Is Labor Prepared to Fight?

Plant closings across the U.S. in recent decades have dramatically re-shaped America’s economic and physical landscape. A new wave of shutdowns has gathered force since the Wall Street meltdown and resulting economic crisis. With this has come a growing reliance on production in high-repression, low-wage nations like Mexico and China to manufacture products for U.S.-based firms. Yet the U.S. labor movement has generally reacted with a stunning level of passivity according to many progressive observers. “Roughly ten million workers have been displaced since 1978, their jobs lost due to plant removal,” says Stanley Aronowitz, sociologist, former union organizer, and author of such books on labor as False Promises. “But most unions have no understanding of this crisis and are not interested in conflict,” argues Aronowitz. “They’re worried about losing their treasuries and political support and will do everything to avoid it. Their philosophy: close the plant under the best possible circumstances.” Staughton Lynd, an activist in labor-community coalitions to save the steel industry in Ohio and the author of The Fight Against Plant Shutdowns, echoed Aronowitz’s grim assessment: “We’ve had a catastrophic failure of the trade union movement in dealing with plant closings in one situation after another. A funeral director mentality has set in.” A similarly cautious passivity also seems evident in labor’s current fights for health care reform and the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) to restore workers’ right to unionize. Undeterred by earlier expressions of public and congressional fury at Wall Street and bank bonuses, a New York Times headline recently announced “Wall Street Pay is Bouncing Back” (4/26/08). One recruiter for Wall Street firms defended the trend in these revealing terms: “Wall Street is being realistic. You have to retain your human capital.” Clearly, such concern in Corporate America is reserved for astronomically-paid executives. The top tiers of U.S. corporations are de-legitimating themselves in their role as “job creators” via their complicity in creating the current job-destroying crisis and their continuing grab for compensation that bears no connection to any measure of leading CEOs’ performance. Spectacular displays of greed by Corporate America thus creates the potential for the U.S. labor movement to step forward as a visible, vocal, and aggressive force fighting for the interests of all working Americans, as it did in the 1930s. It remains to be seen if labor can break out of failed but familiar strategies and embrace this massive opportunity.

UE workers and supporters picket Bank of America, December 2008—photo by Chris Geovanis/Chicago Indymedia

Standing out in this sea of general labor acquiescence, one group of Chicago unionists refused to stand by quietly while their jobs were being buried. Members of United Electrical Radio and Machine Workers Local 1110, mostly Latino immigrants, faced with the closing of Republic Doors and Windows, staged a successful six-day sit-down strike. The workers were confronted with company plans to shut down production immediately and withhold their vacation and severance pay. They were informed that the Bank of America—a major recipient of federal bailout funds to the tune of $5 billion and an additional $118 billion line of credit—was refusing to release the necessary funds. The workers responded by occupying the plant, holding hostage the company’s inventory and equipment. “The members of the local realized that the money embodied in the machinery was either going to their pay, or it was going up into to the ether and then into the coffers of the Bank of America,” recounted UE spokesperson Leah Fried. In an environment of huge public resentment of federal bailouts and corporate mismanagement, the occupation generated enormous international media attention and broad expressions of public support, including a virtual endorsement by President Obama. The sit-down resonated with great force among the public, because it targeted the Bank of America’s refusal to release funds despite the government bailout. “We made our message everybody’s message,” explained Carl Rosen, the president of the UE’s Western District based in Chicago. “This economy is failing because workers cannot buy back what they are making. Corporations are being bailed out and workers are being sold out.” The publicity generated by the sit-down not only forced Bank of America to relent so the workers could be paid, but also caught the attention of California-based Serious Materials, a “green” firm specializing in energy-saving doors and windows. Serious Materials appeared on the scene to purchase the plant, retain the workforce, and recognize the union. “Obama’s stimulus package contains money for retrofitting of schools and other public buildings, and weatherizing of low-income family homes,” the UE’s Mark Meinster points out. “There are a number of elements that would benefit ‘green building products.’”

Community support during the Republic plant occupation, December 2008—photo from

“What made the Republic sit-down such a gem was the righteousness of it,” observes Frances Fox Piven, long-time academic, activist, and co-author of Poor People’s Movements. “What they did wasn’t legal, but it was balanced by the obvious violation of the law on the part of management. So it was, symbolically, very powerful.” Thus far, the Republic sit-down has not inspired many imitators, despite vast publicity and the stunning victory produced by the workers’ action. One exception is an action by the non-union workers at the Colibri jewelry plant in Rhode Island who committed non-violent civil disobedience to protest the plant’s closing at the hands of Founders Equity, a New York-based private equity firm. In contrast, Europe has witnessed plant occupations at Waterford Crystal in Ireland, Visteon car-parts plants in Belfast, Ireland and Enfield, England, and Prisme Packaging in Dundee, Scotland, among others. There have also been instances of “boss-napping” at Sony, 3M, Scapa, Continental auto parts, and Caterpillar plants in France, where plant managers were locked in their offices. Too Much Labor Focus on Lobbying? In some ways, the Republic situation was unique. The independent UE, expelled from the CIO in the Red Scare era of the late 1940s for its leftist leanings, has retained unusually vibrant traditions of encouraging and supporting militant action by the rank and file. Moreover, the UE’s strategy at Republic managed to seize the one-plant company at a strategic choke point, an increasingly rare opportunity. As Barry Bluestone and Bennett Harrison pointed out in their 1982 book The Deindustrialization of America, major corporations have increasingly shifted to “parallel production” and “multiple sourcing” to deprive unions of such leverage. Corporations set up duplicatory, “parallel” production lines in other plants and rely on multiple sub-contractors for parts, thereby gaining the power to easily absorb the impact of strikes, blackmail workers in unionized plants into concessions, and “whipsaw” union-represented facilities against each other. Further, the notion that workers are helpless in a “globalized” production scheme has been incessantly reinforced for years by CEOs, most elected officials in each major party, and the corporate media. A Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article spelled out the paralysis-inducing “lesson” of globalization for workers: “Get used to it.” The AFL-CIO seems to remain narrowly focused on Washington-centered efforts to lobby conservative, corporate-backed Democrats. Away from the DC Beltway, in industrial communities, local unions are concerned about Obama’s Automotive Task Force promoting a plan for decimating GM’s workers and retirees. Ousted GM CEO Rick Waggoner proposed closing 14 of 59 remaining plants, further cutting GM employment to one-tenth of its 1978 level and relying more on cars built in low-wage nations to supply the U.S. market. Obama’s Task Force rejected this plan on March 30 for not undertaking even deeper cuts, as Harley Shaiken points out (Dissent, Spring 2009). UAW members worry that more job losses, wage cuts, and reductions in retiree benefits will be demanded as the price for extending more federal loans to GM. The Task Force’s direction threatens to severely weaken a union that played a trail-blazing role for American labor and lifted millions, both inside and outside unions, into the middle class. UW-Madison’s Frank Emspak, professor emeritus of labor studies, has been highly critical of the Task Force approach: “The Administration hasn’t come up with anything but a traditional downsizing plan. You can’t just outsource to Mexico and call it a plan for revitalization. It’s the exact opposite of what Obama says what he wants to do in terms of stimulating the U.S. economy.” At the same time that the Automotive Task Force is pushing for more cuts in a particularly crucial production industry, workers are being hammered with a massive new wave of job offshoring and wholesale divesting of product lines across the economy. Far from trying to aid Obama’s stimulus plan, corporations are using the crisis atmosphere as a shield to justify a set of steps that will permanently harm workers and communities while undermining the president’s recovery efforts. As the New York Times reported (3/7/09): “‘These jobs aren’t coming back,’ said John E. Silvia, chief economist at Wachovia in Charlotte, North Carolina.’ A lot of production either isn’t going to happen at all, or it’s going to happen somewhere other than the United States. There are going to be fewer stores, fewer factories, and fewer financial services operations. Firms are making strategic decisions that they don’t want to be in their businesses’.” Particularly appalling are displays of corporate contempt for workers and the public interest that involve recent instances of large corporations shutting down profitable factories while refusing to sell them to highly interested buyers who intend to keep them open. The giant steel firm ArcelorMittal (AM) is in the process of shutting down profitable mills in Hennepin, Illinois and Lackawanna, New York, which will result in a total of more than 500 discarded workers. In each case, other companies have expressed interest in buying the plants and retaining the current workers, but AM has spurned all offers. United Steelworker leaders at each mill speculate that ArcelorMittal—which has been nailed several times for price-fixing—is seeking to drive up prices by reducing capacity. While AM has faced heat from senators and congresspeople from each state demanding a sale, it has successfully defused the pressure by claiming that it is willing to sell to the right bidder. But as more of the Lackawanna plant gets taken apart each day, the possibility of a sale grows more and more remote, according to USW Local 2604 President Anthony Fortunato. The same pattern is also visible in Kimberly, Wisconsin where the Cerberus Capital Management private-equity firm shut down a technologically advanced paper mill that had earned $66 million the previous year. With 600 jobs at stake, Untied Steelworkers Local 2-9, with the strong support of district and international union officials, mounted a fierce campaign for Cerberus to “Run It or Sell It” to any of four interested buyers. On a sunny fall afternoon, the union staged a rally outside the plant that drew some 5,000 people from a community of 6,000. To turn up the pressure for a sale, Wisconsin senators and congresspeople also met with company officials to increase pressure on Cerberus, whose leadership includes Dan Quayle, former Treasury Secretary John Snow, and Richard Feinberg, who hauled in $330 million in compensation in 2007. Officials from Cerberus’s subsidiary, NewPaper, professed willingness to sell the plant, but when asked by the author if it had a marketing plan to sell the paper mill, was forced to admit “No.” The outcome: 600 highly-skilled workers, mostly in their 50s and early 60s, have been tossed aside with little prospect of getting re-employed at wages anywhere near the roughly $56,000 they averaged with overtime. Now one of the state’s most efficient paper mills stands vacant and unused. In each of these cases, the corporations’ shameless disregard for saving American jobs has seemingly left little imprint on the Obama administration and a Democratic-dominated Congress. Labor’s strategy on winning workers’ right to “card-check” (EFCA) recognition of unions has exemplified its cautious, Beltway-focused approach. Clearly, truly democratic, expedited union-recognition is vital to any labor resurgence, as employers have effectively repealed the right to form unions by terrorizing workers, driving down private-sector unionization to about 7.8 percent. However, the AFL-CIO’s campaign in support of EFCA seems hampered by fundamental flaws. With labor shying away from visible local mobilizations of workers to pressure senators for this basic right to organize, some key Senate Democrats like James Webb (D-VA) and Blanche Lincoln (D-AR) are siding with intensely-mobilized corporate lobbies from their home districts and are signaling their unwillingness to back EFCA. Labor has largely waged the public battle for EFCA through a TV advertisement campaign that seems curiously insular, as if aimed at people who are already within the union movement’s orbit of influence rather than reaching out to the 52 percent of Americans who say that they would join a union if they felt they could do so safely. At the most basic level of communications, the AFL-CIO television advertisements fail to clearly and compellingly identify the problem that EFCA is supposed to address: corporations routinely using intimidation and threats of firings, plant closings, and other reprisals in order to force workers to surrender their right to a union. As with the legislative battle over workers’ right to unionize, the health-care reform campaign waged by the AFL-CIO reflects the same kind of timidity, insularity, and reluctance to mobilize local pressure by union families. The AFL-CIO backs the “guaranteed affordable choice” approach, which would retain for-profit insurers at the core of the health-care system and rely on an “individual mandate” to purchase health insurance, which has been the reef on which numerous state-level “universal” plans have crashed, as there is no effective cost-control mechanism. The guaranteed affordable choice plan unfortunately coincides with corporate efforts to disqualify the Canadian-style single-payer approach from consideration by Congress, despite 67 percent public support in a 2005 poll conducted by Business Week and 59 percent backing among doctors in a 2008 study in Annals of Internal Medicine. Lessons From The 1930s Up until now, the labor movement has been unwilling to take any independent stances or launch grassroots mobilizations, despite the obvious lessons to be drawn from the 1930s and the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In one legendary meeting after his 1932 election, FDR sat down with Sidney Hillman and other labor leaders, many of whom were Socialists. The labor contingent presented a set of progressive economic proposals they wanted Roosevelt to enact. Roosevelt responded: “I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it.” Essentially, Roosevelt told labor that it had to demonstrate public support for progressive measures, raising the specter of even more radical steps, so that he would have the political space to implement labor’s proposals. Public discourse among political elites (and the nascent media elite) had to be moved to the left by local activity that reflected the popular mood for decisive governmental intervention in the economy in the interests of working people. Congressional Democrats, many of them far more timid than FDR, realized that if they did not address the needs of workers and the unemployed, they would be reminded about facing the wrath of working-class voters. Even labor leaders who were hardly leftists, like John L. Lewis of the United Mineworkers, recognized the opportunity to use Roosevelt to build credibility among workers (a popular slogan: “The President wants you to join a union”).

Picketing GM—photo Jim West

For labor, persuading workers that unions could make a difference in their families’ lives meant aggressively taking on employers at the local level. “Sit-down” strikes spread like a prairie fire across U.S. factories (and eventually into other workplaces, including department stores) because of their remarkable effectiveness in forcing employer concessions. The turmoil caused by labor activism pushed Roosevelt to argue the need for labor rights and the creation of a social safety net to head off even more explosive confrontations between workers and authorities. For long-time labor activist and observer Aronowitz, labor needs to respond by ending its single-minded focus on lobbying in Washington and undertake mobilizing working people around the economic crisis, consciously risking the creation of tensions with the Obama administration. “We must have an industrial policy, but instead we have a finance policy. We have gotten a policy of benign neglect of industry from both Bush and Obama.” Frances Fox Piven argues that more actions like the Republic sit-down are needed to move the Obama administration away from its reliance on former Wall Street investment bankers. As she and co-author Richard Cloward argued in Poor People’s Movements, strategically-planned disruptive action can force substantial concessions from leaders trying to minimize potential fissures within the Democratic coalition. “Obama’s trying to find a way out of this depression without causing enemies,” she says. “That’s why he’s following [Treasury Secretary] Geithner’s plan [which seeks to help major banks recover by having the public assume the risks undertaken by investors]. Obama will continue to do that unless he feels pressure.” Employers’ “parallel production” methods have diminished the tangible pressure of sit-down strikes in terms of cutting off production of an indispensable part from its sole source. But sit-down strikes—especially since they are relatively novel for the current generation of Americans—retain an important symbolic value to both the public and elected officials acutely attuned to potentially explosive social protests outside conventional channels. When workers publicly undertake the risk of arrest by occupying a workplace in management cross-hairs for closing, they are asserting that they are far more legitimate stakeholders in the future of their plants and communities than faraway CEOs who may have never even visited the plants that they are choosing to shut down. They are putting forth an alternative set of moral principles about the limits of what employers can do in the name of private ownership. If labor hopes to have any role in shaping America’s economic re-structuring in the direction of economic justice and a renovated production capacity, the union movement must fight on a much broader terrain, inject resources into local struggles to stop plant closings and evictions, and utilize a much wider range of weapons—including sit-down strikes and other civil disobedience.


Roger Bybee is a writer based in Milwaukee who contributes to publications and websites such as Z Magazine, In These Times, Dollars & Sense, Yes!, the Progressive, Multinational Monitor, Foreign Policy in Focus, Asia Times, and Extra!. He edited the weekly Racine Labor newspaper in his hometown of Racine, Wisconsin for 14 years and was active in struggles to stop plant closings.