Firing the Boss: The Man Who Organized Chicago's Factory Takeover Speaks Out
On Dec. 5, 2008, more than 200 recently fired workers at the Republic Window and Doors factory in Chicago occupied their plant, demanding that they be paid their vacation and severance checks. The occupation ended victoriously six days later, when the Bank of America and other lenders to Republic agreed to pay the workers the approximately $2 million owed to them.
But the workers didn't stop there. They are now seeking ways to restart the factory and potentially operate it as a worker-run cooperative. The workers are also filing charges against their former employer for failing to give the workers sufficient notice of plans to shut down the factory -- the workers were given only three days' notice, and the management refused to negotiate with the workers' union about the closure.
In this interview Mark Meinster, the international representative for the United Electrical Workers (UE) -- the union to which the Republic workers belong -- talks to AlterNet about his role as the coordinator for the plant occupation, connections between the struggle of the Republic workers and workers' struggles and tactics in South America, the fight to reopen the plant, and what the Republic workers' strategies say about social change in an economic downturn.
Benjamin Dangl: First, please briefly describe your role in the union, in the occupation of the Republic Windows and Doors factory, and the ongoing struggle of the Republic workers.
Mark Meinster: I'm an international representative for the United Electrical Workers. My primary responsibility is to oversee the union's organizing work and staff in Chicago and Milwaukee. I was the lead organizer on the effort to organize the Republic workers into UE in 2004 and led negotiations for a first contract in 2005.
Since then, I and UE Field Organizer Leah Fried have worked with the local on leadership and steward training, grievance handling and contract negotiations. I coordinated the plant occupation at Republic Windows and Doors and participated in negotiations with the employer and the financial institutions involved and continue to work on efforts to reopen the plant.
BD: Could you please talk about some of the connections you see between the Republic workers' struggle and actions and the strategies and experiences of similar workers groups in Argentina and Venezuela and the landless farmers in Brazil? How did you learn about these struggles and come to apply them in Chicago as a union organizer?
MM: Obviously there is a long history of workers taking actions of this type, both within the U.S. and in other countries. Because there have been very few plant occupations in the U.S. since the 1930s, we needed to look to workers' struggles in other countries for recent guidance. For example, the Canadian Auto Workers, who have engaged in similar actions over the past 20 years to protest plant closings and win severance benefits, provided us with invaluable technical advice.
But in many respects, workers' struggles in Latin America were the biggest inspiration for the Republic occupation. I had read about the land occupations carried out by the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra in an interview with Joao Pedro Stedile in 2002.
I was struck by the MST's focus on popular education and leadership development, and especially the way they placed the occupation tactic within the context of the right to unused land enshrined in the Brazilian constitution. The occupation, although technically an illegal tactic, was used to enforce a legal right. This gives workers confidence and places the struggle on a moral plane, allowing for more significant community and political support. We drew on this concept in planning the Republic occupation.
Current UE Local 1110 President Armando Robles attended the World Social Forum in Caracas, Venezuela, in 2006. There, he heard from workers from Inveval, a "recovered" factory in Venezuela. They had inspired a movement of workers occupying and running factories, with the help of the government, that had been abandoned by bosses who had fled the country. Armando returned from that experience politicized and inspired.
I visited Venezuela in 2007 and spent time visiting worker-run co-ops. I was struck by the workers' investment in the revolutionary process and their ability to run production without management.
We drew on the Argentine factory occupations to the extent that they show that during an economic crisis, workers movements are afforded a wider array of tactical options. Militant action can win public support during a downturn in ways that would have been impossible before. In fact, the film The Take was screened in the factory during the occupation in a makeshift movie theater set up in the locker room.
BD: Is there a plan to transform the Republic factory into a worker-run cooperative? If so, how did the decision to do this come about? At this point, how is the process going of setting this up?
MM: At this point, we are working to find a buyer for the factory, focusing on firms specializing in energy-efficient windows. Though we are also exploring the idea of a cooperative enterprise, the fact that no real movement of worker-run enterprises exists in the U.S. makes this option much more difficult at this point. The workers have set up an entity called the Windows of Opportunity Fund to help provide technical assistance and study this and other possibilities for restarting production.
BD: Could you comment on the role the Republic workers' struggle in inspiring workers across the U.S. to take up similar tactics to confront unemployment and problems related to the current U.S. economic downturn?
MM: I think the Republic struggle shows we can win support for bold tactics, especially when we think carefully about how we project the struggle to the public. Time will tell whether the Republic struggle will be viewed as a bellwether event or a flash in the pan.
On the one hand, the occupation led to a huge outpouring of support -- from solidarity rallies all across the country to donations of money, food and essential supplies. That this support was on a scale unthinkable only a year ago is proof that this action spoke to the desire of working-class people to seek ways to resist the current economic onslaught.
On the other hand, for this event to be a spark, others will have to pick up the baton. That means organized labor will have to take some measure of risk, embracing militant tactics when necessary and abandoning its reliance on political maneuvering as the primary means for the advancement of a working-class agenda.