On Wednesday, December 10,
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
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
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
there had been occupation strikes at Hormel in
There are big differences between those events and the
occupation at Republic Windows and Doors. The
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
enacted Wagner Act, which President Franklin Delano
Just a couple of months before, tens of thousands of
autoworkers poured out of factories to cheer
as his motorcade made a slow tour of
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
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
financial bailout meant to keep loans and credit flowing.
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
factory shutdown, people with apparent ties to Republic
formed a corporation that bought a similar plant in western
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
directs the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and
Democracy. He is the author of "Walter Reuther: The
Most Dangerous Man in
teaches at the
is writing a history of strikes in American social thought.