The factory occupation by 240 employees of the Republic Window and Door factory in Chicago, Illinois for six days in early December was the most dramatic episode in US working class history in recent memory. Even the afterglow of the Obama electoral euphoria and its sweet promises of "change" couldn't prevent the angry workers from turning to the class struggle to resist the worsening economic crisis and the growing attacks on their standard of living.
In light of the media campaigns that have celebrated and glorified the sit-in in Chicago, it is critically important for revolutionaries and class conscious militants to be clear on the meaning and significance of these events,. The New York Times exemplified this media blitz with a headline that declared "labor victory comes amid signs of growing discontent as layoffs spread." The Times further stated that the Republic workers "had become national symbols of worker discontent amid the layoffs sweeping the country." But the Times only got the story half right. Yes, the struggle demonstrated growing working class militancy in resisting the wave of layoffs that have culminated in more than 1.7 million workers being added to the rolls of the unemployed or underemployed in the last 11 months. But it was no "victory," not by a long shot, no matter how much the politicians, leftists, and the media celebrate what the workers supposedly "won."
The militancy of the workers is clear. According to media reports, the idea for the factory occupation originated with a factory union organizer after workers became suspicious when the company began removing machinery and equipment from the factory. (Unknown to the workers at the time the company had made the decision to shut down the factory and set up operations as Echo Windows LLC in Red Oak, Iowa, where wages and production costs are much lower.) On Dec 2nd the company announced that all workers would be laid off in three days with no severance pay and no pay for accrued vacation. Then they announced that medical insurance would be cut off. The workers responded with a unanimous decision to takeover the factory, potentially risking arrest for trespassing and holding control over the company's inventory of window frames.
Workers organized their occupation in shifts, maintained order and sanitary conditions, banned alcohol and drugs, and immediately began to attract media attention. When rank and file workers spoke to the media they made clear that their struggle was a fight against layoffs and for their jobs and their ability to support their families. One worker said, "I worked here 30 years and I have to fight to feed my family." Another complained that his wife was about to give birth to their third child, but now there was no medical insurance. In a situation reminiscent of the working class support for the NYC transit workers struggle in 2005, the working class in Chicago and around the country responded with a strong display of solidarity, in the face of growing difficulties confronted by workers everywhere. People came to the factory with food and money to donate; everyone understood that this was round one in the fight against layoffs.
The United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers Union (UE), a small (35,000 members nationwide), independent, non-AFL-CIO union that had been thrown out of the mainstream labor movement at the height of the cold war because of the union's links to the Stalinist Communist Party, quickly moved to derail the workers away from a struggle against layoffs onto the terrain of bourgeois legality. Instead of opposing the layoffs and the closing of the factory, the union demanded company compliance with a national law which mandates that the workers receive severance and accrued vacation pay in cases of plant closings - approximately $3,500 per worker. Left-wing and mainstream political celebrities, like Rev. Jesse Jackson and local congressmen and city aldermen, quickly jumped on the bandwagon, visited the occupied factory and voiced their support for the severance and vacation pay. Political leaders urged the local cops not to arrest the workers for fear of provoking a more widespread movement. Even President-elect Obama endorsed the factory workers struggle for the money that was "due" them.
After six days, this is precisely the "victory" that is being celebrated by the left and by the media: the banks funding the company reorganization plan have agreed to make sure the workers will get their $3,500 severance/vacation packages. While it's true that getting the money is better than nothing, the money won't last long and then the workers will be unemployed and without medical benefits. The workers who occupied the plant had made it very clear that what they wanted was to keep their jobs. But the derailment of workers' struggles is the key role that unions play for modern state capitalism. The principal job of the unions is to short circuit any possibility of politicization and generalization of workers' struggles, to block workers coming to a conscious understanding that capitalism has no future to offer.
What happened in Chicago strongly parallels what happened in the auto factory sit-down strikes of the 1930s. In those days the workers were fighting for wage increases and improved working conditions, but the United Auto Workers sidetracked the struggle into a fight for union recognition. In the 1970's, young workers employed by the Western Electric division of the Bell System sought to resist massive layoffs, only to be told that the union was prepared to fight for their severance and vacation monies to be paid in separate checks in order to minimize the tax bite. It's easy for the unions to "win" these masquerade victories, which in the end still leave the workers jobless and facing a disastrous future. This is not just an American phenomenon. Recent struggles involving factory occupations and severance payments have occurred in China as well, as the economic worsens.
The media and leftist glorification of factory occupations is yet another aspect of the defeat. True, factory occupations clearly reflect militancy and combativeness: a willingness for workers to resist and resort to "illegal" actions. However, the historical experience of the working class, dating back to the factory occupation movement in Italy in the 1920's and in France in 1968, demonstrates these occupations are a trap and have never been a good weapon for the class struggle. The critical weapon for the working class is to spread struggles to other workplaces and to other industries, to generalize struggles as much as possible, by sending delegations to other workplaces, by organizing mass meetings and demonstrations to draw all workers into the struggle. This transforms solidarity from passive "support" or sympathy or financial contributions, into an active solidarity of joint struggle. Factory occupations allow unions, as agents of the ruling class, to lock up the most militant workers in the plants, to isolate them from other workers, and thereby keep them from serving as active catalysts to spread the struggle outside union control.
Clearly there is an immense solidarity for the Chicago workers. But for the working class solidarity is the understanding that all workers, whatever the specificities of their job situation, share the same condition, the same fate, and the same way out. We don't care what's "legal" or what's ‘fair' for the bosses. We care what's in the workers' interest, and this is that there are no more layoffs, no more throwing people out in the streets. Rather than stay locked up in their factory, it would have been better for the Republic workers to march from factory to factory in the Chicago area, to send delegations to other workplaces calling on workers to join the struggle, to demand no more layoffs, no more factory shutdowns. A struggle like that will never be hailed or celebrated by the mass media, the unions, the left politicians, or the president-Elect. It would denounced as a threat to capitalist order. The terrible state the working class finds itself in today makes it necessary to reject any idea of a "honeymoon" with the incoming Obama regime, any illusion that anything "good" can come from the new administration and requires a return to the class struggle.
J. Grevin, Dec. 15, 2008