Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Republic Windows Strike as Symbol

StrikeWe've blogged a couple of times about the Republic Windows strike, but our posts are nothing compared to the press that this strike is getting elsewhere. A Google news search this morning showed roughly 3500 news items. In the latest news, JP Morgan Chase has pledged $400,000 toward the workers' $1.5 million in severance and vacation pay claims, according to the Chicago Sun Times. A subsidiary of Chase owns 40% of Republic Windows.

So why so much attention? Why did President-elect Obama support the strike so publicly? Why are so many other high-level politicians involved in negotiating, primarily on behalf of the workers? Why didn't the company ask the police to arrest the workers for trespassing when they refused to leave?

The consensus seems to be that this strike struck a nerve with the media and the public consciousness (see for example CNN, the Associated Press (hat tip Dennis Walsh), and Independent Street, a blog of the Wall Street Journal). It's too perfectly a symbol of popular sentiments about what's wrong with the economy and the bailout to be ignored by politicians or by regular folks. The company had lost business with the downturn in construction caused by the bursting of the housing bubble that came with the collapse of the subprime mortgage market, and then the bank, which had received billions in bailout money cut off the company's line of credit. Without cash flow, the company closed its doors--at least until it could reopen in a cheaper location in another state, where at least one of the owners has bought a window plant. The key concepts here sound like a list of top Google search queries for the last two months. And it certainly doesn't help that the closing happened during the holiday season.

It's too early to tell what the takeaways are going to be from the number of issues related to this strike and its resolution--Wall Street v. Main Street, banks forced to continue lending to poor credit risks, solvent but struggling companies forced into bankruptcy by the lack of credit available, national control of the economy, outsourcing, labor costs, the role of unions, etc. In the meantime we can watch it all play out in a sort of, "It's a Wonderful Life" meets "Norma Rae" daily drama.


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» Around the web, December 11 from PointOfLaw Forum
Republic Windows sit-down factory occupation in Chicago stirring wide interest, stoked by high-level politicos (because they're hoping to touch off more such?) [McCormick, Workplace Law Blog]; union claims federal WARN plant-closing act requires sever... [Read More]

Tracked on Dec 10, 2008 7:18:45 PM


I cannot recall the last time an aggressive labor action has received such positive treatment in the public eye. Even the public response to the UPS strike didn't reach this level. Things have reached such a bad point that many people could identify with the Republic Windows workers. Finally, a group of workers was not regarded as the other, they were regarded as Everyperson.

Posted by: David Yamada | Dec 10, 2008 12:40:54 PM

An aggressive labor action by a union outside the AFL or CtW, with a communist history, and workers who are largely people of color. Even less likely as Everypeople. All the more surprising.

Posted by: anon | Dec 10, 2008 11:05:40 PM

I am concerned that the workers are being used in a game that involves some "messy" politics. While liberals have given the employer a "pass" (preferring to attack BOA instead), the company's owners have purchased a declining windows and doors outfit in Iowa. Shortly after that purchase, workers in Iowa report that their production returned to normal levels. Basically, we have a classic business combination, where the company discards one pool of workers and relocates to another, cheaper location. I know it feels good to see labor organizing, but we need to be real about this. The true culprit was not BOA, but the company!

Posted by: damitajo1 | Dec 11, 2008 5:25:41 AM

I think the appeal is partly because these workers are not "Everypeople" as anon puts it, and they are engaged in an aggressive labor action, David, but it's an awfully productive one. This isn't a situation in which the workers are demanding more money (that they aren't viewed as entitled to) and being destructive--trying to stop work or damage the plant. Their "work" has been to take care of the plant, to guard it and clean it. This feeds into the hardworking immigrant archetype, which is very appealing, although we haven't seen it as much in popular culture and instead have seen deployed the archetype of immigrant/person of color intent on scamming the system. The only thing that would be more appealing is if they were to begin production themselves and bring the plant back into solvency. That's what Hollywood would do.

And in terms of who the real villains are in this case, damitajo1 is right that the politicians and media have seen how appealing it is to blame the bank, rather than the company, and that has taken off. Maybe that's because the company moved to Iowa, and not overseas. But that's how the whole economic crisis and bailout have been framed for us. We're looking to pinpoint the blame on whoever created the economic mess in the first place and on why the fix hasn't been quick. Treasury Secretary Paulsen said that we only had to loan the money to banks to let them extend credit, and that would avert the crisis. We took that to mean a quick fix. But those banks didn't extend that credit and that sets the context for the politicians and media to exploit when the failure to extend credit hurts, in the end, the little guy--and not just any little guy, but the hardworking immigrant/person of color who can't buy a break but who nonetheless tirelessly sacrifices for the American Dream.


Posted by: Workplace Prof | Dec 11, 2008 10:39:44 AM

It's not just Hollywood, who would do that, laborprof lpb. It's also real workers. Watch the great movie "The Take" about Argentine workers who did just that.

Posted by: landismom | Dec 11, 2008 3:59:11 PM

Laborprof lpb: Banks are not wholly responsible for this mess. And among banks, apparently BoA was less involved in the type of loan packages that led to the crisis. But, assuming that BoA was among the worst, other housing-related companies, such as Republic Windows and Glass, also profited from the housing boom and are now cutting back and discarding workers. This company not only moved to greener pastures, but it now a nonunion workforce.

Focusing on the bailout obscures the real issue: individuals are suffering and need assistance. We should demand the type of social welfare programs that we always demand -- education, re-education, job training, unemployment, living income, healthcare, etc. Banks cannot provide this. Politicians can. But now, they have claimed victory and have moved on to other issues. With December almost over, the workers will have just one month of salary left. Then what? The bailout never meant that banks had to lend to anyone.

Posted by: damitajo1 | Dec 15, 2008 2:32:44 PM

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