The economic crisis has entered a new phase.
On Friday, Republic Windows and Doors in Chicago abruptly closed, giving its 300 employees only a few days notice. In the overall scheme of things, this is small news, representing about 0.015% of the nation’s job losses in the last year. It would have gone unnoticed beyond a news brief on page 7 of the Chicago Tribune business section.
However, the owners also told its soon-to-be-ex-employees that they would not receive certain benefits to which they are legally entitled, which was a bit upsetting to them. These workers are now heading into their fourth day of occupying the plant and have a couple of members of Congress helping their cause. Most notably, Rep. Luis Gutierrez has set up a Monday meeting with the company owners, their bank, and the workers’ union.
This is a complex case that involves the parent corporation shifting production to another plant in Iowa and possibly setting up a new business name while Bank of America allegedly ordered them to (illegally) withhold the workers’ benefits. The Illinois Attorney General has already started to look into this. But for now, the important thing is that the workers refuse to leave until they are paid benefits to which they are legally entitled. This seems rather unlikely unless the factory can somehow be brought back into production.
Even President-elect Obama has weighed in, saying this: “The workers who are asking for the benefits and payments that they have earned, I think they’re absolutely right and understand that what’s happening to them is reflective of what’s happening across this economy.”
The occupation of Republic Windows and Doors is an historic event (with a very catchy name to boot). It may well be remembered as our own Zanon Ceramics, which was taken over by its workers shortly before Argentina’s financial collapse in late 2001. The parallels between these events are quite striking, although we can certainly hope for a more civilized response from the government and owners, rather than the oppression and violence to which Zanon was subjected. And of course, we can also hope our economy won’t crash as hard as Argentina’s did.
Almost overnight, that country went from having a near-European standard living, to suffering severe economic instability that drove many companies out of business and many people into poverty. As factories shut down, their workers began to explore ways to salvage their livelihoods. This led to a wave of worker takeovers that was featured in The Take, a film that followed the successful efforts of former workers at an auto parts factory (!!!) to take ownership of their plant.
Zanon is only one of about 200 companies that became worker owned after they were abandoned by their old owners. Some of these takeovers were supported by the law, which provided that employees could seize a facility if there were evidence that the owner was selling off the assets (as seems to be the case with Republic Windows and Doors).
The profit-motivation may break down, but the need for employment and income continued. This inspired spontaneous cooperation to meet their collective needs. This was not done out of any sort of political motive, and participants did not generally agree with any analysis of their actions as particularly political. They were merely doing what they needed to do. This is something that we should all be taking to heart.
For more information on Argentina’s worker co-ops, please check out the book Sin Patron, by the Argentine writers’ collective Lavaca.
And tune in tomorrow, when I’ll explain why an employee-owned New Republic Windows and Doors would be in everyone’s interest. Even Bank of America would win, and not just by avoiding a public relations nightmare. They would actually profit from doing good.