Our next-door office pals, United for a Fair Economy, just held a brown bag lunch meeting with some of the folks who staged the worker takeover at Republic Windows and Doors last December (see our earlier coverage here).
It’s quite possible that this action will mark a turning point in labor activism in this country. If not, it will surely mark a missed opportunity.
The shop workers, all members of the United Electrical union, took over the Chicago factory on December 5, 2008 after the workers realized that the owner was moving equipment. In violation of the WARN Act, the company only gave the workers a few days notice of their termination, and failed to compensate them for sick time and other benefits that were legally due to them.
Originally the workers had only anticipated to take over the factory for a short time, fully expecting to be arrested by the police. Instead, the takeover quickly snowballed into an international media story. By focusing on Bank of America (Republic’s lender, and the recent recipient of $25 billion in taxpayer bailout funds) they tapped into growing resentment at corporate greed and mismanagement at a time of massive layoffs and rising unemployment. Although B of A maintained that they had no legal obligation to pay for the lost benefits and wages due the workers, they ultimately submitted to the pressure generated by national protests, unrelenting media coverage, and broad political pressure from the local city representatives all the way to then-President-elect Obama. Ten days after the workers took over the factory, Bank of America gave in and created a $1.75 million fund to compensate the workers.
The factory’s former owners, meanwhile, are being investigated for possible illegal action for attempting to remove the company’s assets after it had declared bankruptcy.
At today’s round table talk, union reps say that the workers discussed the possibility of taking over the company themselves. However, given a combination of a grim economic climate for home building supplies, and the massive start-up costs that would be needed to get the factory running and profitable, this had to be set aside. The union is currently encouraging other private buyers, especially those that would be willing to retool the factory with “greener” jobs.
The former workers reported that most of them remain unemployed, and many suspect that other employers are leery of hiring them because of their union history.
The country is facing a massive wave of company bankruptcies and there are doubtless countless similar cases of workers getting ripped off. What’s remarkable about this is that the workers were in a union, fought back, and won.
The RW&D victory has brought renewed attention to both the existence of the WARN law, as well as the fact that it is toothless and routinely violated. In direct response, several state governments are toughening up their related labor laws (including New York), and the Obama administration is working on toughening up the law.
The success of the RW&D workers highlights the need for workers to organize collectively, and to think beyond simply claiming their legal rights. Bank of America probably would have gotten away with passing the (missing) buck to the bankrupt factory owner. But the government bailout funds give labor and lawmakers new openings to exert pressure on the controllers of corporate capital. Parts of the media and the general public are also open to a labor-centered focus on workers rights and corporate responsibility for our current economic mess.
The early signs from the Obama administration are encouraging. This is hardly a guarantee of future success, but is certainly opens the door for labor to raise the stakes.