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 the president-elect’s hometown developed into just the sort of fight that will be needed.
More remarkably, Obama responded as FDR might have.
And, perhaps most remarkably of all, the workers have succeeded in forcing not just their employer but one of nation’s largest banks to bend to their demands.
After the Bank of America — a $25 billion recipient of Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson’s Wall Street bailout — refused to extend operating credit to Republic Windows and Doors, a Chicago-based manufacturer, the firm disregarded federal rules that require 60-days notice of a plant closing and announced that its factory on the city’s north side 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 members engaged in the contemporary equivalent of the 1930s sit-down strikes, which led to the rapid expansion of union recognition nationwide and empowered Roosevelt to secure more equitable labor laws. As in the 1930s, the union 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 to 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.