US: Chicago Workers Occupy Factory

A Militant Example of the Way Forward for the Labour Movement

On the afternoon of Friday, December 5, the roughly 260 workers at Chicago’s Republic Window and Door factory were told that the factory was closing down and that they would be laid off. These workers make up Local 1110 of the United Electrical Workers (UE). They are owed roughly $1.5 million in vacation and severance pay. There are even rumours that some of their most recent paychecks had bounced. Merry Christmas indeed.

It doesn’t seem like the company has totally gone belly up. Instead workers think that the company is trying to move production to another state where they can pay lower wages.

They were thinking that they could just shuffle everyone out the door, disregard the laws about giving workers appropriate notice, forget about paying severance and vacation, and close up shop. The workers had a different plan – they took the place over.

Starting on the afternoon of Friday 5 November they began their sit-in. The police came but they left after figuring out the situation and did not try to forcibly remove the workers. The workers are very well organized and the occupation looks disciplined and coordinated. They are occupying the factory around the clock in three shifts. Some workers are sitting in with their families.

Any visitors to the factory floor are escorted and the workers are keeping a close watch on everything. The company has already packed up and moved some of the machinery, but the workers know where it is located and they are checking on it every few hours. Many Chicagoans are helping out with donations of money, food and sleeping bags. They had a rally of several hundred outside the building on Saturday, December 6.

This factory occupation is a welcome break from the trend of factory closures and layoffs that have gone down without much of a fight. The company claims that it can’t afford to pay the workers because Bank of America won’t extend them the credit. Bank of America says that the company’s debts are not its problem. Democrat Congressman Luis Gutierrez is scheduled to meet with the bank and the company on Monday to try and iron out the problems. Workers are justified in their anger against management and the bank. This same Bank of America is among the financial giants who have lined up to receive billions of dollars of federal bailout money. Workers are asking: where is our bailout?

Militant action shows the way forward

There is no question that these workers’ brave step is a big deal. They deserve the support of all working people and the entire labour movement. Socialist Alternative salutes these workers and supports this occupation. This country has not seen many factory occupations in the last half-century. It was just over 70 years ago in Michigan that the United Auto Workers fought and won the Flint sit down strike of 1936-37. After forty days of bitter struggle they beat the company and inspired a nationwide wave of factory occupations. Certainly many leaders of this factory occupation know this history and they are steeled for the possibility for a long sit-in.

It is important to note the unique history of the independent UE, the union that these workers belong to. This union comes out of the CIO and the radical traditions of industrial unionism of the 1930s. Unlike some of the most corrupt union leaderships, its officials do not get exorbitant salaries. During the 1990s, they supported the creation of an independent labour party. The union’s motto is “the members run this union.” The workers democratically voted to occupy this factory.

The UE and the Chicago Labour Council needs to publicly build support for this strike from workers and other unions around Chicago. This heroic action by these workers could be used to revitalize the labour movement in the city, and establish a new tradition of militancy among the working class.

This struggle will be an inspiration to other workers on the need to fight back against cuts and layoffs. The labour movement needs to fight each and every layoff and cutback, explaining that if bailouts and public ownership can be used to protect rich investors, then these same policies need to be used to defend workers.

These workers are united and determined to win all that they can. Victory is hardly guaranteed, but sit-ins and factory occupations are proven tactics used around the world by workers who often have no other recourse against layoffs and closures. Perhaps most importantly, factory occupations are important assertions of workers’ rights to own and run their workplaces. As one of the workers joked on Saturday, “we’ve got a lot, we’ve got this whole building.”

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December 2008