When the day finally comes that Raul Flores loses his job, he will face a bitter search for another one. "I’ve got a family to support, so I’ve got to do whatever it takes," he says. "It’s going to be hard. The economic situation is not good, but I can’t just wait for something to happen to me."
That puts Flores in the same boat as millions of other
Republic workers were not demanding the reopening of their closed factory, at least not yet. They have been fighting for severance and benefits to help them survive the unemployment they know awaits them. Yet, their occupation can’t help but raise deeper questions about the right of workers to their jobs. Can a return to the militant tactics of direct action, that produced the greatest gains in union membership, wages and job security in
Unlike the auto giants, Republic is not threatening bankruptcy. It makes a "green product," Energy Star-compliant doors and windows that should be one of the bedrock industries for a new, more environmentally sustainable economy. But Bank of America, as it was receiving $25 billion in federal bailout funds, pulled the company’s credit line, leaving workers in the lurch. Perhaps that alone led President-elect Obama to support the workers. The bank-enforced closure undermines his program for using environmentally sustainable jobs to replace those eliminated in the spiraling recession. He called Republic workers "absolutely right. What’s happening to them is reflective of what’s happening across this economy."
Federal law requires companies to give employees 60 days’ notice of a plant closure or pay them 60 days’ severance pay to give them breathing room to find other jobs. Republic workers got three days and no money. "They knew they’d be out on the street penniless," says Leah Fried, organizer for Local 1110 of the United Electrical Workers. "When the negotiating committee came back to the factory to report that the company didn’t even show up to talk with them, the workers were so enraged they voted unanimously not to leave until they got their severance and vacation pay."
While the workers acted to gain their legally-mandated rights, the plant occupation resurrects a tactic with a radical history. In 1934, auto workers occupied the huge Fisher Body plants in
Seventy years later, the workers who have inherited that legacy of unionization and security are on the brink of losing everything. Just since 2006, the United Auto Workers union has lost 119,000 members. The threat of plant closure has been used to cut the wages of new hires in half, to $14.50, the same wage paid on the window lines at Republic, where the union is only four years old.
Fran Tobin, midwest organizer for Jobs with Justice, a coalition of labor and community groups with chapters around the country, shares
Flores, Tobin and Fried all agree that none of those demands can be won without unions and workers willing to fight for them. That makes the Republic plant occupation more than just a local confrontation. "This might not be the right tactic in every situation, but people know we need to be fighting back," Fried says.
Will the unions in auto plants and other workplaces hit by layoffs take up the challenge of the Republic workers? To
David Bacon is a writer and photographer. His new book, "Illegal People – How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants," was just published by Beacon Press.