‘A message to the workers of America’
As workers at a Chicago car plant face the loss of their jobs and money owed them by the company, they are showing a way out of the crisis by occupying their plant. The 260 women and men, who are members of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) Local 1110, refused to leave the Republic Windows & Doors factory when it was due to shut down last Friday.
UE members began their action as the government announced that over half a million jobs had been lost in November alone as the recession in American began to turn to depression. More than 10.5 million American workers are now unemployed. Matters came to a head when the company’s main creditor, the Bank of America refused to extend loans. “We decided to do it because this is money that belongs to us," said Maria Roman, who has worked at the factory for eight years. "These are our rights." The union, which supports the sit-in, says that Republic had broken the law by trying to shut without giving 60 days notice of closure.
Workers suspect that the company plans to restart operations elsewhere. They are angry that Bank of America, which recently received a $25 billion taxpayer bailout, won't provide credit to Republic, “and won't loan a few million to this company so workers can keep their jobs" according to Ricardo Caceres, who has worked at the plant for six years. The UE’s action has won support from other workers and Latino activists who have been bringing food and money and local television is providing coverage. President-elect Obama, who hails from Chicago, is reportedly backing the workers’ action.
As the US motor industry has gone into meltdown – General Motors, Ford and Chrysler are begging US Congress for a $34 billion loan – national union leaders are falling over themselves to crawl before the employers. United Auto Workers union president Ron Gettelfinger has offered to suspend contractually-obligated pay for 3,500 laid-off Ford, Chrysler and GM workers who are in its "Jobs Bank" where they currently receive 90% of their pay. The UAW would also let the firms delay $14 billion in payments to a new health care trust fund for retired workers.
Film maker Michael Moore, whose 1989 documentary Roger and Me exposed the destruction of Detroit communities by the city’s major carmakers, has stepped into the breach, rushing in where the supine union leaders refuse to tread. He says the executives should be fired “for the good of the workers, the country and the planet”. He hilariously describes the CEOs of the Big Three as “three blind mice” who had their knuckles slapped by Congress “and then were sent back home to write an essay called, Why You Should Give Me Billions of Dollars of Free Cash”.
Moore is spot on: “They [the big three] promised, if Congress gave them $18 billion now, they would, in turn, eliminate around 20,000 jobs,” he says. “You read that right. We give them billions so they can throw more Americans out of work. That's been their Big Idea for the last 30 years – layoff thousands in order to protect profits.” The car companies should not “receive a dime”, just as Moore says. He is right to call for an entire restructuring of the industry “to build only cars that are not primarily dependent on oil and, more importantly to build trains, buses, subways and light rail”.
Back in Chicago, the workers occupying the Republic factory are showing the way. "This is a message to the workers of America," said Vicente Rangel, the shop steward. "If we stand together, we will prevail until justice is done, and we get what we're due," he says. Their challenge to the employers and banks is raises questions about the economic and financial system as a whole. Saving jobs and developing an economy that benefits the planet and the people on it requires a transition to democratic ownership and control in every country.
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A World to Win secretary
8 December 2008