When Barack Obama revealed after the election that he was reading a book on Franklin Roosevelt’s first 100 days as president, the “new New Deal” discussion went into overdrive. Progressives dared to believe that Obama’s presidency might, due to economic necessity and the president-elect’s interventionist inclinations, be a reprise of the last extended period when economic fairness was on the agenda.
But there will be no new New Deal if Americans wait for Obama to lead them out of the domestic quagmire into which Bill Clinton and George W. Bush steered the country with a toxic blend of free-trade absolutism, banking deregulation and disdain for industrial and agricultural planning. Just as a well-inclined but cautious Roosevelt needed the prodding of mass movements and militancy to talk the Washington establishment into accepting radical shifts in the economic order, so Obama will need to be able to point to some turbulence at the grassroots.
Remarkably, even before Obama takes office, a plant-closing struggle in his hometown has developed into just the sort of fight that is needed. More remarkably, Obama is responding as FDR might have. After Bank of America–which is expected to pocket as much as $25 billion via Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson’s Wall Street bailout–refused to extend operating credit to Republic Windows & Doors, a Chicago-based manufacturer, the firm disregarded federal rules that require sixty days notice of a plant closing and announced that its factory would be shuttered December 5. But instead of going home to a dismal holiday season like hundreds of thousands of other newly unemployed workers, Republic’s employees occupied the factory.
United Electrical Workers Local 1110 engaged in a contemporary equivalent of the 1930s sit-down strikes, which led to the rapid expansion of union recognition nationwide and empowered FDR to secure more equitable labor laws. As in the 1930s, UE is objecting not just to a company that may be inclined to shift work out of a unionized plant but to bank policies that encourage those inclinations and federal policies that reward the bankers and fail the workers; stickers worn by UE protesters tell Bank of America: You Got Bailed Out. We Got Sold Out.
“We’re going to stay here until we win justice,” said Blanca Funes, 55, as she and other strikers shoveled snow and did routine maintenance at the plant, where many of the 250 mostly Latino workers have been employed for decades.
The Chicago protest highlighted a fundamental flaw with Paulson’s bailout scheme. Bank of America accepted money that Congress was told would loosen constraints on credit and stimulate the economy. But the bank and other major financial institutions instead used taxpayer dollars to buy smaller banks, provide executive bonuses and pay shareholder dividends. Bank of America initially refused to extend credit to Republic. The company and the union say the bank rejected financial plans to provide workers with vacation and severance pay to which they are legally entitled. The bank says it had no such obligation but then, in negotiations with Republic and UE to end the occupation, sent mixed signals about a willingness to extend some credit. UE statements during the struggle were steadfast and blunt, saying union members sought to “at least get the compensation that workers are owed,” but adding that ideally they “seek the resumption of operations at the plant.”
Unreasonable demands? Not according to the president-elect, who says “the workers who are asking for their benefits and payments they have earned, I think they are absolutely right.” Observes Obama, “What’s happening to them is reflective of what’s happening across this economy.” That’s not a to-the-barricades broadside. Like Roosevelt, Obama is merely offering workers some space in which to organize. What’s significant is that UE, an independent union with roots in the militant labor organizing of the 1930s, is seizing the space. And unions affiliated with the AFL-CIO and the Change to Win coalition are supporting a small struggle with a big message. “If this bailout should go to anything, it should go to the workers of this country,” argued Richard Berg, president of Chicago’s powerful Teamsters Local 743, as he rallied with the Republic workers.
Illinois officials and Chicago City Council members are on board as well, moving to bar state and local agencies from doing business with Bank of America. Chicago Representatives Jan Schakowsky and Luis Gutierrez are pressuring the Treasury to require banks that accept taxpayer financing to use the money to benefit America’s workers. That move is especially significant, as Republic’s circumstance is anything but unique.
Nor should UE’s response be unique. Obama’s presidency will not produce a new New Deal unless labor grabs the opening of a rare moment to fight to keep workers on the job and manufacturing functional as the economy stumbles. If that happens, it will be easier for Obama’s administration to renew not just Wall Street but Main Street. If the right history of this time is written, it will be said that the new New Deal began in Chicago–not just because Obama comes from the city but because workers there chose to stand up by sitting down.