Victory at Republic!

With a unanimous vote, workers at the Republic Windows & Doors plant in Chicago ended their six-day factory occupation late on December 10 after Bank of America and other lenders agreed to fund about $2 million in severance and vacation pay as well as health insurance.

“Everybody feels great,” said a tired but beaming Armando Robles, president of United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers (UE) Local 1110.

Melvin Maclin, the local’s vice president, agreed. “I feel wonderful,” he said. “I feel validated as a human being. Everybody is so overjoyed. This is significant because it shows workers everywhere that we do have a voice in this economy. Because we’re the backbone of this country. It’s not the CEOs. It’s the working people.”

Pointing, he continued, “See that sign up there? Without us, it would just say ‘Republic,’ because we make the windows and doors. This shows that you can fight–and that you have to fight.”

The settlement was a resounding victory for union members who were told a little more than a week earlier that the factory would be closed in less than three day’s time–and that, contrary to federal law, they would get no severance pay.

So to pressure the company to make good on what it owed them, the workers voted to stay put after the plant ceased production on December 5.

By deciding to occupy their factory–a tactic used by labor in the 1930s, but virtually unknown in this country since–the Republic workers sparked a solidarity movement that forced one of the biggest banks in the U.S. to pay two months of wages and health care, even though the bank had no legal obligation to do so.

What began as a resolute act of some 250 workers quickly became a national symbol of working-class resistance in a crisis-bound economy. Hundreds upon hundreds of union members and officials–not only from Chicago, but around the Midwest–came to the Republic factory to express their solidarity and bring donations of food and badly needed funds.

But support for the Republic struggle went beyond the ranks of organized labor. The fightback crystallized mass anger about the $700 billion bailout of Wall Street. Even though Bank of America–Republic’s main creditor–is in line receive $25 billion in taxpayer money, the bank refused to finance the 60 days’ pay due to workers under the WARN Act if a plant closes without the two-month notice required under the law.

Democratic politicians, from President-elect Barack Obama down to Chicago aldermen, felt the pressure to declare their support for the struggle.

Press coverage was affected as well. For once, the media not only highlighted the issues in a labor struggle, but also used its resources to investigate the employer. The Chicago Tribune reported that Republic’s main owner, Rich Gillman, was involved in the purchase of a nonunion window factory in Iowa to move to. Journalists also uncovered evidence that Bank of America refused repeated requests to extend more credit to Republic, despite its infusion of bailout money.

Thus, when UE decided to make Bank of America the target of a December 10 rally, there was a ready response–about 1,000 people turned out on short notice.

“Since we’re down here in the financial district, let’s do a little mathematics,” said Rev. Gregory Livingston of Rainbow/PUSH. “Bank of America got $25 billion. Citibank got $25 billion. Republic workers got how much? Zero.

“That’s why we’re here in the financial district. It’s where the money is. The people work, and guess whose money is in these banks? Guess whose money is in the market? Guess whose money is in their pockets? It’s our money.”

But what was noteworthy about the picket wasn’t the anger against the banks, but a palpable sense of workers’ power. Members of a dozen different unions were on hand, as were student groups, socialists and community groups, all inspired by the Republic workers’ bold stand.

Larry Spivack, regional director of AFSCME Council 31, summed up the mood in his speech. “Look around you,” he told the crowd, naming the main financial institutions nearby. “Who created all their wealth?” he asked–and was answered by the chant, “We did!” “Who has the power?” “We do!”

Spivack continued: “This is a beginning, like when the Haymarket struggle took place in 1886,” a reference to the Chicago martyrs in the struggle for the eight-hour workday. He concluded with a shout, “Power to the workers!”

A few hours later, back at the Republic plant, after workers heard the terms of the agreement and voted, Bob Kingsley, the national director of organization for UE, made a similar point in assessing the victory:

The significance of this struggle for the labor movement is that at a time when millions of American workers are facing greater and greater economic turmoil, and with it more and more instances of unfairness, there needed to be a clear symbol of resistance.

What the workers at Republic are is the face of that resistance. They personify the challenge that the working class faces in today’s economy, but they also symbolize the hope that if we, as workers, stick together, if we fight together, and if we’re willing to push the limits, we can achieve incredible things. And their victory comes at a time when the labor movement needs it.

Lee Sustar writes for Socialist Worker. Read other articles by Lee, or visit Lee's website.

13 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Deadbeat said on December 11th, 2008 at 10:31am #

    Could this be the start of something big? Here ordinary people struggling on an “everyday” issue found solidarity and was able to win. It is this kind of activity that needs to be organized into a “movement” for real change. Kudos to everyone who stood up and was counted in on this struggle.

  2. bozh said on December 11th, 2008 at 10:35am #

    how r union members and other workers to obtain power to change structure of governance, if as many as 80% r right wing. or is it even 90%+ of them for keeping the same structure that render workers as dependents of work owners?
    haven’t 98% of the workers just voted for oneparty system?
    let’s forget ab workers! left to themselves, they’d rather just fight for own specific interests.
    and not very well. because they r so damn weak econo-politico-militarily.
    and these three aspects r parts of a whole and in toto controled by uncle.
    what workers need, is a party that also has some of the econo-politico-military power.
    such a party cld inject own people in city police, fbi, cia, army. thnx
    that’s where the power is. please, get some of it.
    it’s as american as the apple pie.
    such party wld educate people and not make idiots out of them.
    chavez and other leftists have done it in venezuela. thnx

  3. Deadbeat said on December 11th, 2008 at 10:59am #

    bozh writes…

    what workers need, is a party that also has some of the econo-politico-military power.

    You got to start somewhere and right now as you point out workers are very unorganized. However by starting with workers specific interest it can then be broaden into a larger focus.

    I agree that a party is needed but at this time there is no labor party in the U.S. so if you have any ideas on how to get thinks kick started I’m all ears.

  4. Gary Lapon said on December 11th, 2008 at 12:11pm #

    Deadbeat is right. This victory is incredibly important, and it can’t be looked at apart from the context. The labor movement in the US is at a historic low in terms of numbers and influence after decades of failed top-down conservative strategies that seek to find common interest with employers (there isn’t any).

    In this context, the Republic sit-in, which was a bottom-up struggle initiated by the rank-and-file, is a leap forward and this victory has the potential to point a way forward for countless other workers who will face attacks (and are already) during this economic crisis.

    And yes, we do need a party that represents the interests of the working class, but for that party to be truly democratic and representative (read: effective), it will need to be built on a firm foundation. In other words, it must be built from the bottom-up out of struggles lead by the rank-and-file. The Republic sit-in has been a heroic and necessary step along that path.

  5. Ramsefall said on December 11th, 2008 at 1:31pm #

    Trade workers around the country would highly benefit from two things to gain more powerful and effective social momentum from this victory: 1) recognize the value of organized solidarity and governed principles that people when brought together for a common cause CAN accomplish an agenda and overturn that which may otherwise be perceived as impossible — David and Goliath through non-violent protest, and 2) pick up a copy of Dr. Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States which describes in meticulous detail dozens of victories similar to this, an inspirational read that demonstrates through historical accounts just how to combat the system and win.

    Best to all.

  6. Darren Hutchinson said on December 11th, 2008 at 1:49pm #

    This is not a victory — at least not one that I admire. Due to progressive advocacy, the real culprit here — Republic Windows and Doors — has quietly relocated to Iowa, bought and merged with a similar company, and illegally dumped its employees. But due to the “victorious” advocacy of the Left, the company accomplished all of this without facing any serious public scrutiny or even legal liability.

    Also, while the workers get 2-months pay and benefits, after the dust clears, they will remain unemployed, have limited job prospects, and will probably lack health insurance. Rather than bashing Bank of America, the Left needed to use this opportunity to discuss expanding this country’s economic safety net. But I guess that would require too much in terms of creative and unconventional thinking.

    PS: The owners of the company bought a CONDOMINIUM in Chicago last year for $2.6 million. The price of their luxury apartment exceeds two months wages and benefits for the company’s 200 employees. But the Left gave these people a big fat pass. Shameful.

  7. bozh said on December 11th, 2008 at 3:24pm #

    i’m a canadian. 78 yrs old. an uknown. i belong to to a socialist party, the NDP. nat’l democratic party.
    it wld take just a few hundred people to get a socialist party going. surely, u guys can get a hundred unknowns to set up a party.
    in add’n,my wife had been diagnosed in jul ‘o1 w. the alzheimer’s and i have to be w. her almost all the time.
    i even had to stop going to meetings. but thnx for ur interest.
    i was not born in canada; thus i have an accent which is a -.
    and often i can’t hear people even at meetings.
    so i wld be disaster as an organizer.

  8. Hue Longer said on December 11th, 2008 at 8:38pm #

    Someone help me out here…

    The car company is a soon to be recipient of a large bail-out to further help them invest in overseas plants- which have undermined union workers in the States for years.

    They give everyone their walking papers and add a little salt to the wound by illegally cutting out vacation and severance

    The Union rallies against the salt and the press uncharacteristically helps them

    Bof A comes to the “rescue” and cleans the salt from the wound


    I wonder if there were some bolder suggestions from the think tank that came up with this great idea…like illegally (heheh) tying the workers up to the machines and making them work for free. Overcoming that would look like an even bigger victory to the duped who just lost their livelihoods, no?

  9. Hue Longer said on December 11th, 2008 at 8:42pm #

    oops, sorry folks

    Republic Windows and Doors…I am under a rock and get my news later than folks in the States

  10. Hue Longer said on December 11th, 2008 at 8:45pm #

    Wheres’ that damn delete, Sunil? lol I guess I’ll now have to research where they are going or why they couldn’t stay in business to begin with. Maybe the workers could take over the plant and run it themselves?

  11. Deadbeat said on December 11th, 2008 at 9:07pm #

    Bozh writes…

    in add’n,my wife had been diagnosed in jul ‘o1 w. the alzheimer’s and i have to be w. her almost all the time.

    Comrade, you have my utmost respect. Thank you for your thoughts and perspectives.


  12. Al said on December 11th, 2008 at 9:35pm #

    All this BS for a shitty 2 million dollars?
    $2m is loose change for BoA!

  13. Jeremy Wells said on December 12th, 2008 at 8:26pm #

    For a socialist perspective on rhis story:
    Lessons of the Chicago factory occupation
    12 December 2008 by Joe Kishore
    “While from the standpoint of the workers’ immediate demands it was a victory, it was a bittersweet one. The workers at Republic will still lose their jobs under conditions where no decent jobs are to be found. In two months they will have no health care. The American and world economy is entering the worst economic slump since the Great Depression, and the workers at Republic will join millions across the country who will face this crisis with no job security and no safety net.”