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Working In These Times

Tuesday, Jan 5, 2010, 11:21 am

One Year After Republic: Why Didn’t Occupation Bring Revolt to U.S.?

BY Roger Bybee

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In response to a call by the European Trade Union Confederation, thousands protest in Madrid, Spain, in May 2009 to demand action to combat the economic crisis and rising unemployment.   (Photo by PHILIPPE DESMAZES/AFP/Getty Images)

This is the second article of a two-part series (roughly) marking the one-year anniversary of the Republic Windows and Doors factory occupation. The first article can be read here.

One year after the Republic Doors and Windows sit-down strike, which was by far the most successful of a handful of U.S. plant occupations after WWII,
there continues to be a wide gulf between the militancy of workers in Western Europe, Greece and Argentina, and the relative passivity of those in America. This is perplexing, as all are in the throes of the most severe economic crisis since the Great Depression.

Moreover, while the sit-down at Republic was aimed at protecting contractual benefits, some of the foreign uprisings have been explicitly geard toward workers assuming control of production.

The Republic factory occupation was by almost any measure a success. So why did it fail to inspire imitators among other laid-off U.S. workers suffering through the Great Recession?


The Republic action, relative to major labor battles of the past quarter-century—Phelps-Dodge, Caterpillar, Pittston and UPS—yielded astonishingly positive results. First, the UE members at Republic won the severance and vacation pay that was their original demand, by embarrassing the recently bailed-out Bank of America, a recipient of $25 billion, into releasing funds to Republic's owners (who later wound up being indicted on fraud charges).

Second, by explicitly targeting Bank of America, the action resonated deeply with Americans across the political spectrum infuriated to see George W. Bush bail out banks and insurers while their own suffering and insecurity intensified.Republic unleashed an outpouring of emotionally-charged support and even won an endorsement from President-Elect Barack Obama, a Chicagoan.

Third, the sit-down actually exceeded its original aims, attracting the interest of California-based Serious Materials, which decided to buy the plant and keep it open. (While employment there has not risen to hoped-for levels, the continuation of production under a UE contract at the site still signifies an unexpected triumph.)

Finally, the sit-down unleashed an avalanche of international publicity that sympathetically covered (much to the irritation of the Right repulsed by the transgression against private property rights) both the plight and the pluck of the mostly Latino workforce about to lose their jobs just before Christmas.

This enormous attention devoted to Republic seemingly demonstrated the power of American workers to both successfully exercise their power and to win an unprecedented level of public support.


Almost immediately after the sit-down concluded, the UE launched a national tour of strike leaders, hoping to sustain the momentum of a successful and unconventional rebellion. But the UE seemed to inspire action only in the case of Colibri jewelry workers in Rhode Island, who conducted non-violent civil disobedience when their plant closed due to the maneuvers of a New York-based private equity firm.

The lack of imitators surprised many veteran labor observers. "I would have thought that the Republic sit-down would have created much more action," said Wisconsin AFL-CIO President David  Newby, one of the federation's most left-wing leaders.

Indeed, despite ongoing grim circumstances for workers, there have been relatively few visible rebellions. The picture remains exceptionally bleak for working families in the U.S., as Elizabeth Warren has written: "One in five Americans is unemployed, underemployed or just plain out of work. One in nine families can't make the minimum payment on their credit cards."

Moreover, dislocated U.S. workers have relatively few social programs to rely upon, with only 43% receiving funds from the unemployment ompensation program initiated during the Depression. The unemployed in the U.S. have limited access to healthcare, and also absent are such innovative social protections as the German kurzbeit system, under which employers are subsidized to avoid layoffs and thus prevent deepening recessions by
further diminishing workers' spending power.

The weak social protections in the U.S. deepen insecurity and tend to foster both self-blame and individual scrambling for survival.


Contrary to common understanding, it was not the conditions of utter deprivation and despair, but rather an economic upturn and rising expectations which fueled the union upsurge of the 1930s. 

In Stanley Aronowitz's critically important book on American working-class consciousness, False Promises, he argues that three closely related factors fostered rising hope and the wave of sit-down strikes that consolidated industrial unionism:

The wave of union organization actually occurred during an economic upswing, not in the depth of the Depression. …Beginning in 1933, the companies had started to hire again….By all accounts the spearheads of the drive in the shops were the young workers…The younger workers were more militant because they had not experienced the dismal defeats suffered by the working class after the First World War and were thus more optimistic about the chances of winning.

The remarkable wave of unionization, produced by rising expectations and increased leverage in line with the improving economy, was also reinforced by the expansive Keynesian thrust of government policy and pro-union themes enunciated by President Franklin Roosevelt's Administration.

The brightening economic picture lessened the fear of being fired and blacklisted because of union activities (for example, my paternal grandfather was fired three times because of union and Socialist activity in the late 1920s and early 1930s).


Moreover, the union movement not only stood for improved wages and
benefits for its members, but also claimed the role of society's moral voice speaking out for the most downtrodden. These factors helped to spread the gospel of unionism like a prairie fire across the industrial North.

But unlike 1933, the tentative green shoots of recovery in late 2009 are both far more fragile and not nearly sufficient to provide today's generation of workers with a similar level of confidence in their ability to take on their employers, argues historian Nelson Lichtenstein in his book State of the Union. "Collective bargaining is just ineffectual at this point, because firms are just big conglomerates" with multiple plants allowing them to duplicate production at other plants during strikes and to ratchet down wages by threatening relocation.

"The situation is somewhat different if it touches a nerve of race or gender inequality," which stimulates more public sympathy toward the workers, Lichtenstein stresses.

While American society has taken vast steps forward in recognizing the individual rights of people of color, women, gays, and people with disabilities, there has been a loss of a sense of collective rights for workers as a class coupled with a diminution of labor's moral authority based on representing the most oppressed members of society.

Thus, Franklin Delano Roosevelt's notion of an Economic Bill of Rights, outlined in his 1944 inauguration speech, might resonate with primarily older workers who make up the vast bulk of industrial unions, whose worldview is grounded in a lifetime of union membership. Workers from this age cohort and their families will still show up en masse for rallies against the torrent of plant closings washing away the foundations of factory towns.

But for the other roughly 87% of the workforce, this belief in collective economic rights seems to be a hopelessly remote and hollow abstraction.  Similarly distant from most Americans is the sense of having earned a share of ownership. European workers often displayed this belief, as expressed by one worker engaged in the takeover of the Waterford Crystal plant in Ireland:

We said, ‘You’re not going to stop people from coming to the place they’ve worked all their lives, where their family worked, and where they have built up the brand themselves.


With sharply reduced possibilities for gains from collective bargaining or even local militancy, labor's focus has shifted decisively to legislative action aimed at fundamentally changing the rules under which they operate.

Crucial labor laws routinely go unenforced. In 2005, over 31,000 workers were illegally fired because of pro-union activity, according to Phillip Dine, author of State of the Unions  Even though the employers were obligated to provide the workers back-pay minus any earnings the fired employees made, this strategy premised on flagrant law-breaking has become a routinized and highly cost-effective way of intimidating workers and avoiding unions.

While it is still technically illegal for corporations to threaten to relocate production in order to punish workers, the regulation has been violated so incessantly that its existence has become meaningless. For example, As Kate Bronfenbrenner of Cornell University has documented, since the passage of NAFTA in 1994, 68% of union organizing drives in manufacturing are greeted with threats of relocation to Mexico or other low wage countries.

Corporations have been also been able to classify a growing percentage of workers as "managers," despite their lack of real authority, and thereby disqualify them from eligibility for union membership. With corporations permitted to impose such an intense full-court press against union organizing with virtual impunity, it is easy to see why U.S. labor represents less than 13% of the total workforce and just 7.4% of the private sector employees.

In this hostile legal environment, "unions have turned their attentions to public policy," Lichtenstein observes. While unions have to legislate for entire working class and not just their own members (which strengthens labor's public image), there are problematic relationships with the Democrats. This trend tends to turn unions into political lobby groups detached from life in the factory or office.

But this strategy is much more seriously damaged by the lack of faith in the government's willingness to take the side of ordinary Americans even during the direst crises. As Thomas Frank writes in The Wrecking Crew:

Watergate permanently poisoned public attitudes toward government and stirred up the wave that swept Ronald Reagan into office six years later--and made anti-government cynicism the default American political sentiment.

In fact, The Wrecking Crew stresses how the Bush administration's policy of plundering the public treasury through tax cuts for richest 1% and privatizing government functions through no-bid and cost-plus contracts, coupled with a disinterest in real public trauma like the outcome of Hurricane Katrina, has deepened this cynicism, Frank says.

The ruling philosophy: “Instead of reinforcing the fragile institutions of civic trust you smash them, you encourage cynicism toward government, and if you get a chance you put the whole thing — conspicuously — on a for-hire basis."


United Steelworkers President Leo W. Gerard, one of the most thoughtful and progressive of contemporary labor leaders, offered an unusual explanation of the comparative absence of "street heat" in the U.S. compared with current European labor activism that has included general strikes and plant occupations. He believes large labor demonstrations often warranted in Canada and European countries to pressure parliamentary leaders are less relevant in the U.S.:

I actually believe that Americans believe in their political system more than workers do in other parts of the world...Demonstrations are less needed in the United States, he said, because often all that is needed is some expert lobbying in Washington to line up the support of a half-dozen senators.

First, it should be noted that the Steelworkers under Gerard have become one of the nation's most active and far-sighted unions, and have stressed local activism like the 36-city tour the USW and UAW conducted last spring to protest the extensive outsourcing of U.S. jobs that was part of the auto bailout. But Gerard's argument about faith in the political system seems misplaced.

On the contrary, polling data suggests that Americans harbor an extreme level of distrust toward government, seeing it with a mixture of perceptions. These include seeing government as dominated by the wealthy and corporate interests, unwilling to addressing their problems with falling wages, job insecurity, healthcare, paying for college education, and other key concerns, and so callous and incompetent it was unable to respond effectively to the Katrina disaster.

Government is perceived as the source of subsidies as directed toward only the very richest and very poorest, while excluding the middle class. It is precisely this cynicism about both the ability to positively re-direct government priorities, along with the futility of union activity at the local level, argues Lichtenstein, that helps to explain the lack of a strong and visible response to the current recession.


U.S. workers' relatively limited resistance against Corporate America's aggressive moves to slash wages and jobs since the Republic takeover a year ago must be viewed against the overall political and economic backdrop.

Persistent economic insecurity, the labor movement's heavy allocation of its resources to lobbying rather than rank-and-file activism, the toll of the 30-year wave of de-unioniziation and de-industrializaton, the systematic effort to crush any sense of collective economic rights possessed by working people, and the distinct contrast between FDR's hostility to "economic royalsts" and President Obama's generally Wall Street-friendly policies have all combined to drain the hope essential to take risky action against seemingly long odds. (Obama's defense of Republic workers' takeover remains the high point of his willingness to stand up for working people.)

Looking back, we can see that the Republic workers were riding a surge of public outrage against bank bailouts, had the ardent support of their union and its many allies, recognized the increasingly rare leverage that they had over the employer by occupying the plant, and felt that they had nothing to lose by trangressing against private property.

For more Republic-style takeovers to occur, the severely-dampened hopes and expectations of working people will likely have to be re-ignited by a much stronger economic recovery and a re-legitimation of labor's role as the voice of the downtrodden.

Editor's note: The original version of this article stated that since the passage of NAFTA, 68% of union organizing drives in manufacturing are greeted with threats of relocation to Mexico. In fact, companies that made those threats during the last 15 years threatened to move to Mexico or other low-wage countries. We regret the error.

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

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