Sit-down at Republic: Will it Give Labor New Legs?

Sit-down at Republic: Will it Give Labor New Legs?

“When capital is so mobile and mobilized, you have to break out of the box,” advises longtime activist and scholar Frances Fox Piven. Breaking out of the box is precisely what a six-day sit-down strike by United Electrical Radio and Machine Workers Local 1110 did last December, producing a remarkable victory at Republic Windows and Doors in Chicago. The sit-down resonated widely with the public, because it targeted Bank of America, a major bailout recipient, for its refusal to provide Republic with the funds needed to give the workers the payments due them.

The victory was particularly significant because the action contained all the dynamic elements that have generally been lacking from American labor’s playbook in recent decades:

  • An informed, unified, and audacious membership prepared to take risks
  • Union leadership committed to fully supporting workers’ unconventional actions at risk to the union treasury
  • The ability to formulate and project a compelling message that links the workers’ cause to the broader public interest
  • A willingness to adopt a tactic so powerful that corporate-friendly politicians have declared it illegal
  • Can this militancy be used by other unions or are the conditions at Republic hard to replicate? With corporations limiting their reliance on any one plant, does labor have the power to inflict direct pain through militant action at a specific chokepoint?

    The sit-down strike not only blocks the movement of inventory for normal distribution or relocation of machinery in preparation for a permanent closing, it also asserts workers’ years of investment of their labor in plants that are about to be closed because of decisions made by distant, highly paid CEOs. Yet U.S. labor has rarely sought to undertake forceful actions that would dramatically capture the attention and sympathy of the broader public.

    Conversely, Corporate America has fully mobilized its resources and adopted wide-ranging strategies to maximize its power and weaken labor. Through funding right-wing think tanks and right-wing media, it has narrowed mainstream discourse to variants of Thomas Friedman‘s infamous “golden straitjacket“ design, which gives near-absolute freedom to corporations without any “rigidities” such as reciprocal economic rights for workers and communities. This undiluted free market ideology has been translated into government policy through candidates’ dependence on corporate donors, shaping corporate policies and subsidies to create astonishing levels of inequality. The richest 1 percent (about 300,000 people) now earn 22 percent of all U.S. income, more than the bottom 150 million Americans combined.

    The 280 Republic workers were faced not only with the firm’s abrupt (and illegal) three-day notice that their plant was closing but with Bank of America’s refusal to extend the company credit necessary to pay workers’ accrued ...

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