On December 5, 2008 over 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 the factory down; the workers were only given three days’
notice, and the management refused to negotiate with the workers’ union about
On January 14, the United
Electrical Workers (UE) - the union the Republic workers belong to –
announced that California based Serious Materials, a highly successful
company in the green, heating efficient window market, will likely buy the
Republic and Windows’ assets, putting the workers back to work. "We are
all hopeful about the possibility of Serious reopening our plant. This
would be a very happy ending to our struggle," former Republic worker
and Local 1110 Vice President Melvin Maclin said in a UE press release.
In this interview Mark Meinster,
the International Representative for the UE, talks 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 re-open 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 (UE). My primary responsibility is to oversee the
union’s organizing work and staff in Chicago, IL and Milwaukee, WI. 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 US and in other countries. Because
there have been very few plant occupations in the US since the 1930’s, 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 twenty 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
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 US 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 re-starting
BD: Could you comment on the role the Republic workers’
struggle in inspiring workers across the US to take up similar tactics to
confront unemployment and problems related to the current US economic
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 bell-weather 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 to 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