Thursday, December 11, 2008

Si, se puede!

Okay, they're not farmworkers, Leah Fried is not César Chávez, and I expect a fair number of them do not speak Spanish, but the sentiment is much the same.
Chanting, "Yes we did," workers emerged from the shuttered Republic Windows & Doors factory late Wednesday to announce their approval of a $1.75 million agreement that ended a six-day sit-in that garnered national attention.

Several hundred laid-off workers - all union members - voted unanimously for a package that includes eight weeks' salary, two months' paid health care and all accrued vacation pay. That adds up to an average of nearly $6,000 for each worker. ...

In the end, Bank of America ponied up $1.35 million for Republic's layoff package; JP Morgan Chase kicked in another $400,000.
Eli at Left I on the News, source of the above link, notes that the plant is still being closed. Which is true, but this is still a total victory for the workers in that they got everything to which they were legally entitled (and which their former employer tried to deny then) - which was everything they demanded. Significantly,
[a]lthough 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.
When I first wrote about this a few days ago, I said I was depressed at the fact that the plant closing was a scene that is "very likely to become a common occurrence" as the economy continues to head into the dumpster. But I also said that
I am so excited and so encouraged by the fact that some workers are just! fed! up! Fed up enough to stage an old-fashioned sit-in,
adding that I didn't know if it would accomplish anything in the short term but even so it was good to see that people had reached that level of anger where they're prepared to act on it.

Now, it has accomplished something in the short term, in fact everything it set out to accomplish. So for the moment, I'm going to savor the knowledge that determination, some publicity, and public reaction can make a difference: It can even move Bank of America and JP Morgan Chase. And that's saying something.

Still, there is a dark side of this. However, it doesn't lie in what the workers accomplished but why they had to accomplish it. In a later post, I cited a Republic press release but failed to realize the importance of the last item in the chronology:
11/2008 - Gillman family forms Echo Windows, LLC.
The Chicago Sun-Times said on Tuesday that
Republic Windows and Doors' change in ownership nearly two years ago unnerved some workers, who say they started fearing the company would try to open a non-union rival elsewhere.

Their fears appear to have come true, perhaps doubly. The family of Richard Gillman, a former minority shareholder who in 2006 and 2007 bought Republic outright, has set up a new company called Echo Windows LLC.
As the company's own timeline notes, that was in November - the month after they began negotiations to "wind down" Republic's operations. Also on Tuesday, the Chicago Tribune revealed that
[o]n Thursday, the day before the Chicago plant was closed, Echo Windows announced the purchase of a window manufacturing division from Red Oak, Iowa-based company TRACO.
That plant - Are you sitting down? - is non-union. So instead of the classic story of a failing business we have the equally classic story of a business - admittedly by all accounts a struggling one, but still - closing a union shop in one place in order to open a non-union shop somewhere else under a different name and trying to run away from its obligations to its employees as it does so. Which really is despicable and about which the settlement, obviously, does nothing.

This is not to take anything away from the workers at the Republic plant or from the courage and determination they showed or even from the work of the politicians whose support they gained. It is, rather, to note that for us to get the minimum to which we are legally entitled will, in the long run, simply not be enough. We have to recognize our own human rights and change to what it is we're legally entitled.

Footnote: Bob Kingsley, an official of the United Electrical Workers Union,
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 the UE Local 1110 Solidarity Fund that have come in from across the country and around the world in just the past five days.

Melvin Maclin 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.
Another story talked about the union hoping to find a "new owner" to re-open the plant. Here's an idea: How about the union owning it? Or better yet, the workers in the plant? The ideas of worker ownership and worker self-management (also known as autogestion) are hardly new or even unusual; there are hundreds of such places in Latin America, thousands across the world, and they even enjoyed something of a vogue in the US in the latter 1970s. The National Cooperative Business Association, which defines worker cooperatives as "businesses that are owned and democratically governed by their employees," says there are 300 such worker coops in the US.

It's part of what's known as democratic socialism, the idea, at bottom, that the economy should be subject to democratic control in the same way the government should be. Some people will talk about it, some people will advocate it.

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