The following article was published in Proletarian Revolution No. 82 (Winter 2010)
This statement by the League for the Revolutionary Party was distributed at various labor events and struggles during the crisis year of 2009. It summarizes what was accomplished, and what was not, by the inspiring actions of the workers at the Republic Windows and Doors factory in Chicago in December 2008.
Vice President Joe Biden hailed President Obama’s stimulus plan when he spoke at the re-opening of a small factory in Chicago on April 27. Surrounded by Illinois Democratic politicians, he applauded the eventual rehiring of up to 250 workers by the Serious Materials plant as an example of “the biggest bang for the buck” that the administration’s economic policy would provide. Unmentioned at the backslapping ceremony was the fact that the administration was simultaneously presiding over the downsizing of the U.S. automobile industry, which will cost over 100,000 jobs, while the economic crisis was hemorrhaging jobs at the rate of half a million per month.
The Chicago celebration took place at a plant that had been the scene of an inspiring class struggle last December, when it was known as Republic Windows and Doors. The company owners had planned to shut down the unionized Chicago factory in order to shift production to a non-union plant in Iowa, where wages and benefits would be drastically lower. The workers had seen some factory equipment being moved out – and then they were told by their bosses that the factory would be closing, that all their jobs would be lost and that they would not get the vacation and severance pay and health care coverage they were owed.
In response, the workers, led by officials of their United Electrical Workers (UE) Local 1110, voted unanimously to occupy the factory to demand the payments owed them. By holding the plant hostage, they stopped the bosses from removing more equipment and exposed the union-busting plan. Their daring action inspired considerable support, and within a week the banks and bosses were obliged to agree to their demands for the pay and health care coverage they were owed.
At a time when other striking workers have faced fines and jail time (even deportation in the case of undocumented workers), the Republic workers succeeded in taking action against their bosses in violation of the law and getting away without any legal sanction. Their struggle was an exceptional response to the rising wave of attacks on jobs, wages and living conditions, and it triggered a wide discussion on how to fight back – not just in the U.S. but internationally. In today’s world of interconnected economies and intertwined crises, workers can quickly learn of labor struggles in other countries. There is an especially keen interest in events in the imperialist heartland of America, and for once there was good news from here.
Factory occupations played a key role in building industrial unions in this country during the depression of the 1930’s. However, such militant tactics have not been seen for decades, since the pro-capitalist bureaucrats who dominate the labor movement have long been committed to cooperating with the bosses. To avoid organizing struggles, the bureaucrats promote tactics that keep themselves in control, limit workers’ actions to passive protests and protect the capitalists’ profits from being threatened. Specifically, the bureaucracy preaches reliance on the legal system and on voting for and lobbying capitalist (mostly Democratic Party) politicians whom they label “friends of labor.” The result has been one defeat after another and the terrible weakening of the union movement
In this context, the occupation of Republic Windows and Doors was a breath of fresh air, rightly seen as a signal that workers can fight the bosses’ attacks. After all, if the Republic workers had just gone to court to seek what they were owed, the matter would have been delayed for months or years with little chance that they would have been granted justice. In that sense, the struggle was a real success.
While the workers at Republic displayed tremendous courage and fighting spirit, their leaders’ strategy had severe limitations. The main problem was that the occupation did not have as its expressed aim keeping the factory operating and saving the workers’ jobs. When the takeover ended, the factory remained closed and the workers remained unemployed . Subsequently, Serious Materials, a “green” company, purchased the shuttered factory, reached an agreement with the UE and Local 1110 and promised to hire back the bulk of the 250 laid-off workers by the end of June (although that date seems to have been delayed). This was a big break for the workers who will regain their jobs, but the Republic/Serious conversion is not a model for fighting unemployment or the broad attack on working-class rights and living standards.
Moreover, there are signs that Serious Materials is not the benevolent boss it has been depicted as. According to reports, the new bosses accepted the old union contract only with some changes: vacation days were sacrificed and the customary 3-year contract was changed to 4 years. At another plant acquired by Serious Materials, the Kensington Windows factory near Pittsburgh, the company refused to recognize the workers’ union.
The deal to purchase Republic Windows was a lucky break not just for the workers but also for the Democratic Party, whose politicians have made hay over the promises of renewed production and recovered jobs. It provides an argument not only that capitalism has answers for the economic crisis and workers’ misery, but that those answers can come as much as possible from private capitalists and not government takeovers.
If the best the working class can win, even from the most militant struggle in years, is a temporary payout on the way to unemployment and a very fortunate break for those rehired by new investors, then the outlook for workers is indeed bleak. But the working class can do better. It is possible for workers to fight and save their jobs, even in the face of their employer’s bankruptcy. But to carry out that effort, workers need a leadership with a strategy that can lead struggles forward under conditions of economic crisis, when traditional trade union tactics of pressuring for concessions cannot succeed because the bosses simply cannot afford them.
To be sure, the UE leadership demonstrated more creativity and willingness to resist than run-of-the-mill union bureaucrats. But we can’t judge their strategy by that woeful standard. Rather, we must judge it from the view of what is possible and necessary. The union could have sought to spread the struggle to other workers facing layoffs, and could have challenged the rest of the labor movement to fight for the nationalization of Republic and of all failing and union-busting enterprises. Such a call could have shown the way forward for millions of workers, as the economic crisis threatens to cast hundreds of thousands more workers into unemployment each month. It was at root a fear of such a movement that prompted Democratic politicians, like Congressman Luis Gutierrez and President-elect Obama, to force the Bank of America to fund the workers’ pay demands and bring the struggle to an end.
When the financial crisis broke out last year, the capitalists in desperation turned to the government and state funding to bail them out. Workers have paid close attention, with more and more people asking what the government would do to save their jobs, incomes and homes. They are right to do so, and resistance like the occupation at Republic can sharpen this questioning into demands backed by powerful struggles. The way forward for workers faced with layoffs at companies claiming bankruptcy like Republic is to demand that the government save their jobs and the productive potential of the factory by taking them over and keeping them running.
It is possible for workers’ struggles to win such demands for nationalization to save jobs and whole industries. As important as such victories would be, however, nationalization in itself would at best only be a short-term solution to the need to save workers’ jobs. Nationalized factories would still function as part of the cut-throat capitalist profit system, regulated by a capitalist government always looking for opportunities to advance the interests of the capitalists against the workers. Nevertheless, the struggle for nationalization would present workers with the opportunity, based on their own experience of struggle, to learn the class character of the government. More and more workers could conclude that without a revolution that puts the working class in power, the potential of nationalized industry to have production planned in the interests of the broad masses of people would be sabotaged by a government power dedicated to the interests of capitalist profiteering.
Such a struggle would have meant not only fighting the capitalist bosses and banks but taking on the capitalist politicians as well. But like all union officials, the top UE leaders embrace working within acceptable capitalist limits and refuse to break their friendly relations with the Democratic Party. In this case, behind closed doors they suggested to their Democratic Party “friends” that eminent domain laws be used by the government to take over the factory. When the politicians refused, the UE leaders politely backed down and continue to promote the lie that the Democrats were the workers’ saviors and great friends. Gutierrez, Biden and Obama were able to come out smelling like roses for their cheap voicing of support to the occupation’s demands and their celebration of the Serious purchase – while they continue their assault on the rest of the working class.
There is no guarantee, of course, that a campaign to nationalize Republic Windows could have saved the workers’ jobs or set in motion a broader struggle. But a fight by the UE to spread the struggle and call for nationalization would have at least shown the way forward for the whole working class. Instead, the inspiring example of the Republic occupation was compromised by the UE leadership’s public suggestion that there was no hope besides finding a new capitalist owner. In this case one popped up, which provides the appearance of success for the union’s strategy.
Republic Windows happened to be in an industrial sub-sector where an alternative “green” capitalist, taking advantage of specific new government funding programs encouraging the purchase of energy-efficient windows, could be found. While some growth of such production can be expected in the future, it is not going to compensate for the massive loss of industrial jobs that has been taking place for years. It is far more realistic to expect that capitalism will convert only a fraction of the industry that is left to the new products.
In the aftermath of the occupation and settlement, the union organized a tour of various cities by union officials and strike leaders. This could have indeed been a good vehicle for spreading inspiration and militancy, and it possibly raised the morale of some union activists. But it also had the effect of reinforcing the strategy the union pursued with all its problems, setting off another round of “networking” between labor reformist and leftist cheerleaders like what has accomplished nothing for years.
Nor is there any evidence that the union leaders have abandoned their pro-Democratic strategy or proposed any step-up in militant resistance to the bosses’ attacks. The UE, in a news update of February 26, announced that “Our members are ready to get back to work and make great energy efficient green windows for Serious. We look forward to working together to create green jobs at living wages.” While a revolutionary union leadership would negotiate with a new management in similar circumstances, we would make clear that the two sides are mortal enemies, not one big happy family. The UE officials began by breaking from collaborating with the nasty Republic bosses but not from the Democrats, and ended up collaborating with the new “nice” Serious bosses.
The UE leadership is not alone in covering for their failure to fight for a real answer to the crisis of factory closings and layoffs. Some union “radicals” and socialist groups involved in the struggle and the ensuing fanfare also dodged the problems and raised no alternative perspective for fighting layoffs. For example, Labor Notes magazine ran two articles covering the Republic occupation which failed to even mention that the settlement said nothing about saving the workers’ jobs. Likewise, the International Socialist Organization (ISO), which is headquartered in Chicago, ran a widely circulated article hailing the “victory” at Republic Windows which likewise did not note that the workers were losing their jobs. These groups don’t want to openly criticize union officials (insofar as they have any problem at all with the strategy pursued) so they simply make the problem disappear.
Some left-wing unionists have proposed following the example of workers’ cooperatives in Argentina. Bosses there abandoned a series of factories, which the workers then occupied, especially after an economic plunge led to an uprising in 2001. At times the workers had to fight heroically to maintain an occupation against violent attacks by the bosses’ thugs and police. (See for example the LRP statement from 2003, “Defend the Brukman Factory Workers,” .) These long-term occupations challenged property rights and plainly showed the workers’ capacity to run production without traditional bosses.
We favor occupations as a militant and necessary tactic against factory closings, but as a goal we generally argue for a fight for nationalization of whole industries. We pose nationalization in order to both protect the jobs of the workers and raise the need for a government prepared to implement an economic plan of production and distribution in the interests of the working class and poor. We do not believe that nationalization under capitalism is a cure-all, but a fight for nationalization would point in the right direction and can also strengthen the unity of the working class. Moreover, cooperatives tend over time to function as a form of small business. They often have to out-compete far larger companies by producing more for less, which means they deepen their own exploitation. Otherwise they generally lose the competition and go bankrupt.
There is also a tendency for workers in cooperatives to become divorced from the larger battalions of the working class, as they take on the different problems and perspectives of the self-employed. Nevertheless, even though we disagree with the cooperative perspective, we defend the rights of workers to maintain a cooperative against attacks by the government aimed at re-asserting traditional bosses’ private ownership property rights.
The Argentine government has come to tolerate the bulk of the small cooperative movement, since it represents no fundamental threat to the system. Cooperatives are no answer for millions facing unemployment, but they have diverted some militant workers from a bigger struggle.They offer no realistic mass economic solution, given today’s globalized capitalist society. There are some workers in Argentina, Venezuela and elsewhere, who see this and are fighting for nationalization instead. (See our article “Venezuela: Chávez vs. Working Class” in Proletarian Revolution No. 80, for coverage of the workers’ fight at the Sanitarios Maracay plant in Aragua, Venezuela.)
The jobs crisis will not disappear. The capitalists and their politicians are responsible for the current economic crisis and are trying to make the working class pay for it. The struggle at Republic Windows was an early example of the type of militant struggles that will inevitably break out in the coming period. We in the League for the Revolutionary Party say that the working class needs a fightback as big as the bosses’ attacks. Among the most relevant demands are “Jobs For All! For a Massive Program of Public Works!” and “Nationalize the Banks and Failing Industries!” Most workers today do not agree with these demands. But in the near future, more workers will be forced to look for ways to struggle, and the decades-long inactivity of the U.S. working class will change. The course of the struggles ahead will show what is necessary to achieve what workers and poor people need for a decent life now and for generations to come.
The demands we put forward for the struggle are designed to lead to workers’ drawing revolutionary conclusions. Revolutionary socialists do not hesitate to warn their fellow workers that the current economic crisis is the inevitable consequence of the anarchic, capitalist system of private profit, and its descent into outright depression is irreversible. The only solution is to seize the economy’s great powers of production and natural resources from the capitalists, and redirect them according to an economic plan aimed at satisfying the needs of the broad masses of people and not the private profit of a few. Further, we explain that the capitalists will not allow this process to be peaceful; they have a state of courts, cops and soldiers to defend their property and interests. It will take a revolutionary seizure of state power by the working class and its allies to make the economic transition possible.
Such historic tasks cannot be accomplished overnight or spontaneously. To achieve these goals will require a long struggle, and it will also require the leadership of the most class-conscious vanguard layer of the working class, organized into its own revolutionary party. We in the League for the Revolutionary Party are dedicated to building this party as the necessary tool for socialist revolution. We urge workers and youth who want to fight the capitalist attacks and build the party to lead the revolutionary overthrow of this system to join us.