Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Chicago Sit-In: Final Take

As "victories" go, severance pay and vacation coupled with two months of health insurance (get sick quick!), it isn't much.

Michael Luo and Karen Ann Cullotta of the "New York Times" finished up what Monica Davey started with her coverage of a sit-in at a Chicago window factory conducted by Local 1110 of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of American (UE).

As we noted in "A Resurgence of Things Past," the labor coverage, especially of a factory takeover by an infamous and radical union, is a rarity from our mainstream media and perhaps symbolic of a change in the tenor of the times.

Defrauded by Wall Street's payback for years of fawning coverage, media types seem most fascinated with this new toy of industrial relations the current national troubles have thrust under their noses.

Luo and Cullotta's coverage makes clear that, in the real world, our own goals are usually at odds with those who employ us, because we want more pay for the service we're rendering and they want to hold the remuneration down.

The coverage depicts the ways in which union representation brings a certain degree of clout and specific know-how where waging this venerable battle is concerned.

In the case of Republic Windows and Doors, the company's sly moves toward disinvesting itself of a nearly 50-year old factory and the 250 people who manned it, did not go unnoticed to the untrained eye, according to the piece:

"But a few of the factory's union leaders had been anticipating this moment. Several weeks before, they had noticed equipment disappearing from the plant, and began tracing it to a nearby rail yard."

Luo and Culotta then note that reps from an old industrial gladiator like the UE have specific remedies for just such situations:

"And so in secret, they had been discussing a bold but potentially dangerous plan: occupying the factory if it closed."

And then further application of industrial knowledge expressed by "groove cutter" Melvin Maclin.

"We knew keeping the windows in the warehouse was a bargaining chip."

UE also knew how the workers' peremptory dismissal reduced their options by eliminating any chance to formulate personal survival plans, which played into their hands. To wit:

"I ain't got no other choice," Alexis McCoy, 32, a driver's assistant, said later. "I have a newborn. I have to take care of my family."

Hailed as symbols of something larger afoot in the land, the workers said all they wanted was what they had coming to them under the law: 60 days severance pay and earned vacation time.

So they took over the factory and the negotiations began.

The company's Chief Executive Officer, Richard Gillman, "demanded that any new bank loan to help the employees also cover the lease of several of his cars -- a 2007 BMS 350xi and a 2002 Mercedes S500 are among those registered to company addresses -- as well as eighth weeks of his salary, at $225,000 a year."

To quote F. Scott Fitzgerald, "Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me..."

The UE people did not know that the factory's owners had set up a new company and purchased a window and manufacturing plant from Red Oak, Iowa, where it planned to employ 102 nonunion employees.

The news about the cars and the new plant were not common and widely available knowledge, but the result of good investigative reporting.

highwayscribery would like to point out that this kind of thing -- justice, in a name -- happens when two endangered civic institutions, unions and the American newspaper, thrive.

So the whole sit-in/takeover thing resulted in something of sorely needed triumph for organized labor and a updated primer for many beleaguered Americans on the virtue and uses of trade unionism.

The "Times" asked Bob Bruno, director, labor studies, University of Illinois at Chicago, to put it all into perspective:

"If you combine some palpable street anger with organizational resources in a changing political mood, you can begin to see more of these sort of riskier, militant adventures, and they're more likely to succeed."

That remains to be seen.

Mr. Bruno's perspective is a somewhat, shall we say, Ivory Tower one. the highway scribe can say so because he lives and works in the Tower, too.

Here's a crucial paragraph explaining why things went the way they did instead of the way they usually go:

"Local politicians discouraged the police from arresting the workers [the usual] Exasperated company officials decided not to press the matter as the news media began arriving in droves" [the unusual].

the highway scribe thinks the mass media is less likely to hop around from factory sit-in to plant takeover if this sort of thing becomes epidemic.

He would also note that, as we were recently reminded, Chicago politicians are somewhat a breed apart and replication of their response to the sit-in should not be expected elsewhere in the country.

"The Times" never did get into the UE's more radical-than-thou-history and communist pedigree, but maybe that's a good thing. Maybe had they done so the scribe and other laborites would be questioning the relevance of a union's politics from 60 years ago while accusing the reporters of red-baiting an honest-to-goodness effort.

In all, the coverage was certainly welcome and even over-generous to the workers, whom are pictured above, in declaring them "victorious."

For theirs was the kind of victory we treasure in our mediatic culture: victory in the arena of public relations, because of the way we reduce all things to products for consumption whether they be a blender, a book, or a strike.

The strikers' "story" sold better than the malicious management team's and so they gain the trophy.

But true victory would have involved a company commitment to close the new plant it purchased and which we can only assume still represents its near future.

A true victory would have involved Bank of America ponying-up some of the money it had received in the federal bank bailout to relieve existing management's crushing financial problems.

Or better still, it might have financed a new worker-owned (gasp!) and run entity at the same location.

Those workers clearly know what they're doing.

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