Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Chicago factory sit-in fits nation's mood

On Wednesday, December 10, Baltimore activists are holding a 1 PM press conference and demonstration outside Bank of America, Redwood and Light Streets, to show support for the Republic Windows workers.


Chicago factory sit-in fits nation's mood


By Nelson Lichtenstein and Christopher Phelps


Special to CNN - updated 7:40 a.m. EST, Tue December 9, 2008


(CNN) -- The factory occupation by 200 workers at

Republic Windows and Doors in Chicago, Illinois,

recalls one of the most storied moments in American

history, when thousands of Depression-era workers took

over their own workplaces, seeking union recognition and better wages.


The pivotal battle began on the morning of December 30,

1936, when shop activists shut down a General Motors

factory in Flint, Michigan, to restore the jobs of

three of their workmates fired by the company. From the

windows, they sang in rowdy camaraderie:


When they tie the can to a union man,


Sit down! Sit down!


When they give him the sack, they'll take him back


Sit down! Sit down!


When GM agreed to recognize the United Automobile

Workers, all sorts of workplaces, from dime stores to

shoe shops, caught the spirit. Pie bakers, seamen and

movie projector operators sat down. Even before Flint,

there had been occupation strikes at Hormel in Austin,

Minnesota; Goodyear in Akron, Ohio; and Bendix in South

Bend, Indiana. As often as not, they won.


There are big differences between those events and the

occupation at Republic Windows and Doors. The Chicago

workers already have a union. They seek severance pay,

not a raise. Theirs is a protest, not a strike. Rather

than disrupt production, they refuse to vacate a closed

plant. And their numbers are minuscule in comparison to

the half-million American workers who sat down in 1936 and 1937.


Some of the underlying issues, however, are the same:

preservation of jobs, economic fairness and the meaning

of democracy itself. Even if this occupation is quickly

settled, it has exposed perfidy and dramatized justice,

as did the sit-downs of the 1930s.


Factory occupations are rare because they violate the

everyday laws of property, and for the most part

American workers are law-abiding people.


They occur only when workers feel morally aggrieved,

when they sense that ownership has itself violated the

law, when the boss has become the outlaw in their eyes

and in that of the community as well.


This was the case in the winter of 1936-37 when

corporations such as GM and U.S. Steel defied the newly

enacted Wagner Act, which President Franklin Delano

Roosevelt signed to encourage labor unionism and raise purchasing power.


Just a couple of months before, tens of thousands of

autoworkers poured out of factories to cheer Roosevelt

as his motorcade made a slow tour of Flint and other

industrial cities. "You voted New Deal at the polls and

defeated the auto barons," organizers told workers

after FDR's smashing re-election victory. "Now get a New Deal in the shop."


Will history repeat itself? The Chicago factory

occupiers, overwhelmingly Latino, don't have much

clout, but they rightly sense that the national mood is with them.


Just as FDR once told reporters, "If I worked in a

factory, the first thing I would do is join a union,"

so too has President-elect Barack Obama declared the

Republic workers "absolutely right" in their quest for

remuneration. More importantly, Obama observed that the

Republic factory closure "is reflective of what's

happening across this economy."


Indeed, it is not just that workers are suffering

during a severe recession, but that the owners of

capital, both large and small, are morally compromised

in the crisis that besets the nation.


Bank of America, the giant lender, played a large role

in the Republic factory closure when the bank, noting a

decline in Republic's sales, cut off the company's line

of credit. In normal times, this would have been

considered prudent banking practice, but just last

month Bank of America received $25 billion in a

financial bailout meant to keep loans and credit flowing.


But Main Street managers have dirty hands as well.

According to the union, the owners of Republic Windows

and Doors failed to give their workers a legally

required 60-day notice that they would close. And the

Chicago Tribune reports that in the weeks before the

factory shutdown, people with apparent ties to Republic

formed a corporation that bought a similar plant in western Iowa.


It is hardly surprising that Republic's workers have

laid temporary claim to the factory in which some have

given decades of their lives. Its owners and creditors

have forfeited their own claims, both moral and legal,

to rightful stewardship.


As Sen. Robert Wagner said in response to the 1937 sit-

downs, "The uprising of the common people has come, as

always, only because of a breakdown in the ability of

the law and our economic system to protect their rights."


The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely

those of Nelson Lichtenstein and Christopher Phelps.


Editor's note: Nelson Lichtenstein teaches history at

the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he

directs the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and

Democracy. He is the author of "Walter Reuther: The

Most Dangerous Man in Detroit." Christopher Phelps

teaches at the Ohio State University at Mansfield and

is writing a history of strikes in American social thought.



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