“Occupy Your Workplace” Not Just a Slogan for Workers in Chicago
This post is a part of the “What Democracy Looks Like” column, in which I covers left-wing movements, activism and the occasional labor battle.
Before the term “Occupy your work place” was a part of the activist lexicon, the strategy was put into place by factory workers in Chicago three years ago, and they were now at it again and this time with support from the Occupy movement.
In December 2008, then workers of Republic Windows and Doors, around 200 member of United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) Local 1110 staged a six-day sit-in strike to combat the company’s shutting down of business. Citing that the company had only given them a three days notice of closure, instead of the mandated 60 day notice, along with the company’s plans to ignore the employee’s severance pay, including reimbursing them for vacation pay and health insurance coverage. In the end, the workers reached a settlement of $1.75 million. The labor battle was shown in the documentary “Worker’s Republic.” It was also prominently featured in Michael Moore’s 2009 film, “Capitalism: A Love Story.”
The settlement was not the only victory at the time for the worker. The following month, the company that took over the plant, California-based Serious Materials decided to hire back the same work force however only a small part of the work-force was retained.
Which brings us to today. According to reports by the Chicago Tribune, the employees received the following statement on Thursday, February 23, 2012:
Ongoing economic challenges in construction and building products, collapse in demand for window products, difficulty in obtaining favorable lease terms, high leasing and utility costs and taxes, and a range of other factors unrelated to labor costs, have compelled Serious to cease production at the Chicago facility.
Upon hearing the news, the workers received instructions from their union to sit in following the end their shift on Thursday. Thus began the 2012 version of the occupation, which has the Twitter hash-tag, #SeriousOccupation. The employees decided to once again stage a sit-in protest inside their Goose Island factory. Among the demands listed by the workers were a chance to save their jobs, and to be given time to either find another buyer for the plant, or to be given the chance to buy it and run the business by themselves as a co-op.
Police reportedly arrived quickly at the scene of the protest and blocked the entrance, refusing permission for anyone to either enter or leave the factory. The cops went as far as refusing permission for the delivery of a pizza, that was until a chorus of “Let the workers eat” persuaded the police to permit the food to go in.
Late Thursday evening, around 100 demonstrators mostly from Occupy Chicago rallied outside the factory to express solidarity with the close to 50 workers fighting for their jobs. Also represented among those showing support outside included members of unions including National Nurses United, Chicago Teachers Union, Unite Here, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) among others. This video put out by Occupy Chicago Press Committee included footage from outside the factory, and shows the activists outside chanting, “The workers united will never be defeated,” and “What’s disgusting? Union busting!”
UE union organizer Leah Fried was in the fore-front of the occupation, just as in 2008. Fried took question from reporters outside, and went on to state the worker’s demands to keep their jobs.
When asked how long the workers were prepared to occupy the place Fried responded with, “As long as it takes. We did one before and we’ll do it again.”
Well it took much less than it did three years ago, but the employees came out victorious once again. According to the Occupied Chicago Tribune the workers reached an agreement with Serious Materials at around 1 a.m. Friday, February 24. UE’s Mark Meinster released the following statement around an hour later:
A deal has now been struck to try and save the jobs. Serious Energy has agreed to keep the plant operational and people on the job for another 90 days while the union workers and the company work together to find a way to keep the plant open with new ownership because the plant will no longer be part of Serious Energy’s business plan. After 9 hours the occupation has ended with a hopeful workforce.
The UE Local 1110 members demonstrated once more that it is not only possible for workers to fight back at the means of production, but to also come out successful in the end. Almost as exciting as the victory, was the amount of members of different unions that showed up to express solidarity, and gave meaning to the phrase, “An injury to one is an injury to all.”
The “Serious Occupation” was not the only exciting event this week, as we saw the occupation of Brian Piccolo Elementary School six days prior.
As Caitlin Sheehan reported in Socialist Worker–parents, students and teachers occupied the aforementioned Brian Piccolo Elementary School as way to protest the proposal to turn-around the school. The process of “turning around” a school essentially means that the entire faculty and staff of that school will be let go, and will then have to re-apply for their jobs in order to obtain them again. However, most of the time, the jobs go to a whole new staff.
After close to 10 hours of negotiations the occupiers got the chance to meet with the Board of Education in order to state their argument against the turn-around. I highly recommend Sheehan’s article for more detailed information on the occupation.
Unfortunately, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s proposal to turn-around 10 public school–including Piccolo–and to close seven others passed unanimously by the board on Wednesday, February 22. However if the initial occupation of Piccolo taught us anything is that the parents, teachers and students will not take that defeat lying down, and will continue to challenge Emanuel’s attempts to destroy Chicago public education.
What we have seen in Chicago in the past week is that the people are no longer going to take the assault on the 99 percent in order to further benefit the lives of the One percent.