not the mass of black poor and working people but the interests of capital.

If other workers react to mass layoffs and plant closures by following the example of the Republic workers in Chicago, and they should, they will be met next time by a massive wall of repression and slander. Auto workers, for whom losing their job means they will likely never set foot in an auto plant again, will be portrayed as greedy and “privileged.” The pink slips from the companies will be backed up by an act of Congress ordering “restructuring” of the industry.

Moreover, the labor fakers who sit atop the United Auto Workers (UAW) are actively helping the Big Three (GM, Ford and Chrysler) and the incoming Democratic administration by agreeing in advance to rip up past gains and drive wages and benefits down by at least $10 an hour. The only question is when, in 2009 or 2010. Already new hires receive only $14.50 an hour and sharply limited benefits as a result of past givebacks.

While the UE is better than most American unions in various respects, it still plays by the bosses’ rules, working within the legal framework set by the ruling class to hamstring labor action. In order to win battles on a large scale, workers must rip off that straitjacket and act according to their own rules. The stranglehold of the present misleaders of labor must be broken and replaced by a leadership with the program and determination do what it takes to defeat the bosses. 

Auto strikers guard window entrance to GM's Fisher Body Plant #3 during 1937 sit-down strike. (Photo: Library of Congress)

The Republic plant occupation harked back to the 1937 General Motors sit-down strike in Flint, Michigan. The tactic had been used a year earlier by rubber workers in Akron, Ohio, and then by steel workers. But it was the occupation of Fisher Body and Chevrolet plants in Flint that laid the basis for the UAW and unionizing the mass production industries in the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations) unions. Flint was a pitched battle against police and National Guard, and without the leadership of communists and socialists it never would have won.

Other militant tactics soon appeared: “flying pickets” (truckloads of strikers to stop scabs or spread the action); “hot-cargoing” (union workers refusing to handle scab goods); “solidarity strikes” (shutting down production in support of another union). Many of these were pioneered by supporters of the Bolshevik revolutionary Leon Trotsky in the Minneapolis Teamsters, who in 1934 led a truckers strike that shut down the city. Other citywide general strikes took place the same year in Toledo, Ohio (auto parts) and San Francisco (longshore). All were led by “reds.”

But in the “red purge” that drove militant leaders out of the unions after World War II, Congress passed the infamous Taft-Hartley “slave labor” law that outlawed these militant labor tactics. Today while the sellout AFL-CIO and “Change to Win” bureaucrats pin their hopes on passing the Employee Free Choice Act to unionize workers through a simple “card check,” we insist that strong unions can only be built by workers action independent of the government, on the picket lines and in the plants.

Jesse Jackson talks of a “non-violent wake up call to America” and the need for a “bigger movement to resist economic violence.” If unions not only take over factories to protest layoffs and wage cuts, but also prepare to defend them against the forces of state repression as they did for 44 days at Flint in 1937 – including with a Women’s Emergency Brigade led by the Trotskyist Genora Johnson on the front lines against the cops and company goons – this talk of “non-violence” will be turned against the workers. The struggle for workers defense guards, as for plant occupations against layoffs and wage cuts, will require class-struggle leadership.

Such struggles can’t be waged on a plant-by-plant basis. Plants facing shutdown are in a weak position to start with, since the bosses are already losing money on them. It is also necessary to unite the factories with the masses of unemployed in the black ghettos and Latino barrios in a common class struggle led by the most powerful sectors of the workers movement. In a real battle, strike action shutting down the Chicago commodities markets, the transit authority, steel and other industries would be key. Teachers unions with their ties to the poor and working-class neighborhoods, and others can play important auxiliary roles. And again, this will not be accomplished by business-as-usual “business unionism.”

The Internationalist Group emphasizes that any serious struggle against the scourge of unemployment in this developing depression will have to oust the pro-capitalist bureaucrats and break from the Democrats. The ruling class is worried that after decades of socking it to labor, destroying unions and ripping up workers’ gains, it could be facing some serious unrest. “We’re going to have riots,” warned a Southern Senator in opposing the auto bailout. But for the unrest and resistance to roll back the bosses’ union-busting offensive and achieve victory, we need to forge a revolutionary workers party.

Ultimately, as Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote 160 years ago in the Communist Manifesto, “every class struggle is a political struggle.” And the fight to abolish unemployment cannot be achieved under capitalism. Many liberals and reformists today talk of a “new New Deal,” as if the mounting job losses, wage cuts, evictions, homelessness and poverty could be resolved by a repeat of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s public works, social insurance and corporate regulation programs. But FDR’s programs didn’t end the Depression, World War II did.

While it was touched off by a housing bubble, credit crisis and stock market panic, underlying the present economic collapse is a classic crisis of overproduction reflecting the capitalists’ falling rate of profit. Trotskyists put forward a transitional program of demands –including for a shorter workweek with no loss in pay, to divide up the available work among all takers; for workers commissions to open the books of the giant corporations; for massive public works under union control – as part of an overall program leading to socialist revolution, in the U.S. and worldwide.

The closure of Republic Windows and Doors is a vivid illustration of the irrationality of capitalism. People need quality windows and doors, particularly in the dead of a Midwest winter. Yet windows and doors will no longer be produced at Republic, because it isn’t “profitable” for Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase and the cockroach capitalist Gillman. Meanwhile, millions are being evicted from their homes even though the mortgage defaults have shaken the pillars of international finance capital. Now more than ever – workers to power, to lay the basis for an internationally planned, collectivized economy producing for human needs rather than profit.

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