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Working In These Times

Friday, Dec 18, 2009, 7:03 am

One Year After Republic: Workers’ Hidden Sit-Down Strike Tradition

BY Roger Bybee
This is the first of a two-part series marking the one-year anniversary of the Republic Windows and Doors factory occupation. The Republic Windows and Doors factory occupation staged by the United Electrical union workers in Chicago one year ago attracted worldwide attention in some 4,000 articles.

The six-day sit-down was widely viewed as an extrordinarily mlitant response by U.S. workers who faced an imminent plant closing, the refusal of the freshly bailed-out Bank of America to extend a loan to Republic, and the overall economic crisis. With President-Elect Barack Obama expressing support ("I think they’re absolutely right” ), the illegal action gained an unusual degree of legitimacy.

While there have only been about a half-dozen or so U.S. plant seizures in recent decades, the Republic sit-down is actually part of a subterranean tradition of factory seizures in the U.S., which have persisted in the post-WWII era. Workplace occupations were central to winning industrial union recognition in the 1930s in the U.S., but sit-down strikes had virtually disappeared in the U.S. following a harsh Supreme Court anti-sitdown ruling in the 1939 Fansteel case, unions' WWII no-strike policy, and the post-war Red Scare targeting of labor left-wingers.

"The Fansteel decision essentially stopped sit-downs," observes University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee laborhistorian Steve Meyer, author of Five Dollar Day: Labor Management and Social Control. "My guess is, shop floor subversion or slowdowns became a major form to exert pressure after the Supreme Court decision, because they were covert and difficult to detect."

Sit-down actions have continued to be more frequent in Europe over the past four decades, with dozens occurring since 2008's economic meltdown. The few U.S. factory occupations that have occurred in recent decades have reflected an adapting labor movement's embrace of more militant and creative tactics re-taught to unions by other social movements. 

BACK TO OVERT DEFIANCE

Overt sit-down tactics were re-kindled by the civil rights movement and the Free Speech movement at UC-Berkeley in the 1960s, and soon spread widely across urban centers and campuses, as detailed by historian Nelson Lichtenstein of UC-Santa Barbara, author of Walter Reuther: The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit.

Eventually, the proliferation and re-legitimization of sit-down activity in American society made it possible for labor unions, in a limited number of cases, to return to the old sit-down tradition of the 1930s and take direct action.

While tiny in scope compared with the 583 sit-downs between 1936 and 1939, these instances reflected the impact of new social movements on labor. Not all of the actions gained the strong support of the unions' top leaders or ended in winning workers' demands as at Republic—but they vividly demonstrated the intensity of rank-and-file union members' response to racism, ever-tightening management pressures, and the increasingly routine threat of plant closings.

LITTLE-KNOWN SIT-DOWNS

Chrysler, Detroit, 1973: Chrysler's strategy to enahnce profits was simple: speed up production to a relentless and often dangerous pace and impose mandatory overtime, so that 54-hour weeks were standard. Chyrsler's move of its Briggs Mauufacturing auto-parts subsididary to anti-union Tennessee also racheted up workers' resentment.  "Instead of renewing thier capital investments in Detorit, the auto companies preffered to find safer surroundings," noted Dan Georgakas and Marvin Surkin in their classic 1975 Detroit: I Do Mind Dying.

The pressures at Chrysler set off a series of three wildcat strikes in Detroit in the summer of 1973 that showed "a much higher level of racial cooperation," compared to past actons with a heaiver black-nationlist slant, reported Surkin and Georgakas.

Two of the wildcats involved occupations of Chrysler plants. At the 90-percent black Jefferson Ave. assembly plant, two black workers, Isaac Carter and Larry Shorter, seized control of the electric-power cage and turned off an assemblyline. As recounted by Surkin and Georgakas, "Workers clustered outside the cage with chains in case anyone should try to remove Shorter and Carter by force. Black, white and Arab workers brought food or stood guard."

After 13 hours, Chrysler capitulated to the workers' demands that a racist supervisor be removed and that Shorter and Carter not be punished for their actions.

Later in the summer of 1973, a white leftist stopped production at the Mack Stamping plant when he sat down on the assemblyline. This triggered a sit-down by 200 of his fellow workers. With both Chrysler and UAW officials  exasperated over their inability to control what the local media called "plant hijacking," the Detroit police forcibly entered the plant and expelled the sit-down strikers.

The following day produced a stuning display of how the UAW had been transformed since the famous 1937 sit-downs that cemented the union's presence in the auto industry. Workers planning to renew the wildcat strike at Mack Stamping were confronted by nearly 2,000 UAW leaders (Doug Fraser, Irving Bluestone, and Emil Mazey), staffers, and retirees who effectively ended the strike.

Commented Georgakas and Surkin:

The old guard of the UAW [that] had once led flying squads to keep factories shut…saw the task of the union as seeing that the plants stayed open.

Rheingold Brewery, Brooklyn, N.Y., 1974: A year after Pepsico (Pepsi Cola's parent firm) bought the Rheingold beer company following a contentious anti-trust battle, Pepsi decided to shut down the Reingold Brewery in Brooklyn employing 1,500 workers. The Teansters union charged that Pepsi bought Rheingold only to gain control of Rheingold's soft-drink franchises in California, Florida, Puerto Rico, and Mexico, and never intended to continue beer production. The Teamsers also stated that Pepsi officials had been unwilling to meet with the union.

While the Teamsters union took legal actions to try to block the closing and at least win pension and severance benefits, workers took illegal action and occupied the plant. The NY Times described the scene in a Feb. 4, 1974 article:

Several hundred brewers sitting in at the plant vowed to conintue their protest until they could win further concessions by the company... The workers sitting in at the brewery were joined yesterday by their wives and children, hundreds of whom picketed outside the plant.

Meanwhile, Pesi-controlled Rheingold was pouring 62,000 gallons of beer into the city's sewers. The sit-down failed to stop the closing, but did succeed in calling attention to New York's loss of its productive base and the acceleration of de-industrialization.

Aerospace parts plant, Farmington, New Mexico, 1978: Only fragmentary bits are known about this action, during which militant American Indian workers seized control of an aerospace parts plant in a dispute over working conditions and the treatment of Indian workers. My only sources on this incident are a short account in the Indian journal Akwesasne Notes and my brief interview with a local education official familiar with the incident.

US Steel, Youngstown and Pittsburgh, USW locals, 1980: The Youngstown, Ohio, area was an especially hard-hit victim of the steel industry's policy of shifting its capital away from re-investing in its aging stell mills. For example, while US Steel's mills averaged 17 years in age, Japanese mills were typically only 10-years-old and were being continually updated with the latest technologies. Yet US Steel continued to allow its huge facilities in Youngstown, South Chicago, and Gary, Ind. to languish while it invested $6.2 billion in purchasing Marathon Oil.

A Youngstown-area coalition of USW locals, clergy, and progressives like activist and attorney Staughton Lynd, authof The Fight Against Shutdowns,
formed to fight the predictable shutdown of steel mills one after another. In a bold plan assisted by economist Gar Alperovitz, the coalition developed a plan to obtain funding from the Federal Steel Authority to purchase and renovate the US Steel mill in Youngstown. But the Carter Administration was not enthused about making a $100 million outlay, and the conservative then-USW President Lloyd McBride was hositle to local activists.

The workers' frustration boiled over in January, 1980. As Lynd recalled,

The scenario was a union hall full of US Steel employees addressed by Ed Mann, who had been president of the  Youngstown Sheet & Tube local. He got up that day and said that the action was going down the hill from the union hall to the US Steel headquarter, alone if need be.

But hundreds and hundreds of workers followed Mann and broke into the building and cleared out management personnel. Lynd vividly remembered the sight of Ed Mann's daughter changing her baby's diaper on the pool table that was part of the plush US Steel executive suites.

After holding the headquarters for an afternoon, two factors persuaded the workers to leave. One was the fear that the takeover's partiipcants would lose all potential severance and pension benefits if they were arrested for trespassing. Moreover, "US Steel officials promised to talk the next day about us buying the mill," said Lynd.

But the following day, US Steel declared that they had no intention of selling the facility to the workers. The company eventually let the facility run down and closed it, adding to Youngstown's miseries. 

On another occasion, the coalition send buses of workers and supporters to US Steel headquarters, which they also proceeded to occupy for a day. But the action failed to budge US Steel.

A HARD-WON VICTORY

Pittston strike, United Mineworkers, Virginia, 1989-1990: Pittston was clearly fixed on breaking the United Mineworkers at its mines in southwest Virginia during this nearly year-long strike involving 1,700 United Mineworkers led by then-President Rich Trumka (now president of the AFL-CIO).

Pittston demanded the right to shift production to non-union mines and shut off health and pension benefits to retired UMWA miners. The company prepared extensively for the strike, with "scab" replacement workers ready and a large private paramilitary force. Pro-company local and state police forces wound arresting 2,400 strikers and supporters during the course of the conflict.

"Pittston was a very monumental struggle for the mineworkers and labor," says Stanley Aronowitz, a former labor activist and author of False Promises and numerous other works on labor. "[The Mineworkers] pulled out every tactic, community mobilization, forming 'Camp Solidarity,' bringing in Jesse Jackson, blockades of plants, blockades of the roads.  They were not above taking the moves necessary to survive and win the strike. "

Among the unconventional tactics were the temporary takeover by the strikers of a stragically-important coal-processing facility, which disrupted production until the particpants were arrested and hauled away.

The entire array of weapons employed by the UMWA eventually resulted in the union winning most of its demands, which, given the context of the time, was a remarkable victory. 

'NOT MUCH TO SHOW'

Surveying the handful of US sit-downs since WWII, Lynd, a strong advocate of direct action and worker ownership, looks back at the post-WWII takeovers by US workers as far too limited in the face of de-industrialization and outsourcing, which have devastated factory towns like Youngstown. "Not much to show for 60 years," the usually optimistic Lynd admitted.

Still, it remains to be seen how the well-publicized Republic Windows and Doors victory will eventually affect workers who are suffering widespread wage cuts even as Wall Street and Washington celebrate economic recovery.

Two crucial questions stand out:

If the economy picks up and workers are hired, will their sense of power and hope be ignited as it was in the late 1930s, just before the hundreds of sit-down strikes? And will they follow the lead of workers at Republic and other factory sit-downs to effectively exert that power?

Part 2 of this piece, which will be published on InTheseTimes.com next week, will examine why Americans have not followed the lead of Republic workers even as unemployment has grown, and how workers' political culture has differed from Europeans' during the recession.

Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and University of Illinois visiting professor in Labor Education. Roger's work has appeared in numerous national publications, including Z magazine, Dollars & Sense, The Progressive, Progressive Populist, Huffington Post, The American Prospect, Yes! and Foreign Policy in Focus. More of his work can be found at zcommunications.org/zspace/rogerdbybee.

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