On December 5, 2008 over 200 recently-fired workers at the Republic Window and Doors factory in Chicago occupied their plant, demanding that they be paid their vacation and severance checks. The occupation ended victoriously six days later when the Bank of America and other lenders to Republic agreed to pay the workers the approximately $2 million owed to them.
But the workers didn’t stop there. They are now seeking ways to restart the factory and potentially operate it as a worker-run cooperative. The workers are also filing charges against their former employer for failing to give the workers sufficient notice of plans to shut the factory down; the workers were only given three days’ notice, and the management refused to negotiate with the workers’ union about the closure.
In this interview Mark Meinster, the International Representative for the United Electrical Workers (UE) – the union the Republic workers belong to – talks about his role as the coordinator for the plant occupation, connections between the struggle of the Republic workers and workers struggles and tactics in South America, the fight to reopen the plant, and what the Republic workers’ strategies say about social change in an economic downturn.
Benjamin Dangl: First, please briefly describe your role in the union, in the occupation of the Republic Windows and Doors factory, and the ongoing struggle of the Republic workers.
Mark Meinster: I’m an International Representative for the United Electrical Workers (UE). My primary responsibility is to oversee the union’s organizing work and staff in
BD: Could you please talk about some of the connections you see between the Republic workers’ struggle and actions, and the strategies and experiences of similar workers groups in
MM: Obviously there is a long history of workers taking actions of this type, both within the
But in many respects workers’ struggles in
Current UE Local 1110 president Armando Robles attended the World Social Forum in
We drew on the Argentine factory occupations to the extent that they show that during an economic crisis, workers movements are afforded a wider array of tactical options. Militant action can win public support during a downturn in ways that would have been impossible before. In fact, the film "The Take" was screened in the factory during the occupation in a makeshift movie theater set up in the locker room.
BD: Is there a plan to transform the Republic factory into a worker-run cooperative? If so, how did the decision to do this come about? At this point, how is the process going of setting this up?
MM: At this point we are working to find a buyer for the factory, focusing on firms specializing in energy efficient windows. Though we are also exploring the idea of a cooperative enterprise, the fact that no real movement of worker-run enterprises exists in the
BD: Could you comment on the role the Republic workers’ struggle in inspiring workers across the
MM: I think the Republic struggle shows we can win support for bold tactics, especially when we think carefully about how we project the struggle to the public. Time will tell whether the Republic struggle will be viewed as a bell-weather event or a flash in the pan. On the one hand, the occupation led to a huge outpouring of support – from solidarity rallies all across the country to donations of money, food and essential supplies. That this support was on a scale unthinkable only a year ago is proof that this action spoke to the desire of working class people to seek ways to resist to the current economic onslaught. On the other hand, for this event to be a spark others will have to pick up the baton. That means organized labor will have to take some measure of risk, embracing militant tactics when necessary and abandoning its reliance on political maneuvering as the primary means for the advancement of a working class agenda.
Benjamin Dangl is the author of The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia (AK Press). He is the editor of TowardFreedom.com, a progressive perspective on world events, and UpsideDownWorld.org, a website on activism and politics in Latin America.