Workers Vanguard No. 927

2 January 2009


Republic Windows Plant Occupation

UE Workers Win Severance Pay

No Reliance on Democrats, Enemies of Labor!

For a Class-Struggle Leadership of the Unions!

CHICAGO—“We’re here, and we’re not going anywhere until we get what’s fair and what’s ours,” said one of the laid-off members of United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) Local 1110 who occupied the Republic Windows & Doors factory on December 5. After a courageous six-day plant sit-in that captured the attention of the nation, these largely immigrant and black workers won their demands, forcing the bosses and their bankers to fork over $1.75 million in severance pay and benefits. By flouting the bosses’ property rights, the victorious factory occupation set an example for all workers.

The factory occupation began after the Republic bosses gave three days’ notice that the plant would be shut down, throwing its 260 union employees out of work, and then refused to pay severance benefits. The bosses tried to put the blame on Bank of America, which had cut off the company’s credit line, but the union exposed the fact that Republic’s owners were moving the plant’s equipment and setting up a non-union shop in Iowa. When the bosses refused to negotiate severance pay, Local 1110 members gathered in the factory cafeteria, where they enthusiastically voted to occupy the plant.

With the loss of over one million jobs in the U.S. in just the last three months and widespread anger at the government bailout of financial institutions like Bank of America, news of the Republic plant occupation struck a chord among working people from coast to coast. Hundreds of union members and officials from across the Midwest went to the factory, bringing donations of food and funds. Trade-union federations internationally, including France’s CGT and Zenroren in Japan, issued statements of solidarity. The Partisan Defense Committee, a class-struggle, non-sectarian legal and social defense organization associated with the Spartacist League, wrote in a December 6 letter of support: “This action is an example of what is needed for working-class struggle throughout the country…. If there is any attempt on the part of the company or the state to victimize these workers, we call on all labor to rally to their defense.”

Reeling from the global economic crisis, the U.S. capitalist rulers are intent on restoring profits by gutting the United Auto Workers (UAW) and other manufacturing unions. Detroit, home to auto’s Big Three, is already one of the nation’s most beleaguered cities, with official unemployment now above 21 percent and more than 44,000 abandoned homes.

A host of capitalist Democratic Party politicians immediately stepped in to contain the struggle at Republic and helped broker the quick settlement. With sit-in demands limited to calls for the severance benefits and eight weeks’ pay to which workers are entitled under federal law, Democrats, from president-elect Barack Obama on down, expressed their support. As Workers Vanguard salesmen said in discussions with Local 1110 members occupying the Republic plant, workers must place no reliance on such support, coming as it does from the quarters of the class enemy. Democrats voice sympathy for workers only so they can more effectively pose as phony “friends of labor” while defending the interests of big business.

Obama and the Democrats have worked hand-in-hand with the Bush administration to bail out Wall Street and now put the squeeze on the UAW. If auto workers were to occupy a plant in defense of their livelihoods, Obama et al. would have a very different reaction. In a December 21 interview on ABC’s This Week, vice president-elect Joseph Biden summarized the incoming White House’s position: “Labor, in order to save their own jobs, in order to save the prospect of an industry, is going to have to make some more sacrifices.”

To hell with sacrifice! The working class has been taking it for decades. Speaking at the PDC’s December 14 Holiday Appeal for Class-War Prisoners in Chicago, Local 1110 steward Ricardo Caceres said, “This is an example right now for each person working in the United States. Take the example—no more abuse!” What’s needed is militant labor action, drawing upon the collective strength of the union movement backed by the millions of working and unemployed people. Key to fighting the bosses’ all-sided and escalating attacks is the political independence of the working class from the bourgeois state and the capitalist parties.

By chaining the unions to the class enemy, primarily through support to the Democratic Party, the trade-union bureaucracy has effectively done the dirty work of keeping class peace and enforcing givebacks. Over a century ago, American socialist pioneer Daniel De Leon aptly called these union misleaders the “labor lieutenants of capital.” Today the labor tops, who poured $450 million into the 2008 elections, spread the lie that the Democrats will “fight for our jobs.”

The UE brass is no exception. Not only did they mobilize the UE ranks to hustle votes for Obama last fall, but they also embraced one Democrat after another during the sit-in at Republic. Even before the sit-in began, the UE tops had placed the fate of union members in the hands of Democratic Congressman Luis Gutierrez, a loyal cog of the Chicago Daley machine, to “mediate” the dispute with the Republic bosses.

This open class collaboration was cheered on by reformists like the International Socialist Organization (ISO) and Workers World Party (WWP), water boys for “progressive” pro-capitalist trade-union bureaucrats and Democratic Party politicians. Having helped build support rallies for the Republic workers, the ISO gushed in its online Socialist Worker (10 December 2008): “With this grassroots support from below, and the support of politicians like President-elect Barack Obama from above, there’s heavy pressure on Bank of America to hand over the cash needed to settle workers’ claims.” Meanwhile, Workers World (10 December 2008) proclaimed the Democrats’ “support of the workers’ struggle” a “monumental victory.”

Such shameless enthusing over the role of the Democratic Party is typical of the reformists, who share with the union bureaucrats a touching faith in this capitalist party. In fact, there is little that the reformists won’t say to cover for the Democrats. In the December 17 issue of its paper, WWP absurdly proposes that the arrest of Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich was planned to stop him from carrying out his threat to cut off the state’s business with Bank of America unless the Republic workers got their checks, as well as “to warn Obama not to do anything like this ever again”!

As Marxists, we seek to arm the proletariat with the consciousness and leadership necessary for combat with the forces of the capitalist class. This means taking on the class-collaborationist politics of the trade-union bureaucracy and their left hangers-on. Not so the centrist Internationalist Group (IG), which in its December Internationalist article on the plant occupation entirely conceals the fact that the UE tops, like the rest of the labor bureaucracy, reinforce the political subordination of the workers to the Democratic Party. So while the IG warns that “unemployment is going to get worse, a lot worse, under Obama,” it alibis the UE bureaucrats by leaving unsaid their support for him.

Even after winning their demands of severance pay, Republic workers are out of a job and the bosses are free to open their non-union Iowa shop. At the same time, this action gave a taste of the power of labor. There is no simple trade-union solution to the situation confronting the working class. But by wielding the methods of class struggle on a wide scale, workers can advance their cause, starting with organizing the unorganized. As we wrote in “Bosses Declare War on UAW Workers” (WV No. 926, 5 December 2008): “The labor movement would find many allies if it were to take up the fight for socialized medicine—the expropriation of the parasitic health care and drug companies, who are an immediate threat to the well-being of just about everyone in this country. A fight to demand that the government extend unemployment benefits and guarantee the pensions of all workers…would also garner many allies.”

But the present sellout union leaders are not about to step beyond what is acceptable to the capitalists. The road forward requires a political struggle against the labor tops and the forging of a new leadership that will mobilize union power independently of the bosses’ government and parties. As the revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky wrote after the waves of sit-down strikes that rocked the U.S. and France in the 1930s: “Independently of the demands of the strikers, the temporary seizure of factories deals a blow to the idol, capitalist property. Every sit-down strike poses in a practical manner the question of who is the boss of the factory: the capitalist or the workers?” (The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International, 1938). The UAW was born in the 1936-37 occupation of the huge Fisher Body plants in Flint, Michigan, which in turn inspired workers to occupy production lines in plant after plant across the country. Significant gains were won in those years, but from the outset workers were pushed away from a socialist political perspective by CIO union leaders and into the arms of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal” and the Democratic Party.

Importantly, in the process of occupying the Republic factory, black and Latino workers were able to overcome the poisonous racial and ethnic divisions fueled by the company. Up until then, according to Latino worker Apolinar Cabrera, many immigrant UE members felt that black workers were privileged: “They get a chance to communicate with the management. When layoffs come, maybe they get a chance to stay in the plant [instead of] being laid off” (Chicago Public Radio, 17 December 2008). At the same time, black Local 1110 vice president Melvin Maclin recalled that black workers had felt that they were being laid off because they were black and that they had considered reporting the Latinos to immigration. But opinions changed with the plant occupation: “When we first decided to do this, we all thought we were going to jail,” said Maclin. “But for me to see a lot of people standing up, willing to occupy the plant, concerned that there could be immigration issues, that just raised my respect for them even [more]. It’s to the ceiling.”

It is through united class struggle that the divisions between white and black workers, and between the native-born and immigrants, can be overcome. As we wrote in “Labor: Defend Immigrant Rights!” (WV No. 898, 14 September 2007):

“There is a crying need for a revolutionary workers party—a party that fights to organize the unorganized; that mobilizes labor’s power to bust the union-busters; that fights tooth and nail in defense of the rights of black people, immigrants and all the oppressed; that fights for a workers government that will expropriate the bloodsucking capitalist rulers and uproot their system of exploitation, oppression and imperialist war.”