Skip to content

Book Review: Revolt on Goose Island

January 27, 2010

(This review was submitted by Micah Williams)

Just over a year ago, as the financial crisis wrought havoc and destroyed lives around the world, something strange happened. While blows kept coming to workers already pummeled to exhaustion, a small group of Chicago workers popped up in the news. It was a story about a factory going out of business—old hat in the postindustrial American economy. But this factory was not closing. It was, in fact, still open: in the kind of militant move rarely seen since the 1930’s, its laid-off workers were occupying it.

In Revolt on Goose Island: The Chicago Factory Takeover, and What It Says About the Economic Crisis (Mellville House, 2009), Kari Lydersen recounts the stirring story of Chicago workers at the Republic Windows and Doors factory, members of United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) Local 1110, and their December, 2008, plant occupation. Her book brings the exhilarating energy of the workers’ struggle alive while offering poignant lessons to unions, community organizers, and other fighters for social justice in the context of the global economic meltdown.

The back-story to the drama that unfolded across newspaper and television headlines is a fascinating one. Portrayed as a parable of pissed-off workers pushed past the breaking point when employer abuse went a step too far, Local 1110 members’ nine-day factory occupation was seen as a spontaneous fit of rage. But Lydersen shows that behind the sit-down was tireless organizing by workers and their union. In 2004, disgusted with their uninvolved and organized crime-affiliated former union, the Central States Joint Board, workers voted UE as their new representative body. With a union listening to their demands for the first time, Republic employees became emboldened, constantly going to battle with managers—even marching to their homes—over grievances.

This history of militant organizing was behind the decision to occupy the plant when the company began removing machinery in the dead of night to sell off before the factory’s shuttering. Hatched a month before the actual occupation (at a time when workers were still unsure whether their jobs would be lost), the plan was discussed by workers at length. On Tuesday, December 2, workers’ suspicions were confirmed: the plant would close—in a mere three days. A shutdown was expected, but such short notice was not. Their incomes and health insurance suddenly gone, workers had little to lose: they would sit in at the factory.

The decision made to occupy the plant, workers and union staffers enlisted key supporters; these groups sprang into action once the plant was actually occupied. Lydersen’s account of local politicians and community organizations strategizing with them offers insight into the future of such struggles: if workers are to engage in high-profile fights with bosses and win, they must be backed by a wide variety of supporters. The ad-hoc coalition focused their efforts on Bank of America, the recipient of $45 billion in bailout money who closed Republic’s line of credit; workers demanded the credit line be reopened and their back pay and wages and benefits for the next two months be paid, in accordance with federal labor law. After nine days of occupying the plant, rallies and protests outside the Republic factory and Bank of America’s Chicago headquarters, tense negotiation sessions with the bank and factory owners, and a nation-wide outcry in support of the fired workers—all attended and reported on by Lydersen—UE members emerged victorious.

The book’s exploration of the union itself is fascinating. She quotes UE eastern region president Andrew Dinkalaker, saying, “Workers are at the breaking point where they are willing to take more drastic action. The question becomes, if they take drastic action, are they with an organization that will support them internally?” His framing reveals much about UE as an organization. Unlike most American unions, UE is led by its members, not staffers; in the case of the plant occupation, workers made decisions about their course of action, and staff played a supportive role. According to Dinkalaker,

“Most unions are top down—you have union bosses who can nix it if workers want to strike. The UE is set up democratically, so if its membership is interested and willing to take on a fight, the whole organization backs them and consults about the best way to achieve victory. It’s not seen as the workers needing approval from the national organization.”

The descriptions of rank-and-file democracy and transparency in UE, coupled with its willingness to fight and its organizers’ unflinching dedication to struggle, are refreshing to read when so many unions remain top-heavy and unresponsive to members.

As a witness to the Republic takeover, reading Lydersen’s vivid descriptions of the scenes at the factory and protests made me recall my visit to the plant. I arrived on a Monday, almost a week before the fight was won, in the midst of a typically miserable Chicago slush-rain to see a brigade of workers and supporters tossing donated food from a truck from one person to the next. Despite the weather, the animated atmosphere among the crowd gathered near the factory’s entrance was palpable: there was a clear sense that we were witnessing history directly before us. I tried to enter the factory to see exactly what was transpiring there (I think I envisioned some sort of liberated workers’ utopia—what exactly that would look like in a windows and doors factory, I’m not sure), but was turned away by a worker who appeared tired of turning young, giddy activists like me away. Still, morale was extremely high among workers and onlookers. As I conversed with supporters (some of whom had, upon hearing about the occupation, dropped what they were doing and driven to Chicago from neighboring states like Missouri), around a fire in a trash drum, we all agreed: we hadn’t seen anything like this in our lifetimes.

Revolt on Goose Island inspires such feelings.  The book is a testament to what is possible when workers and community members organize and fight. It shows that in the midst of bleak economic times when we aren’t accustomed to hearing about organizing victories, workers can still fight and win.

(In November of last year, GRIID posted a story on a talk by Republic and Windows & Doors Workers in Grand Rapids.)

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: