Thursday, December 11, 2008

The news is in, and it's now official- JP Morgan Chase and the Bank of America have agreed to a $1.75 million loan that will allow a decent settlement for the workers who have been occupying the plant at Republic Windows and Doors in Chicago. See articles below for more details of the settlement. This agreement is truly historic for American labour as it is standing proof that militant tactics such as factory occupations and massive public outreach can succeed in making the corporate barons, so far the only people to actually benefit from the US government's bailouts, cough up at least a small portion of the goods. What follows are a few perspectives on the struggle. We begin with an article from Labor Notes by Jerry Mead Lucero who covered the fight extensively from Chicago in his Pilsen Prole Blog. What is particularly interesting about this article is the news of an initiative on the part of the union to reopen the plant under "new management" One hopes that the option of a producers' cooperative would be one of the avenues explored.
Chicago Sitdown Strike Produces Win for Workers, Anger against Banks:
— Jerry Mead-Lucero
Hundreds of supporters gathered in Chicago's financial district to condemn Bank of America, which refused financing for Republic after receiving $25 billion as part of the Wall Street bailout.
When managers informed the workers at Republic Windows and Doors in Chicago that the plant would close in three days’ time, the announcement was no surprise.

Suspicion that something was wrong had been floating around the workplace for weeks before the December 2 announcement. “We’ve had a lot of our machines taken out of the plant at night,” said Melvin Maclin, vice president of United Electrical Workers (UE) Local 1110 and a seven-year employee. “And along with the machines go people’s jobs.”

Concerned that Republic’s owners would remove or sell off the remaining machinery before they handed over pay for severance and vacation time already accrued, the workers brought in a local congressman, Representative Luis Gutierrez.

But management failed to show at a meeting with Gutierrez, leading workers to take a dramatic stand that confounded expectations about the U.S. labor movement, long in retreat.
They refused to leave the plant at closing time December 5, voting unanimously to occupy their factory, the first such action in the United States in years.

Lalo Munoz, an employee of Republic for 34 years, said workers were determined to fight. “They decided just to kick (us) into the streets, with no benefits or nothing, not even what we have already earned,” he said.

The occupation lasted six days, until a unanimous December 10 vote among the 240 workers accepted a severance package worth about $7,000 per worker. The deal also includes two months of health care, a crucial gain for workers who discovered that their coverage had been unilaterally yanked.
Republic management laid the blame on its primary financier, Bank of America, claiming the bank’s refusal to extend further credit to the company caused the shutdown.

Company representatives insisted that without further credit they could not pay workers the severance they were owed—although information surfaced days into the occupation that owners had found enough cash recently to purchase a non-union window factory in Iowa.

A Chicago councilman who had seen company documents said workers in Iowa would be paid one-third of what Republic workers earned. In 1996, the company received a $9.6 million subsidy from Chicago to place the factory in the city.

The Republic workers turned their attention to Bank of America. Jobs with Justice helped the union organize a press conference outside the bank’s Chicago headquarters, where speakers hammered the bank for refusing to release to Republic a tiny fraction of the $25 billion it was granted in the $700 billion Wall Street bailout.

The plant occupation tapped into simmering discontent nationwide about banks’ refusal to open credit lines that could help struggling firms survive . Dozens of protests sprouted across the country in front of Bank of America branches.

As harsh as Republic’s stance seemed, Chicago organizers emphasized that the company’s refusal to give the legally required 60 days’ notice of a plant closing and to pay severance was by no means unique.

A bakery and a potato chip plant, both large and unionized factories, are just two that have shuttered in Chicago in recent years without following the plant-closing law.

“This is not an exceptional practice,” said Adam Kader, director of Chicago Interfaith Committee on Worker Issues (CICWI), a worker center involved in campaigns to recover severance pay. “This is standard practice.”

Workers at Republic, however, were uniquely prepared to fight their plant closing. Before the occupation, they were already well-known in Chicago labor circles. A mostly African-American and immigrant Latino workforce, they organized into UE Local 1110 four years ago after dumping a company union that had agreed to a wage freeze and had allowed dozens of workers to be fired with no protest.

“There is a political tradition that the UE has nurtured, and when the time was right, it presented itself and they could seize the moment. The organizers were quick on the uptake to understand the issue at hand and fit it into the global context. They did it brilliantly,” says Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor historian at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Word of the workers’ decision spread rapidly among Chicago labor and social justice activists. Within hours a prayer vigil, organized by CICWI, had been planned. Supporters appeared at the factory’s entrance bearing gifts of food, coffee, blankets, and sleeping bags. They signed posters that workers taped to the factory walls, with messages like “Thanks for showing us all how to fight back” and “You are an inspiration to us all.”

Hundreds of supporters showed up to the prayer vigil, and workers received statements of solidarity from as far away as France and Argentina, where factory occupations are a more familiar form of protest.

The occupation entered the national stage in full force after President-elect Obama voiced his support. The Republic workers make energy-efficient doors and windows, products at the core of Obama’s call for a new, more environmentally sustainable economy.

Local politicians threatened to pull city and state business with the Bank of America, and apparently offered other promises of assistance to the workers, too. UE Western Region President Carl Rosen announced he was working with state agencies to find financing to re-open Republic under new management, and UE announced the creation of a fund to restart the plant.
Given the scale of public and political support, it was only a matter of time before the workers won their demand for the severance legally mandated under plant-closing laws.

Some pumped-up supporters are wondering whether the Republic victory will be a spark that re-ignites the labor movement.

“We really feel like we had an obligation to working class people to win this fight,” said UE international representative Mark Meinster, “because of what it could mean for workers in this country.”
What follows is the official statement from the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, known in brief as the United Electrical Workers. Molly, as a Canadian, has to confess to having been rather unacquainted with this American union before now. At best I knew they were an old CIO outfit of extremely progressive views who had managed to survive decades after being attacked for being "communist influenced". Their website and the Wikipedia article on the union gives a wealth of detail, and I have to say that they are truly outstanding. No doubt "communists" or at least people sympathetic to that sort of politics were indeed active in the union, but it was actually a collection of many others such as radical Christians, socialists and even ex members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) whose anti-communist credentials could hardly be disputed. The actual position of the UE differed markedly from that of the CP at many points during the decades of its existence.

In more recent years the UE has been a bastion of union democracy, community unionism, ant-racism and proper management of union funds. Today the UE retains its position of "political independence" which they define on their website as:

"Independent means independence of the two major political parties (Republicans and Democrats). UE maintains that both parties are too closely tied to the wealthy and big corporations to be dependable advocates for working people. UE political action is issue-oriented. We "independently" formulate our own political goals- not taking them from any political party or other group- then fight for them through political action"

The UE refuses to maintain "political action funds" that can be dispensed to political parties without the say-so of union members, as is unfortunately the case in most American and Canadian unions. Perhaps just as importantly the UE constitution states that its officers will have "a salary not to exceed the highest weekly wage paid in the industry". All raises to officials must be approved as amendments to the union's constitution. the result is that UE officials are paid a fraction of what officials in other unions are. A great barrier to careerism and bureaucracy.

What Molly, as an extreme anti-communist, can say is that if the UE was the sort of "communist front" that its right wing detractors say it is- which it isn't- then Molly would have few objections to "communism". Ah well, here's the notice from the UE...


'Yes' Vote at Republic: Workers Get Pay, Plant Occupation Ends:
10 December, 2008
After the conclusion of negotiations Wednesday evening, the membership of Local 1110, more than 200 workers, met in the plant cafeteria to hear and consider the tentative settlement that had been worked out by UE negotiators over the past three days.

The settlement was approved by a unanimous vote.
'We Did It!'
Following the vote, the UE members, led by Local President Armando Robles, marched out of the plant, chanting “We did it!” in English and Spanish.

Pres. Robles stepped to the microphones outside the front entrance to the plant, where a throng of reporters and cameras had been waiting. "The occupation is over," he announced. "We have achieved victory. We said we will not go until we got justice, and we have it."

UE Western Region President Carl Rosen, who led the union negotiating team, then described the negotiations, summarized the settlement agreement, and commented on the significance of the struggle and the workers' achievement.
Pay, Health Care, Vacation Pay
The settlement totals $1.75 million. It will provide the workers with:
***Eight weeks of pay they are owed under the federal WARN Act,
***Two months of continued health coverage and,
***Pay for all accrued and unused vacation.

JPMorgan Chase will provide $400,000 of the settlement, with the balance coming from Bank of America.
Third Party Fund
Although the money will be provided as a loan to Republic Windows and Doors, it will go directly into a third-party fund whose sole purpose is to pay the workers what is owed them. (NB-MOLLY)

As the Local 1110 leaders characterized the settlement, “We fought to make them pay what they owe us, and we won.”
'Historic Victory'
UE Director of Organization Bob Kingsley spoke on behalf of the National Union, describing the outcome of the occupation as “a victory for workers everywhere,” and as “an historic victory for America’s labor movement.”

Kingsley went on to call the settlement “a win for all working men and women who face uncertainty, unfairness and job loss in a troubled economy.”
The 'Window of Opportunity Fund' (Another NB-MOLLY)
Kingsley then announced the creation of a new foundation, dedicated to reopening the plant. It will be initiated with seed money from the UE national union and the thousands of dollars of donations to UE Local 1110's Solidarity Fund that have come in from across the country and around the world in just the past five days.

Melvin Maclin, vice president of Local 1110, announced the name of the foundation, which was chosen by the workers themselves: the Window of Opportunity Fund. Maclin said that the fund will be open to receive donations from all friends of the Republic workers and supporters of their struggle.

Rosen introduced U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, praising the congressman for his tireless work in behalf of the Republic workers and indispensable role in bringing about the settlement. Gutierrez spoke at some length, and then introduced David Rudis, Illinois state president for Bank of America. In a statement to reporters, Rep. Gutierrez said, "This money will only be used to pay the workers the benefits they are owed under the law, and it will not under any circumstance be used for corporate bonuses, luxury cars or any other perk for the owners of the plant."
Finally, here is the notice from the Jobs With Justice Coalition who did much to help the workers to victory. The following includes some plugs for JwJ's other efforts.

VICTORY at Republic Windows and Doors!‏:

Workers Vote to Get Pay; Occupation Ends!
After 6 days occupying the plant, workers at Republic Window and Doors in Chicago voted to accept a settlement late on December 10th.

The settlement totals $1.75million. It will provide the workers with:
- Eight weeks of pay they are owed under the federal WARN Act;
- Two months of continued health coverage, and;
- Pay for all accrued and unused vacation.

JPMorgan Chase will provide $400,000 of the settlement, with the balance coming from Bank of America. Although the money will be provided as a loan to Republic Windows and Doors, it will go directly into a third-party fund whose sole purpose is to pay the workers what is owed them. In addition, the UE has started the "Window of Opportunity Fund" dedicated to re-opening the plant.

As the Local 1110 leaders characterized the settlement, "We fought to make them pay what they owe us, and we won." Read more about the settlement here.

We want to extend a big THANK YOU to all of you who participated in this campaign. The tremendous support and solidarity from the thousands of people like you around the country - and the world- who took the time to send messages to Bank of America and who rallied at banks across the country was crucial in winning this victory.

This is truly an historic victory for workers in the United States.

But this struggle is just the beginning! As the economic crisis deepens we need to launch a working class fight back. Rallies for a "People's Bailout" will continue today and throughout the rest of the week.

Click here to find an action near you (updated daily) You can also takeaction online:
Tell Congress: We Demand a People's Bailout:
Save Autoworker Jobs:
VOTE NOW for Grinch of the Year:
Thanks again for all that you do! You can see photos, video, and press clips from the Week of Action here:


Renegade Eye said...

Very good post.

Many don't know the unique history of UE.

If only the UAW learned something from this.

mollymew said...

Yes, as I said because I am a Canadian I had only the bare bones of an idea about what the UE was all about. I found their outfir to be quite admirable and worthy of emulation. I doubt the UAW will go down sucha road however. Too bad.

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