When the 250 workers at the Republic Windows and Doors factory in Chicago were told that the plant was shutting down, they decided to take matters into their own hands. On Friday, December 5, the workers occupied their factory in an act that echoes the sit-down strikes of the 1930s in the US and the occupation of factories during the 2001 crisis in Argentina.
"They want the poor person to stay down. We’re here, and we’re not going anywhere until we get what’s fair and what’s ours," Silvia Mazon, 47, a formerly apolitical mother and worker at the factory for 13 years told the New York Times. "They thought they would get rid of us easily, but if we have to be here for Christmas, it doesn’t matter."
The workers are demanding that they be paid their vacation and severance pay, or that the factory continue its operations. They were given only three days’ notice of the shut down, not the 60 days’ notice which is required under federal and state law.
On Friday, fifty of the workers at the plant — taking shifts in the occupation — sat on chairs and pallets inside the factory and were supplied with blankets, sleeping bags, and food from supporters. Throughout the takeover, workers have been cleaning the building and shoveling snow while protesters gathered in solidarity outside waving signs and chanting.
The occupation of the factory — which produces heating efficient vinyl windows and sliding doors — is taking place in the midst of a massive recession, with the rate of unemployment in the US at a 15 year high, and with 600,000 manufacturing jobs lost in this year alone. As another indicator of the economic crisis, 1 in 10 Americans — a record of 31.6 million — are now using food stamps.
The factory workers are protesting the fact that the Bank of America received $25 billion in the recent $700 billion government bailout, and then went ahead and cut off credit to Republic Windows and Doors, resulting in the subsequent closing of the factory.
"The bank has the money in this situation," said Mark Meinster, a representative of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, the union to which the factory workers belong. "And we are demanding that Bank of America release the money owed to workers who have earned it and are entitled to it." On Monday Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich announced that, in support of the workers, the state will temporarily stop doing business with Bank of America.
President-elect Barack Obama also announced his support: "When it comes to the situation here in Chicago with the workers who are asking for their benefits and payments they have earned, I think they are absolutely right . . . what’s happening to them is reflective of what’s happening across this economy."
Rev. Jesse Jackson delivered turkey and groceries to the workers, saying, "These workers are to this struggle perhaps what Rosa Parks was to social justice 50 years ago. . . . This, in many ways, is the beginning of a larger movement for mass action to resist economic violence."
Occupy, Resist, Produce: Argentina’s 2001 Crisis
Argentina’s crisis was similar to the current recession in the US in the sense that in December of 2001, almost overnight, Argentina went from having one of the strongest economies in South America to the one of the weakest. As the occupation of the factory in Chicago indicates, there are some tactics and approaches used in Argentina to combat economic crises that could be applicable in the United States.
During Argentina’s economic crash, when politicians and banks failed, many Argentines banded together to create a new society out of the wreckage of the old. Poverty, homelessness, and unemployment were countered with barter systems, alternative currency, and neighborhood assemblies which provided solidarity, food, and support in communities across the country.
Perhaps the most well known of these initiatives were the occupation of factories and businesses which were later run collectively by workers. There are roughly two hundred worker-run factories and businesses in Argentina, most of which started in the midst of the 2001 crisis. 15,000 people work in these cooperatives and the businesses range from car part producers to rubber balloon factories. Though the worker occupation of Republic Windows and Doors is different in many respects to examples of worker occupations in Argentina, it is worth reflecting on the strikingly similar situations in which workers in both countries found themselves, and how they are fighting back.
The Chilavert book publisher in Buenos Aires offers one example of workers taking back a bankrupt factory to operate it as a worker cooperative. "Occupy, resist, and produce. This is the synthesis of what we are doing," Candido Gonzalez, a long time Chilavert worker explained to me during a visit to his bustling publishing house, with printing presses clamoring away in the background. "And it is the community as a whole that makes this possible. When we were defending this place there were eight assault vehicles and thirty policemen that came here to kick us out. But we, along with other members of the community, stayed here and defended the factory."
Candido didn’t attribute Chilavert’s success to any politician. "We didn’t put a political party banner in the factory because we are the ones that took the factory. All kinds of politicians have come here asking for our support. Yet when the unions failed, when the state failed, the workers began a different kind of fight. . . . If you want to take power and you can’t take over the state, you have to at least take over the means of production."
Back in Chicago, at a time when politicians have failed to respond appropriately to one of the worst US economic crises in history, the occupation of the Republic Windows and Doors factory is a reminder that desperate times call for fresh approaches to social change.
"We aren’t animals," Republic Windows and Doors employee Apolinar Cabrera, 43, told reporters. Cabrera is a father of two, with another child on the way, and has been an employee at the factory for 17 years. "We’re human beings and we deserve to be treated like human beings."
Benjamin Dangl is the author of The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia (AK Press). The book includes many stories of workers, families, and activists throughout Latin America working together to build a new world in the face of economic crises.