In the latest Batman film, The Dark Knight, arch-villian The Joker blows up the Gotham City Hospital which disappears into a fireball of smoke and flames. Most film goers probably didn’t realize that this was not a model or a computer generated image. The film crew actually exploded part of an abandoned factory only a few blocks from where I live. It was the old Brach’s Candy plant on Chicago’s West Side, a major landmark to anyone who travels on the CTA Green Line out to the Austin neighborhood or on to Oak Park and Forest Park.
What is left of the Brachs’ Candy factory lies crumbling along Cicero Avenue, frequented only by the homeless, the professional junk scavengers, the graffiti artists and the urban adventurers who love to risk life and limb clambering around abandoned buildings. Brachs is only one example. Today most of Chicago’s former industrial glory is a Machu Picchu of weedy rusting ruins or has been plowed under to grow a crop of yuppie condo buildings.
Twas not always thus.
Brach’s Candy once employed a multi-ethnic workforce of 3700 people. Founded in 1904 as a small neighborhood candy store by Emil J. Brach, it soon became part of that "Stormy, husky, brawling, City of the Big Shoulders" industrial empire that Carl Sandburg wrote about in his poem "Chicago". Built from the blood, toil, tears and sweat of a largely immigrant working class, this industrial empire brought dazzling fortunes to the few, and after many bloody strikes and protests, a modest living for the many.
I first saw Chicago’s thriving industrial empire in January of 1975 as we drove along I-90 toward my new home on the North Side of the city. In the frigid gray dawn, the glowing blast furnaces of Gary, Hammond and Chicago’s Southeast Side had me wondering if perhaps the fires of Dante’s hell had escaped their infernal boundaries. Although I had been born in a big city, the sheer power and scope of Chicago’s industry turned me into just another hayseed from the sticks, gawking in undisguised shock and awe.
But the City of Big Shoulders has always had its dreams and in the 1970’s a small band of working class rebel dreamers was imagining a Chicago industrial democracy instead of a Chicago industrial empire.
Although the campus protestors had grabbed most of the 1960’s headlines, there had also been a working class rebellion that stretched from the coal fields of West Virginia to the oil refineries of Richmond, California. Rebel workers led wildcat strikes and fought not only corporate control, but often the cobwebbed dictatorial leadership of their own unions. There was bloodshed. Two California farmworkers were gunned down while doing picket duty in California’s San Joaquin valley. Miners for Democracy leader Jock Yablonsky was murdered. Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated while supporting a strike by Memphis sanitation workers. There were others as well, but the death toll never reached the levels of the 1930’s labor wars.
Chicagoland’s working class rebels were located at workplaces like U.S. Steel’s South Works, Stewart-Warner, GM Electro-Motive, Danley Corporation, Pullman-Standard, Wisconsin Steel and International Harvester. They were led by savvy visionaries like Ed Sadlowski, Alice Peurala, Frank Lumpkin, Jim Balanoff, Carole Travis, and Rudy Lozano. These Tom Paines of labor were allied with numerous community groups and local progressive organizations. Some had been civil rights activists and anti-war protestors. They had an influence beyond their modest numbers and represented a social unionism that had not been seen in Chicago since the radical days of the CIO in the 1930’s.
They fought racist and sexist discrimination in hiring and promotion. They fought for better training and worker education. They took on brutal supervisors and production speedups. They demanded more worker control over work schedules and an end to forced overtime. They organized for higher pay and for safer working conditions.They organized one of the first union alliances with the environmental movement.
There was talk about how to bring real democracy to the workplace and how to democratize an American economy dominated by corporate ownership. There was a cautious optimism about liberating American industry from the stranglehold of corporate dictatorship and that the American working class could someday share center stage in a new movement for global social justice.
Don’t get the wrong idea. These were not flower children in hardhats. They were down to earth practical realists who understood that the middle class lifestyle achieved by some blue collar workers had not come with a lifetime guarantee. They thought that ALL working people deserved a nice house, a comfortable social safety net, and enough time and money to get some fun out of life while still putting the kids through college.
Sure you could call an uneasy truce in the class war, but you knew that sooner or later Corporate America would go for your jugular and you’d better be ready with a legion of smart brave people who were in it for the duration.That meant breaking down barriers of race and gender and building a solidarity community based on respect and deeply held human values.
Pretty heady stuff for a life-long socialist such as myself and I was soon caught up in the high spirits of their many fundraisers, rallies and picketlines.
Then the shit hit the fan.
When Ronald Reagan fired 11,000 striking air traffic controllers in 1981, Corporate America knew that Uncle Sam had their back. Scarface Al Capone had partnered with Eliot Ness.
What followed was a brutal class war launched with the enthusiastic support of Washington. It was a two pronged strategy. One was to buy out manufacturing companies, sell them off in pieces, strip their assets and milk them of their profits to buy still more companies. As for investing in new technology and worker training to compete in a global market? Forget it. This wasn’t the "invisible hand of the market". This was a smash and grab robbery.
The other half of the strategy was a jackboot in the face of the U.S. labor movement.
Plants were shut down and their production re-opened in desperately poor countries, some of whom were ruled by Washington-backed terrorist dictatorships. Thousands of high paying union jobs went down the corporate garbage chute. Companies then extorted concessions from what was left of their U.S. workforce by threatening to move where both labor and human life were cheap. Throughout the 1980’s workers fought a series of bitter strikes just to hold on to what they had. Most went down in agonizing defeat. Decades worth of labor progress was wiped out overnight.
In Chicago, working class dreams were set aside and replaced by a desperate rearguard battle for survival. There were heavy casualties. Chicago lost 3,000 of 7,000 companies in the 1980s and 150,000 basic manufacturing jobs. Communities like Chicago’s Southeast Side and West Side suffered an economic devastation that still awaits a recovery in 2008.
One of the those battlefields was the Brach’s Candy factory.The attack on the plant was led a Swiss corporate raider named Klaus Jacobs who purchased the company in 1987. His leaderhip proved disasterous as he fired experienced management, laid off workers by the hundreds and displayed an appalling ignorance about the basics of the candy business.
Chicago’s largely black West Side could not afford to lose the 3700 jobs or the 80 million dollars in wages they generated. Teamsters Local 738 which represented the production workers and the Garfield/Austin Interfaith Action Network (GAIN) which represented the surrounding commmunity joined forces. They brought in Dan Swinney of the Center for Labor and Community Research (CLCR). Swinney, a former lathe operator with a talent for crunching numbers and building broadbased coalitions, helped come up with an innovative plan called the High Road Future for Brachs. It was:
An effort by managers and employees to buy the company, as well as a proposal to own the manufacturing facility jointly with Klaus Jacobs. Jacobs rejected both proposals.
Proposals for significant changes in the organization of production, worker participation in management, profit sharing, and the building of an effective relationship with the local community and the city. We proposed that the company let contracts for goods and services to local companies where feasible, expanding the market for existing businesses and creating the opportunity for business start-ups.
There were appeals from 80 organizations as well from local and state politicians. A former Brach’s CEO even joined the campaign. But Klaus Jacobs didn’t give a horse’s ass about the West Side of Chicago or its problems. He refused all offers and eventually shut down the plant.
It was coldblooded economic murder in the first degree.
On a leaden November day in 2003, I stood with several hundred union members and Brachs supporters in a muddy vacant lot for one final rally. There were militant speeches, lots of fist raising and fist shaking and none of it made a damned bit of difference because the 14 year battle to save Brachs Candy was over. I left early. I’d paid my respects to the deceased and it was time to go back and "fight like hell for the living".
In The Dark Knight, The Joker informs us, "That this city deserves a better class of criminal and I’m going to give it to them." Well we got our better class of criminal, but it wasn’t the tragically talented Heath Ledger in grease paint and a fright wig. Our better class of criminal came dressed like Klaus Jacobs and they didn’t need a collection of shivs or barrels of explosive ammonium nitrate to wreak their havoc.
Ironically, this better class of criminal were supposed to be our saviors. They were going to lead working class people out of the slavery of manufacturing and into a glittering Brave New Economy of hi-tech financial and technical services.
How did this shiny new service economy work out? Nearly 1/3 of Chicago’s black children still live in poverty. A world class hi-tech medical complex towers over a West Side where infant mortality is worse than in some Third World countries. Gleaming new office towers poke through the low lying clouds next to Lake Michigan as school kids get shot on their way to class.
And have you noticed how the financial services industry has brought the world to the brink of a new Great Depression?
With that sterling record of accomplishment, I think Americans ought to start making stuff again. It pays better and the time is certainly right. Our planet is dying and we need to retool fast. We’ve shown the world that we know how to make gas guzzlers, nuclear missiles and junk food. How about making stuff that we can actually be proud of and that people really need.
Let’s figure out how to do sustainable green manufacturing that can be the economic engine for rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure and replacing our rotting social safety net. Let’s pay tribute to the working class rebels of the 1970’s and make sure these new green enterprises come with a union label, meet the highest global standards of socially responsible excellence and aren’t controlled by a pack of soulless corporate autocrats. In short, let’s get it right this time.
Oh shit…I almost forgot. I have a message for Bruce Wayne too. Lose the silly bat suit and the Lamborghini. Come down from your penthouse and donate your millions to an economy that actually works for working class people. As for the Batmobile, use it to research the next generation of advanced hydrogen fuel cells and super efficient solar panels. Gotham will thank you for it.