How Republic Workers Occupied Their Plant
December 5 was to be the last day of work at Republic Windows and Doors in Chicago. But managers soon realized that workers would not go quietly: they had voted to occupy the factory.
Members of United Electrical Workers (UE) Local 1110, they’d made plans to scatter throughout the plant, chain themselves to machines, and risk arrest. This is the story of how they did it.
The occupation that won workers their back pay and the admiration of union members around the world didn’t happen out of the blue. It was the culmination of years of struggle to build a democratic, fighting union able to take on the boss.
LAYING THE FOUNDATION
In early 2004 workers at Republic suffered under a gangster “union” that represented the boss more than the workers. Chicago is one of the last bastions of these old-school outfits that help companies keep workers down.
Workers had their wages frozen at $8 an hour for three years and had seen hundreds of their co-workers fired for no good reason. Discrimination, unfair treatment, and low wages were the hallmark of their former union, Novelty and Production Workers Local 16. So workers sought a change.
First they approached several worker centers, which arranged a meeting with UE organizers. Workers were impressed with UE’s record of democratic, aggressive unionism. In November 2004 they organized an election, joined UE, and went on to win their best contract ever.
In the contract fight of 2005, workers regularly wore UE buttons and stickers with contract demands. They organized marches to the boss’s office, practiced picketing, and voted and publicly vowed to strike if necessary. A contract was won on the eve of the planned strike, with raises of $1.75 immediately and improvements to working conditions and benefits. This struggle set the tone for years to come.
Unity, however, wasn’t automatic. Democratic unionism doesn’t exist without some growing pains.
Republic workers are a diverse workforce: 80 percent Latino, 20 percent Black, and 25 percent women. Hotly contested elections for stewards and officers, intense debate, divisions based on race or gender—all took place in this local.
Leaders had to work hard to build black-brown unity, overcome factionalism, and be willing to lose some debates (such as one over a dues increase) in order to create a local in which all the workers felt ownership.
Some leaders of the occupation had campaigned against each other in elections and each had their own following. But in the end, the workers were able to come together every time they needed to fight the boss.
UE had also been dedicated to building alliances in the community and the labor movement. Years of work to forge links with worker centers, religious groups, community organizations, and immigrants rights organizations laid the base for solidarity.
Rank-and-file members’ longstanding participation in solidarity activities, Jobs with Justice, and immigrant rights marches in Chicago helped local leaders get to know UE better. And regular participation in national political action helped lawmakers know UE as well.
UE began planning for a possible plant occupation in November, when machinery started disappearing from the plant. Local leaders were prepared for the worst-case scenarios.
We bought chains with locks and organized a core group committed to civil disobedience if necessary. We knew it might come down to getting arrested. Workers understood they had to keep the company’s assets from leaving the factory.
As workers met again and again to talk over what might happen and organize for a fight, we developed a strategy that focused on Bank of America. The bank, which had just received $25 billion in bailout funds, would decide whether Republic would continue to receive financing.
UE reached out to allies and elected officials to mobilize public pressure on the bank, including a big picket of its offices in Chicago two days before the occupation. Members of Congress, most significantly Representative Luis Gutierrez, pressed the bank to negotiate with the union.
The occupation was launched after the company didn’t show up to a meeting with the bank and UE. Workers came to their last day of work and decided unanimously not to leave until their demands were met: vacation pay, 60 days’ severance as the law required, and two months’ health insurance.
The company was informed of the workers’ vote to occupy the factory. They knew they faced more than 200 angry and organized workers who were not about to leave quietly.
Management called the police, but at the same time our longstanding allies mobilized hundreds of supporters, via urgent alerts and phone calls, to come to the plant.
By this time the press had become a steady presence. The idea of the whole world seeing 200 workers dragged out by the cops in front of a supportive crowd rallying outside the factory—it all helped the company decide not to fight the union.
The police left, and the chains stayed in their bags. The workers had taken the plant.
As word of the factory takeover spread, solidarity started pouring in, from unions and community, religious, immigrant rights, and civil rights organizations. The messages visitors left on posters in the plant lobby, the donations, and letters from all over the world were key in strengthening the workers’ resolve.
But most important was the unity of the workers, who despite their differences, rose to the occasion and showed incredible strength.
The day the occupation began the local executive board and stewards organized their co-workers into three shifts, round the clock. UE organizers also took shifts (although those tended to last 20 hours).
Rules were agreed upon and posted in the cafeteria: No alcohol, smoking, or drugs. Non-UE members, unless immediate family, were not allowed onto the factory floor.
Committees for welcoming and security at the door, clean-up, food, and patrols to keep the assets safe were staffed in eight-hour shifts. At the beginning of each shift all the workers and organizers would meet to give updates, take volunteers for each committee, and review what would happen that day.
Workers kept busy with rallies and press interviews outside the plant in addition to their committee responsibilities. Children accompanied their parents, doing homework and playing amid the adults’ work. Donated food, blankets, and two TVs (one for news, the other for sports) were shared equally by all.
After six long days, the lead committee made up of shop leaders and UE reps came back with a settlement that workers voted enthusiastically to accept. We had won all our demands and then some.
Now, we are working to reopen the factory with all the workers back on the job. But we know that something beyond jobs or money owed has been won. We have inspired millions to know that the world is what we fight to make it, that we can win.
Leah Fried is a UE organizer.
For information about the UE workers' nationwide "Resistance and Recovery Tour", visit http://labornotes.org/republictour