by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
December 18, 2008
THE SIT-DOWN STRIKE RETURNS FOR A NEW ERA
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- Every worker in America should be cheering for the workers at the Chicago-based Republic Windows and Doors. The 240 employees at Republic offered the nation an important lesson in the power of collective action.
On Dec. 5, the workers at Republic were told by management that the plant would be shut down in three days. The reason was that Bank of America, one of the nation's largest financial institutions, and a recent recipient of $25 billion in federal bailout funds, had informed the company that it would not supply credit for the firm to meet payroll.
But when the workers got the news, they didn't just give up. Instead, Republic's workers, members of Local 1110 of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE), quickly organized a peaceful, round-the-clock sit-in occupation of the plant. They vowed to stay until they got the 60 days notice that federal law requires in the event of plant closings. They also demanded that they be paid their accrued vacation pay and severance pay.
Their strike caught the attention of a nation. In the midst of rising unemployment and shrinking wages and benefits, the Republic workers stood their ground for the benefits they earned. Many prominent people, including President-elect Barack Obama, rose to their defense. Even disgraced Gov. Rod Blagojevich - two days before his arrest - ordered all state agencies to end all relationships with the bank.
On Dec. 9, Bank of America blinked. The bank announced it would extend credit to Republic. After another day of negotiations, the sit-in ended after the workers reached an agreement to ensure each former Republic employee will get eight weeks' salary, all accrued vacation pay and two months' paid health care.
While the company still filed for bankruptcy the following, the workers still got was as due them.
"We lost the jobs but we got something," Lalo Munoz, who worked at the plant for 24 years, told The Associated Press.
Bank of America's behavior in all this was particularly galling. A bank that recently received $25 billion from taxpayers as part of a bailout designed to push banks to start lending money again was refusing to lend money to a troubled American manufacturing firm just weeks before Christmas. That's not going to win you many friends, and they have earned the protests and boycotts that have sprung up around the country.
What happened in Chicago may have been a fluke, but we think it might be just the beginning of a sea change in American life. People are finally starting to realize that they have been played for fools by an economic and political system that has concentrated wealth and power at the top, while taking away the hard-won victories of labor.
The sit-down strike originated during the great labor battles of the 1930s. After the passage of the Wagner Act in 1935, which recognized workers' right to collective bargaining, workers across the nation engaged in various forms of protest to demand recognition of their unions - in some cases, at the cost of their lives.
Union membership in the private sector of the United States has fallen to about 7 percent, compared to more than 30 percent back in the early 1950s, even though polls repeatedly show that a majority of Americans would want to have a union at their job if they could get one.
That's because labor law has been skewed toward management ever since 1947, when a Republican-controlled Congress, backed by big business, passed the Taft-Hartley Act, which gutted the protections of the Wagner Act and began the long decline in labor activity in the United States.
Republicans still hate labor. GOP lawmakers in Washington seem willing to let Ford, Chrysler and General Motors go bankrupt, rather then give these companies the same sort of aid the financial industry got from Congress. Why? Republicans want to break the back of the United Auto Workers and bankruptcy would be the best way to do it. They seem offended that any worker should be paid a decent wage and get health care and retirement benefits.
The GOP's behavior toward U.S. automakers is one more reason why one of the priorities for the next session of Congress is the Employee Free Choice Act - a labor law reform that would end the ability of employers to stall union elections for years and to refuse to bargain a first contract with a new union.
The act would require employers to accept the certification of a union whenever a majority of workers at a workplace signed cards saying they want a union, and would require them to negotiate and reach a first contract within 90 days.
Big business groups, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, have made the defeat of this bill their top priority for 2009. They know that employee free choice and union growth offer workers the most direct path to reduce the huge economic disparities of the past three decades, and they want to make sure it doesn't happen.
The history of America is one of social movements taking needed direct action, and in the process, capturing the public's imagination. As the workers at Republic showed the nation, only by joining together can workers hope to improve their lot. Every worker in America should take heed, and remember who is really on their side.
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for nearly 30 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.