Three years ago, a worker occupation in Chicago saved a factory and sent up a flare of resistance. Three years on, workers at the same factory are illuminating not only how workers might resist layoffs but also what they might do next.
“Last time it took six days. This time it took about eleven hours.” That’s union representative Leah Fried describing winning another reprieve last week for the factory formerly known as Republic Windows and Doors.
In December 2008, days after receiving a $25 billion federal bailout, Bank of America cut off Republic’s credit, leading management to fire all 250 workers without pay or notice. With layoffs approaching 500,000 a month around the country, Republic’s workers and their union, the militant United Electrical Workers, voted to resist. They occupied the plant and stayed, winning the hearts of downcast Americans everywhere and inspiring even an incoming US president. Bank of America backed down, giving the factory time to find a new buyer, which it did, a company called Serious Energy.
Last Thursday morning, workers heard from Serious Energy that once again, the plant was to close at once with no notice and no severance. This time mobilization was speedy. As soon as word went out, allies started arriving. Former Republic employees, Occupy Chicago, ARISE, the Chicago Worker’s Collaborative, Jobs with Justice and Stand Up Chicago showed up primed with pizzas and tents and created a supportive cordon as workers negotiated with police. No need to wait for media to catch on; a live stream fed video to the world from the start. As workers inside prepared to bed down for the night, Serious Energy backed down, announcing a ninety-day stay.
“It’s come full circle.” Says Fried. It’s not just that, three years after the occupation at Republic, “Occupy” has acquired a Twitter handle and a whole new frame of reference. “It’s that, in the last few years, there’s been a real shift in our movements towards direct-action tactics,” says Fried.
Now workers are back at work and they and the company have ninety days to find a solution that doesn’t bring them back, three years hence, to this same place. That picture too, is looking different.
In early 2009, Fried and Republic worker Armando Robles, president of UE Local 1110, set out on a national speaking tour. I had a chance to speak with them on GRITtv, in the studio with Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis. Looking back at that segment now, I’m reminded that at that time, workers were occupying plants in Ireland, England and France. Militant tactics were in evidence all across Europe, as they had been for years already in the global South. Lewis and Klein’s film, The Take, documents the Argentinean response to factory closures—not just occupations but, in some cases, worker-ownership of the plants.
US workers needed stronger organizations, the GRITtv panel agreed, also social movements capable of supporting worker struggles. (So far so good. We have more of both than we did in 2008.) They needed something else too: ways for workers to become owner-operators of their own plants.