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Fundraiser for workers a success

December 21, 2009

(Stelle Slootmaker contributed to this story.)

A year ago this December, workers at the Republic Windows and Doors Factory in Chicago, Illinois were informed by management that the factory would be closing in three days and they would receive no severance or vacation pay.  Rather than just accept this illegal action, the workers with the help of their union, the United Electrical Radio and Machine Workers, decided to occupy the factory.  After six days of negotiations with the company’s creditors, the workers won their pay.

On Saturday night here in Grand Rapids, The Bloom Collective and the Grand Rapids chapter of the Industrial Workers of the World sponsored a benefit at the Kent Ionia Labor Hall to raise money for the workers and the UE union who are currently engaged in organizing similar actions.

A documentary on the factory occupation was shown and UE organizer Abe Mwaura held a question and answer session from Chicago via Skype. 

Event and local IWW organizer Cole Dorsey was also on hand.  Dorsey said this is an important issue because “Workers can take an example from the sit-downers because workers hands are tied when they rely solely on legal means.” 

Following the question and answer session, local band Chance Jones performed for close to an hour.  Lead singer Josh Burge said, “We [Chance Jones] support working people. That’s who we are.”

According to the IWW Facebook page, the event raised over $440 for the workers.

Dorsey and various audience members put the following questions to Abe Mwaura.

Q. Prior to getting national publicity, did Republic Window and Doors or local police use any scare tactics to dissuade workers from taking action?

A. Mwaura explained that because the workers had already communicated to their local Chicago alderman that the action would be nonviolent, the police knew what was going on and did not respond on behalf of management. “Management was scared by what we did. We took power away from them. It was our factory for six days. It was clear that we controlled the place.”

Q. Republic Windows and Doors claimed that the reason they were closing was because Bank of America would not extend them a line of credit. Was this the truth?

A. Mwaura explained that this was a lie. The company owner had actually bought a shadow company in Iowa, a Right to Work state where the UE would have less power to organize workers. Having noticed equipment being taken out of their plant, the local in Chicago set up surveillance that confirmed suspicions of an imminent plant closing. Management also stole money to set up the new plant. “Bank of America had been calling these shots since August. They were actually moving the factory. We knew we had to do some fairly radical action to win justice.”

Q. Did you have any other actions planned?

A. “There was no plan B,” Mwaura said. “The national union suggested it (the occupation). Armando, brought the idea back. The executive comittee asked for volunteers. The first workers to volunteer to occupy the plant were women. Nine or ten women offered first. Eventually 30 folks volunteered. When it came down to  it. It was unanimous. All 260 folks were going to stay in the factory. They knew they were going to be part of something big.”

Q. What did you do for six days?

A. The six-day occupation was not six days of passing time. Committees worked hard carrying out the extensive tasks of negotiations, security, clean-up, and media relations, to name a few. “There was a real sense of what our leverage was—those windows, doors and machines were our leverage and the bank knew it.” On the weekends, the workers did play a little cards; many of the workers’ children came during evenings and on the weekend. “The probably got a better education that they ever got in school,” Mwaura said.

Q. What was the biggest lesson that the Republic workers taught the labor movement?

A. “It’s possible to take radical steps and win.”

Q. Republic workers had good publicity and political support. How possible would their success have been without that support?

A. “It would have been hard, but we weren’t relying on that support. Our leverage was the stuff in the factory. When you’re out of a job, you don’t have your leverage. Our labor was they millions of windows and doors in that factory,” Mwaura said. “If the tactic is to be used, you have to build alliances before you can do that type of action.”

Q. What are you working on now?

A. UE is mounting a movement to organize warehouse workers in the Chicago area. Armando is now president of the new local, “Warehouse Workers for Justice.” “This is a sector of the economy where we could build power,” Mwaura said.

Many warehouse workers in the Chicago are, which is the third largest container port in the world, work in dangerous sweatshop conditions for as little as $2 an hour. Others are not paid for hours worked or are paid in split paychecks that avoid payment of overtime rates. Racial and gender discrimination runs rampant, especially against pregnant workers.

Mwaura used an analogy of a huge elephant obediently tethered by a weak chain. The chain has been there so long that the elephant does not realize it can break it and run free. “We need to take that psychological chain off from our minds and see the power that we really have. UE believes in leadership development through struggle. A year after the occupation, that’s the piece that’ s missing—organizing that helps workers break that chain.”

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