Thursday, December 18, 2008

Scared by Republic Sit-In, Banks Pay Up; Behind the Indictment of the Illinois Governor

Scared by Republic sit-in, banks pay up

By Sharon Black
Published Dec 17, 2008 4:06 PM

Workers streamed out of the Republic Windows and Doors factory on Dec. 10 chanting “¡Sí se puede!” (Yes we can!) After a six-day-long occupation, they were able to force the world’s largest private bank, Bank of America, to fully fund 60-days severance pay, health insurance and earned vacation pay for workers.

Armando Robles, president of the United Electrical Workers Local 1110, who worked the night shift, remarked, “You can do anything when you have the support of every one of your co-workers.” He added, “This is not a victory for us. It is a victory for every worker in this country.”

United Electrical Workers representatives announced that Bank of America and JPMorganChase have agreed to a $1.75 million loan which will go into a separate fund that will be used to pay the eight weeks of pay due to the workers by the WARN act, two months health insurance and earned vacation pay. In addition the union is setting up a separate fund from all of the donations that have flowed in called the “Windows of Opportunity” to explore keeping the factory open.

Their struggle gained national and international attention. Close to 1,000 protesters gathered at the Bank of America’s downtown headquarters earlier in the day on Dec. 10. Rev. Gregory Livingston of Rainbow/PUSH declared, “Bank of America got $25 billion. Republic workers got how much? Zero.”

Jill White, an organizer with the Illinois Moratorium Committee who attended the march with a group of community supporters, stated, “The Republic workers have showed the way for all of us. If the banks go to evict us from our homes, then we should stay in and refuse to leave. We should call on our neighbors to picket and protest.”
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Arrest of Illinois guv: Were real targets Obama and UAW?

By Fred Goldstein
Published Dec 17, 2008 3:54 PM
From remarks made during the Dec. 9 membership meeting of the New York branch of Workers World Party.

I would like to comment on the arrest of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich this week.

It is certainly true that his arrest, coming in the midst of the UE workers’ sit-in at Republic Windows and Doors, was aimed at the UE workers, particularly since it came a day after Blagojevich was shown all over television standing outside the plant with the workers.

The occupation of Republic in Chicago, the Smithfield victory, the UAW struggle— the ‘Obama effect’ has stimulated hope among sections of the working class, especially the most downtrodden.

It is also true that the arrest was timed to prevent Blagojevich from carrying out his threat to suspend all transactions of the state with Bank of America, which he had announced the day before.

But I want to call attention to another important aspect of the arrest. It was directed against Barack Obama.

There has been much talk about whether or not Obama is going to initiate a “New Deal.” We don’t know what he is going to do. Regardless of his politics, regardless of his appointments—and we do not take responsibility for anything he may do—two days before the arrest, Obama did what no president has done since the Roosevelt administration. He came out unequivocally in favor of the UE workers and publicly stated that their demands should be met.

It is generally agreed that from a legal point of view U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald acted prematurely. He publicized a mere complaint. There have been no grand jury proceedings, no indictment, only a complaint filled with hearsay. The extraordinary thoroughness that Fitzgerald applied in the case of G. Gordon Liddy was thrown out the window. This time Fitzgerald sacrificed preparation for political timing.

The investigation into Blagojevich has been underway for six years. Why suddenly make it center stage on that day of all days? When UE workers in Chicago are engaged in a plant occupation, are supported by Obama and the governor and, what is most important, when the bosses are in the midst of a campaign to break the United Auto Workers union.

The action may have been directed to help Bank of America, but what do Bank of America and all the bosses know about sit-ins and plant occupations? They are more keenly aware of their role in the history of the U.S. class struggle than the workers.

They know that the greatest plant occupation in the history of this country was carried out by the UAW in 1936 and 1937. They know that this sit-in brought General Motors to its knees. They know that this occupation changed the face of the labor movement and won the right to industrial organization—and that it took place in Flint, Mich.

The bosses know that workers all around the region can quickly be reminded of this—especially as they see the attacks coming at them from all sides.

Obama’s statement of support was made in the midst of a struggle in which workers were claiming the right to seize private property, the property of Republic Windows and Doors, the property of the bosses, and hold it as part of protecting their own assets in the fight for their jobs. What could be more anathema to the bourgeoisie as they carry out round after round of layoffs?

While Obama carefully restricted his support to the workers’ right to their severance pay under federal law, nevertheless, it was a great morale builder for the workers.

This raid, dragging the governor to jail at six in the morning, was calculated to warn Obama not to do anything like this ever again. The fact that the future president of the United States utters a word in support of struggling workers during an oncoming depression is inflammatory in the extreme, as far as the bosses are concerned. It gives ammunition and encouragement to the rank and file and any militant leaders in every union to open up a struggle to save their jobs and to block concessions.

But more importantly, this plant occupation, this heroic sit-in, even though it involved only 250 to 300 workers, was taking place in the midst of a major campaign, by virtually all factions of the ruling class, to break the United Auto Workers union and force intolerable concessions down their throats.

Obama made his remarks not only in the midst of the UE plant occupation but at the height of the campaign to use the crisis of General Motors and Chrysler as a battering ram against the auto workers. Different factions of the ruling class have different approaches. But the fact is that the UAW is the big issue of concern, the overriding issue of the class struggle right now.

Negotiations for the auto bailout broke down when Senate Republicans demanded that the UAW bring wages and benefit levels down to those at Toyota, Honda and Nissan—all nonunion plants, mostly in the South. When UAW President Ron Gettelfinger could not agree to such onerous terms, negotiations over the bailout collapsed. But the right-wing senators were speaking the mind of most of the ruling class, which has been beating the drums for the UAW to make concessions since the question of the auto bailout first came up.

What has this to do with arresting Blagojevich and making the indictment against him public? It was calculated to put an end to any support by Obama for workers and to the plant occupation itself.

What did the Bank of America and JPMorganChase, Republic’s other creditor, want? They wanted this occupation off the front pages. They wanted the workers out of the plant. They did not want anything to prolong it, especially encouragement from Obama.

The minute they had the opportunity, they surrendered to the demands of the workers for severance pay and benefits owed in order to put an end to the occupation. They wanted to stem the virus of working-class resistance and plant occupation before it could spread—especially to the rest of the Midwest.

Of course, the workers had every right to take the settlement. This alone was a major victory. The Bank of America never gives anything to anybody. Without the struggle, they would never have given a nickel to anyone. Bank of America is throwing people out of their homes, denying credit, and laying off 30,000 to 35,000 of its own workers.

So let’s not forget what this attack on Blagojevich was about. It was an attempt to defuse the struggle of the workers and take it out of the limelight. And it was a warning to Obama to stay out of it.

Workers, no matter whether class-conscious or not, were in support of the UE workers. The occupation was universally supported among the workers and much of the middle class. It became a popular cause. Politicians and others jumped on the bandwagon.

Furthermore, it cannot be regarded as a mere coincidence that at this same moment the Smithfield workers in the right-to-work, anti-union state of North Carolina voted, after 15 years and numerous unsuccessful attempts, to have the United Food and Commercial Workers represent them.

This could be attributed to “the Obama effect” because of the hope and optimism his victory has stimulated among sections of the working class, especially the most downtrodden. Forget about what he may or may not do in the future.

During the great upsurge of the 1930s, organizers seized on the conciliatory attitude of the Roosevelt administration towards labor, telling workers, “President Roosevelt wants you to join the union.” Of course this was an exaggeration, but a believable one. The capitalists are supremely conscious of this potential.

This arrest and attack on Blagojevich cannot be seen in any other context than as an attack on Obama, on the autoworkers and on the working class as a whole. Right now, Fitzgerald has said that Obama is in the clear and has nothing to do with the scandal. But at the same time, the investigation is ongoing. The threat is always there to escalate the struggle further in the direction of the Obama administration—not only out of bourgeois political factionalism but also to push him back from any ideas about further supporting workers in struggle.

This is what class-conscious workers must keep in mind as they view this whole public relations extravaganza.

A final thought. The heroic struggle of the UE workers may not be over. They are still in it in the sense that they have not given up the idea of saving their jobs. Doing this with a down payment from the Bank of America and raising the rest of it from workers’ funds may have a difficult future in a capitalist environment. But it leaves open the possibility to renew demands that the Bank of America, the banks in general and the capitalist government use bailout money to keep the plant open.

The workers are still in it and we should keep our powder dry and be ready to do everything to support them if another chapter unfolds in this important struggle.

Goldstein is author of the newly released book “Low-Wage Capitalism—Colossus with Feet of Clay.”
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Smithfield workers vote in union

By Peter Gilbert
Raleigh, N.C.
Published Dec 17, 2008 4:00 PM

Workers at the world’s largest packinghouse, a hog processing facility in Tar Heel, N.C., won their 15-year struggle to organize this Smithfield plant. They voted 2,041-1,879 to certify the United Food and Commercial Workers in the NLRB election conducted over Dec. 10-11. This was the third election held at the plant since it opened in 1992. The NLRB contested the two others, held in 1994 and 1997, finding that Smithfield carried out illegal intimidation and attacks on workers, and these were finally thrown out.

The bargaining unit was over 4,600 workers, of whom over 4,000 voted in the two-day election. The plant has a majority of about 3,300 African-American workers, and has about 1,300 Latina/o workers. There are a few Native American and white workers. The plant was majority of Latin American origin until last year, when many workers were scared away as a result of Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids.

In 2006 Smithfield finally lost their last appeal from the 1997 election in a circuit court, and asked for a new election. The workers demanded that the company recognize the union, having shown how difficult a fair election would be. For two years workers and community supporters around the U.S. picketed stores carrying Smithfield products and demanded that the Company respect the Smithfield workers’ basic rights. In October 2007 the company responded by refusing to negotiate and by trying to intimidate the union and their supporters with a RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act) lawsuit, claiming that workers exercising their basic rights and using some of their power, amounted to extortion.

On Oct. 27, the union and the company agreed to a new election in exchange for Smithfield dropping its lawsuit. Despite the fact that the previous elections were thrown out because of the company’s actions, the workers won major concessions that ensured a fair election. Under the terms of the agreement, union organizers were allowed access to the plant itself, to talk to workers and distribute literature in the cafeteria and break rooms.

This was the first time in the 15-year struggle to organize the plant that organizers had an opportunity to talk to workers on a more equal footing with the bosses. The agreement required the company to discontinue its attacks on the union. Beginning at the start of November, over a hundred organizers came to Tar Heel, not just from the UFCW, but also from SEIU and other unions in the Change to Win coalition.

Throughout the final days of the campaign, workers took inspiration from President-elect Obama’s historic victory. As one Smithfield worker stated, “We changed the White House. We can change the Hog-House.” The victorious union election also came on the heels of the Republic workers’ victory in Chicago, another inspiration to the Smithfield workers.

The workers now have a year where the company must negotiate with them, but the company is not required by law to sign a contract. Smithfield and the UFCW do have contracts at 26 other plants outside North Carolina. How good this contract will be depends on the workers’ continued unity and militancy, and will require continued support and solidarity from workers and communities around the U.S.

Gilbert is a former UFCW organizer.
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