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Chicago Workers Occupy Their Plant and Show How To Fight

Workers at Chicago's Republic Windows and Doors occupy their workplace and set an example that we must build on.
Richard Mellor
AFSCME 444, Retired

Chicago 12-6-08

I just returned from a rally at Republic Windows and Doors in Chicago where workers are occupying the plant after they were given three days notice that it was closing for good. The workers were told last Tuesday that their plant would shut down on Friday.

The employer’s said that they were forced to close as their bank, Bank of America, had denied them financing so they could not continue to operate. Workers that I spoke to did not believe for one minute that their boss first knew that they would have to close the plant just three days before they did it.

The workers, members of the United Electrical Union (UE) voted unanimously to occupy the plant organizing themselves in to shifts and setting up clean up and safety committees. A worker I spoke to said that the mood was good and they were coming in and out in shifts. I asked the UE rep why the employer wasn’t threatening to drive the worker’s out from private property and she said that the Union had talks with the employer and it was most likely too that they did not want any more bad publicity and be seen as removing workers from the plant by force.

The workers are demanding that they receive their wages benefits and health care owed them by law. Under the Warren Act, workers are entitled to 60 days notice in the event of mass layoffs (75 in Illinois) and if they don’t get it they must receive the wages benefits (vacation pay) and health care for that period.

One worker I spoke to said that the company laid off 50 workers right before Thanksgiving and that they came to work one day and that much of the machinery had been dismantled and disappeared. He said that the boss never admitted to anything and that last Monday they came to work as usual but the next day (Tuesday Dec. 1st) they were told the plant was closing in three days. He said that the boss expected them to get their checks and go home Friday but they decided to stay in the plant until they got what was owed them.

At the rally outside the plant which was organized by a Chicago Interfaith group led by a Reverend CJ Hawkin, one worker, Melvin Maclan, said “It was time for the little man to stand up.” “Like Obama says”, he went on, “Yes we can.”

Lalo Munoz who has the most seniority at the plant with 34 years spoke passionately about the situation: “It’s not fair to close and kick us out on the street without vacation pay…the company don’t wanna pay it.”

The Union, B of A and the employer’s will be meeting on Monday and Lalo told the crowd of around 200 supporters that had gathered at very short notice that “We are going to stay here until we get an answer.” “Bank of America have a lot to do with this problem and it is one of the Banks that received billions from the government.”

Numerous top officials from organized Labor spoke including a Richard Berg from Teamsters Local 743 and someone from AFSCME Council 31 as well as someone from SEIU.

As is usually the case they sounded quite militant and talked of solidarity and unity and that they were speaking for their members and they were with the sit-downers on this etc.
“We are going to be here as long as it takes,” said Berg. This is a standard line that is used by Labor officials during all the defeated disputes over the last 30 years. He said that workers here are united, referring to the supporters, and that we are united across cultural, race and Union lines, Union and non-Union.

These are nice sounding words but unity is something that has to be organized and one thing that Union officials don’t do is mobilize their members to fight on our own behalf and use this power to reach in to our communities and the rest of the working class to build a generalized working class movement against the bosses’ offensive. We have seen top Union officials draw too many lines in the sand and the line has moved back so far and so often that the employers are not intimidated by it; you can only cry wolf so many times.

The fact that today’s rally was organized by Reverend Hawkin’s Interfaith group points once again to the failure of the heads of organized Labor. The Chicago Central Labor Council has up to one million members and is potentially the most powerful force in the city. The leadership of the CCLC was missing and the officials that spoke will not campaign within organized Labor against the collaboration of the heads of organized Labor with the employer’s agenda. The Reverend Hawkin and her group should be commended for their hard work and dedication, as this wouldn’t have happened at all perhaps if not for them, but the Labor leadership’s cowardice in the face of these attacks must not be obscured.

With the more generalized offensive against American workers intensifying, this is a great opportunity to build an independent movement against it and that can offer an alternative to the capitulation and concessions offered by the present Labor leadership and the Democratic Party.

Speaking to the crowd of supporters, Lalo Munoz made the point that this struggle is not just about our jobs; “We will not only lose our jobs but our homes too.” He said.

When he said that it bothered me that no speaker while I was there made any serious effort to reach out to other victims of the present crisis by calling on all people facing foreclosures to “occupy” their homes just like the Republic workers have occupied the factory; after all, most of the major media networks were covering the rally. Taking over our workplaces and taking over our homes before the banks take them from us is a first step towards the building of an independent working class movement that can change society for the better.

The workers at Republic Windows and Doors have taken a courageous step in the right direction. They are giving leadership. Working people as a whole should build on this by occupying every workplace where workers are threatened with lay offs and by organizing support for those faced with foreclosure that refuse to leave their homes. These efforts should be linked together and should take the form of Hands Off Our Homes Committees in the neighborhoods and Hands Off Our jobs, wages and benefits committees in the workplaces. Republic Windows and Doors and their supporters would be a good springboard for such an offensive

Any attempts by authorities to evict resisters from their homes or their workplaces can be met with mass rallies and direct action. This strategy can lay the basis for an offensive movement that rather than bailing out capitalism with our money, can to take on the bosses and create a democratic socialist alternative to the so-called free market.



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