How to Occupy Your Workplace
This year’s Labor Notes conference in April 2010 featured hundreds of workshops and was one of the largest ever. Over 1,000 labor activists, organizers, and others gathered to share experiences, learn lessons, and celebrate "troublemakers" in the arena of workers’ struggle.
One of this year’s Labor Notes "Troublemaker" awards went to the workers of the Republic Windows and Doors factory for their workplace occupation in December 2008, when they sat down and refused to leave until their demands were met. They shared their experiences in a workshop titled "How to Occupy Your Workplace" where they explained the nuts and bolts needed for a successful occupation, including personal and legal safety precautions.
Broader strategic issues were considered as well, such as the difference between a "hard occupation" and a "soft occupation." A hard occupation is where the workers may take bosses, managers, or machinery hostage in order to meet their demands, or when the workers try to run the workplace or factory themselves. A soft occupation includes sit-down strikes and workplace takeovers in order to achieve workers’ rights, such as back pay, better working conditions, and health and safety standards.
The Chicago workers’ experience exemplified a soft occupation, while Jesús Torrez Nuño of the Democratic Tire Workers Cooperative in Mexico, TRADOC (formerly Euzkadi Tire), discussed a hard occupation. The tire workers’ struggle included a three-year strike and eventual takeover of the factory to run it themselves. At first it was out of necessity for survival, but later it was to improve wages and reorganize the division of labor for horizontal remuneration and decision-making across the workplace. Each worker gets paid the same amount in the tire factory and, according to Jesús, they are some of the best paid in all of Mexico.
After the workshop I talked with Rocio Perez and Leah Fried, both participants in the Republic Windows and Doors occupation. Rocio Perez is a union steward with United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) Local 1110 and Leah Fried is an organizer with UE.
Spannos: What led workers to occupy the factory?
Perez: We were told on a Wednesday that the factory would be closing on a Friday and we knew we had to do something to fight back. The company also told us that our vacations were null and void. There was a fear that our last paychecks would bounce. Under the law they were supposed to give us 60 days notice, something they did not do.
Spannos: Of all the tactics you could have chosen, how did you arrive at the decision to occupy the factory?
Perez: We had to take the factory because we didn’t have any other options. That was the only power we had. The machinery inside the plant was the only guarantee we had of getting what we were owed—to make sure they could not get their machines until we got paid.
Spannos: Were you ever in a workplace occupation before?
Perez: No, that was my first time.
Spannos: What was that like?
Perez: At the beginning it was a little scary. We weren’t sure what was going to happen, but we knew we could not just stand there with our arms crossed after what they had done. So we found the courage and we decided to do it.
Spannos: How do you think that experience changed you and the other workers?
Chicago workplace occupation began December 5, 2008—photo from documentary, Workers’ Republic
Perez: It is sad what happened to us, but at the same time it made us stronger. We have greater knowledge of the abuses that workers suffer and how to defend ourselves. One of the things that changed me and one of the lessons I learned was that when you are faced with losing your job, it’s not okay to sit back. I had been unemployed before and I sort of took it. Now the idea came to me that I can fight back. I was angry. That’s where I found the courage. Also there were a lot of us. If it were just me that was angry, maybe I would not have had that courage. But it was all of us who were really pissed off at the way they were treating us so that gave us more strength.
It was even more upsetting to see that there were entire families where the husband and the wife both worked at that place and they were the only source of income for their family. To see them crying and really frightened, wondering, "How are we going to feed our kids? What is going to happen to us tomorrow?" All of that pain and emotion converted to anger and the desire to fight and really made us much stronger. We decided that, whatever happens, we have to stay till the very end.
Spannos: What kind of support was there outside the factory?
Perez: There were other unions and other organizations. Every time somebody arrived with support and help, it made us stronger. We knew we had to keep up the fight because people were watching us and really cared about what would happen to us. It started out with people in our state. Then it became national. Then it became international and you really felt like you were doing something important.
Spannos: What were the obstacles you experienced along the way?
Perez: One of the obstacles was that even among the workers, there were those saying, "We can’t do this because we are going to get arrested…. They are just going to call the police and they will arrest us and take us away." But at that moment, compared to all the pain that was being caused by the actions of the company, getting arrested didn’t seem that bad.
Spannos: What do workers say now?
Workers won their demands against RWD and its creditor, Bank of America, on December 11, 2008—photo from www.workersrepublic.tv
Perez: All of us are happy because we want justice in the end. Just the feeling that the company tried to pull one over on us, and we fought back, and we were not weak like they thought we were. They could not walk all over us like they thought they could. That makes you feel really good. I think employers are going to think twice before they try to pull one of their tricks on us again. If they try it again, we have the experience now so we will be even more powerful.
Spannos: If you were talking to any other worker in the U.S. facing a similar situation, and they were considering occupying their workplace as a tactic to get their demands met, what would you tell them?
Perez: Be sure to talk a lot among yourselves. That you should not be afraid, because when you are united you can win. Everything is possible.
Spannos: Are you working at the factory now?
Perez: The factory re-opened under a new owner, Serious Materials. There are about 29 workers who have been called back to run the factory. I hope that eventually we will all be called back and that we will be together again soon. Even if, for some reason, I end up not going back, it would make me feel wonderful knowing that all my co-workers are going to eventually have their jobs back and that all that pain that they went through will eventually be healed.
Fried: One thing we were able to do was negotiate a union contract with Serious Materials that requires them to hire all 270 UE members of Local 1110 before they can hire anyone else. As production ramps up, they have to hire from our membership before they can hire anyone else. So a lot of them are still out of work, but they are guaranteed to be hired back to that job.
The owner did not bother to show his face. The COO (Chief Operating Officer), who told people that there was no money for them, didn’t really understand how callous they were being towards people. They really just thought, "These are just a bunch of immigrants. Who cares? We will pull a fast one on them." In fact, the company was pulling a fast one. They had known since that summer that they planned on closing. They were slowly moving the machinery out.
I think that most employers just assume that the WARN Act (Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification) is so weak because it has a huge loophole that basically says that economic conditions can dictate that the employer does not have to give notice to workers. Certainly, Bank of America knew about the move and Bank of America said that, "You can shield us from any liability from the WARN Act and any anger from the employees," and they were just caught with their pants down. They just didn’t anticipate workers fighting back. I hope this is an example to other workers everywhere to not be afraid.
Chris Spannos is an activist and a Z staff member. He also edited the collection Real Utopia.