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Republic Windows & Doors Workers at GVSU

October 28, 2009

Last night, union members from Chicago who were involved in the Republic Windows & Doors factory occupation, spoke at GVSU’s downtown campus. Armando, one of the representatives who participated in the occupation, spoke briefly about what happened. He talked about how the company was moving equipment out of the factory and some semi-trailers were hauling equipment outside of Chicago in November of last year and that it what tipped them off to the threat of the factory being closed.

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People began to talk and the labor union (UE) suggested that an occupation might be a good strategy. 270 workers appeared the day they decided to occupy the plant. They asked for volunteers to take on certain tasks and discussed the risks involved. Next they went to Bank of America, the bank that had told the company they would not provide any more loans or credit. The workers asked for an extension of the credit to keep the factory open and Bank of America said no, despite the fact that they received $15 Billion in the government bailout.

The workers received thousands of letters and e-mails and roughly 3,000 different people came to bring food and provide support to the workers during the occupation. After six days they won their demands and received back pay, holiday and vacation pay.

Once the occupation was over they began to think, “What could we do after the occupation?” They began doing research about doing research in the area to determine where they might want to organize workers who were also as vulnerable as they were.  Abe Mwaura, another organizer from Chicago, asked the audience where their cell phones made and most responded “China.” Abe then asked how these products came to the US. He said after the products are shipped to the US, most of it get sent to warehouses on the west coast or Chicago. In fact, Abe said that 65% of train freight in the US goes through Chicago. He also said there were 100,000 warehouse workers in Chicago alone.

So the UE started doing outreach this year to speak with warehouse workers, most of them temp workers, with a majority being Latina women. Many of these workers make less than minimum wage, have work injuries but don’t ask for help, either because they don’t know their rights or out of fear of deportation. Abe shared the story of one woman who was 6 months pregnant while working in a warehouse. She asked to be moved and they refused. She was sent to the hospital where they induced childbirth and 2 days later the child died. Abe asked those in the audience if their cheap cell phones were worth the price of this dead child?

Organizing warehouse workers in the Chicago area seems to be their next major project. Abe and Armando said this is an opportunity to organize workers and to create a new economy. “Imagine,” Abe said, “if workers in a Wal-Mart warehouse began an occupation just weeks before Christmas demanding change, what impact would that have on the country?”

The workers said that they will have a website up soon at warehouseworkers.org and they encouraged people to get involved in labor struggles locally and build solidarity for more actions like the Republic Windows & Doors occupation.

Afterwards we were able to interview Abe Mwaura. The interview is in two parts.

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