What a difference five years make! In 2008, when a few hundred union workers at the Republic Windows and Doors factory in Chicago voted to occupy their plant instead of submitting meekly to being laid off, theirs was a rare act of courage in a cold winter of crisis for organized labor. Five years on, as some of those same workers cut the ribbon on their own cooperatively run business last week, it was yet another bold step by innovative workers in a season of daring by labor.
It’s no easy thing to sign a lease, buy equipment and open a business with a group. Starting a coop is risky, just like walking off a low-wage job. Asked why he and his fellows had decided to start a co-op, veteran window maker “Ricky” Maclin told me it was because they were tired of their lives being in someone else’s hands. In the last five years, two different owners for two different sets of reasons had tried to lay them off. Now Maclin and his partners are owner/operators of a cooperative company called New Era and a similar sort of determination and defiance is being seen in city after city, from fed up workers who are taking to the streets.
There’s plenty to be fed up about. The same people slashing services are talking about an economic recovery, but if this is the economy in recovery, workers seem to have no place in it. Politicians and pundits are doing OK—in fact, for anyone with a stock portfolio, the economy’s in the pink. But that old supposed pact between Big Labor and the Democrats is clearly broken. Labor unions invested millions in helping Democrats win the last election but they’re getting nothing back—at least nothing that helps working people live and rear families and eat.
Wages remain rock-bottom, millions are more or less permanently out of work and those who are working are working harder, for more bosses, in less secure workplaces, with nothing in the way of benefits.
No wonder people are embracing new tactics. And surprise, surprise, those tactics work.
By occupying their plant the first time (in December 2008), the New Era workers won back-pay—and time for a new owner to be found. By occupying a second time (in February 2012, when those new owners threatened to liquidate), they won a chance to form a cooperative and make a bid on equipment.