February 12, 2009

Revolt on Goose Island: How the locals pitched in


in the latest installment of her ongoing Melville House “Live Book” project, Kari Lydersen talks to a journalist activist about how the local community organnized in support of the striekrs at the Republic Windows & Doors factory workers, and what the overall implications of the strike might be

Jerry Mead-Lucero

Jerry Mead-Lucero

Chicago, February 12, 2009 — After 15 years as an activist and journalist in the labor movement, Chicagoan Jerry Mead-Lucero is fairly jaded. He is dedicated to and passionate about the power of organized labor, but he feels unions have become mired in bureaucracy, unwisely committed to cooperating with management and too timid or comfortable to pick a fight.

He has long admired UE for bucking these trends, and for continuing to see the value of organizing manufacturing workers which made up the traditional heart of American unionism even while other major unions have shifted their focus to service industries and other sectors.

“A lot of unions think manufacturing is dead in the U.S., but the reality is there are still a lot of small workplaces doing light manufacturing, and the UE takes those places seriously,” said Mead-Lucero, who does a weekly radio show called Labor Express.

In Chicago, many of these workplaces are theoretically unionized, but by independent company unions which do little or nothing for workers but collect their dues. The Central States Joint Board which previously represented Republic Windows workers is among the more notorious of such unions. Light manufacturing in the Midwest also tends to be done mostly by Latino immigrants, many of them undocumented, perhaps making company owners and corrupt union officials feel they have more power over workers who are afraid to make waves or who are used to corrupt company unions as the norm in Mexico.

Mead-Lucero remembers the closing of a box factory in an immigrant neighborhood on the southwest side of Chicago with a mostly Latino workforce represented by a company union. In a parallel to Republic Windows, the factory closed suddenly leaving workers out in the cold, then reopened in the suburbs under a different name. The union did nothing to help the workers.

“This kind of thing is common throughout Chicago,” Mead-Lucero says. “But the UE has been proactive both in taking on unorganized workplaces and company unions.”

So when Mead-Lucero heard about the imminent closing of Republic Windows, he gave UE organizer Mark Meinster a call to see what was up. Meinster tipped him off that their might be big news come Friday. So Mead-Lucero left his job early that afternoon and headed over to the factory. The occupation had started, but there was still the sense it might be temporary, and the meeting between Bank of America and union officials and Congressman Luis Gutierrez was going on downtown. Mead-Lucero and other journalists, mostly from mainstream media outlets, milled around outside the factory interviewing workers and union reps. “It was like a waiting game to see if there would be a resolution,” Mead-Lucero remembers.

Later in the evening the union leaders returned from the meeting, and headed straight back into the factory to consult with all the workers. About half an hour later they emerged with an announcement: the occupation would continue until their demands were met.

“It was just electrifying!” said Mead-Lucero. He immediately switched hats, putting away his voice recorder and taking out his cell phone to start organizing. Within minutes he was making calls to other union and labor activists telling them to get down to the plant. “Some of the real journalists around me kind of flipped out, they thought I was one of them and now I had switched to activism,” he remembers. “I realized this was something big and we had to mobilize community support.”

He realized he might have acted too rashly in not consulting with the union before spreading word of their decision, so he turned to region president Carl Rosen, who gave him a thumbs-up. “I’m used to labor leaders who are more cautious, who would probably want to put out a statement first. So I asked Carl if it was okay I was making calls. He said, ‘Hell yeah, this is the biggest thing that’s happened to us in 15 years.’”

One of Mead-Lucero’s first calls was to C.J. Hawking, a minister connected with Interfaith Worker Justice. She spearheaded the organizing of a rally for the very next day, which ended up drawing several hundred people. He also called the president of Teamsters Local 743, a progressive dissident local of the union, and the local leader of the National Writers Union, which is affiliated with the United Auto Workers so famous for their factory occupations of the 1930s. Mead-Lucero also called his wife Claudia, an organizer in the immigrant rights movement, to get the word out to the Mexican hometown federations.

Republic Windows owner Richard Gillman had been a no-show at the meeting downtown, and Mead-Lucero remembers he was also conspicuously not at the factory Friday evening. A consultant who had been acting as a liaison with the union was there, moving awkwardly around. A number of office and security personnel were also still at the factory, appearing confused and nervous. Then as the evening wore on Mead-Lucero noticed the official security guards disappeared or at least moved into the background, and workers took over security and crowd control.

Soon Mead-Lucero rushed over to a benefit dinner for the Latino Union grassroots organization which was taking place in the second floor ballroom of a somewhat bedraggled but grand old building on the city’s northwest side. As a Mexican band was setting up for a dance later that night, he and Claudia climbed on the stage to break the news about the factory occupation. A ripple of bewilderment and excitement spread through the room of workers rights and immigrants rights supporters and activists.

Conveniently Mead-Lucero had also just recently signed up for Facebook, and his post about the factory occupation including his phone number spread like crazy through the social networking world. He got a call at 3 a.m. that night from someone asking how they could support the workers, and starting early in the morning and throughout the weekend the calls continued nearly nonstop, including one from Argentina and one from the office of Rev. Jesse Jackson, who would visit the factory on Sunday. Mead-Lucero recorded a voicemail message directing people to his website, Pilsen Prole, for the latest on the occupation. (Pilsen is the southwest side Chicago neighborhood that is the heart of the city’s immigrants rights movement and has a famous labor history of its own going back to the 1800s).

Monday, Mead-Lucero took off work and went to a protest at a Bank of America branch in the immigrant Little Village neighborhood, and to the press conference downtown where city and state elected officials voiced support for the workers and threatened to cut off business with Bank of America. Back at the plant, Mead-Lucero was happy and amused to see widespread support from all the city’s major unions, ones that he could hardly picture having orchestrated or allowed such an action by their own members.

“The UE was always the red-headed step-child of the labor movement, so to see all these unions paying homage to them was kind of ironic,” he remembers. But he doesn’t see the support as cynical or hypocritical, he thinks the occupation inspired even the most bureaucratic and corporate union leaders, who in their hearts still cherish the image of the hard-fighting unionist of the CIO’s heyday.

Now two months after the occupation, Mead-Lucero fervently hopes it will continue to inspire or symbolize a sea change in organized labor. But he thinks it is far from a given. The occupation offered a spark, he says, but it is now up to unions, workers, elected officials and the public as a whole to determine what happens. Like most union members he sees the passage of the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) as critical to the future prospects of unions. The act would make unionizing workplaces much easier, as workers could elect to unionize through a card check rather than a drawn-out election process which gives employers more opportunity for intimidation and counter-tactics.

But Mead-Lucero, while fully supporting the law, notes that it could be a double-edged sword. He points out how currently many unions enter neutrality agreements with companies wherein the company agrees not to lobby against the unionizing effort; but usually the union also agrees to some concessions in return, including guarantees of what may or may not be included in their contract agreements to come. With a neutrality agreement and without the painful but also solidarity-building campaigns leading up to an election, Mead-Lucero fears unions may gain more members more easily but will skip the crucial grassroots bonding and educational components of unionizing. EFCA, he thinks, could further this trend.

“You can call it the market-based approach to unionism,” where unions seek the highest possible number of members as their primary goal. “If you do that at the expense of building strong organizations local by local, you run the risk of shooting yourself in the foot. What good do all those members do if they don’t feel good about their relationship with the union?”

Meanwhile the economic crisis could have a chilling or invigorating effect on labor, Mead-Lucero thinks, depending how workers and unions react. The Great Depression sparked vibrant and militant union organizing, and most pundits have predicted a similar response in this crisis, as workers like those at Republic Windows feel they have little to lose. But Mead-Lucero notes that in other recessions and times of economic stress before and after the Great Depression, the opposite dynamic actually occurred, with people terrified of losing their jobs becoming less likely to agitate; and with employers becoming more exploitative and cavalier knowing they have plenty of potential workers clamoring at the gates.

Right now, Mead-Lucero thinks, it could go either way. He hopes the Republic Windows struggle will play a role in tipping the scales.

“Labor has continually pursued this cooperationist agenda, like they still think they can get back to the social compacts of the 1950s and make corporations and capital understand workers should have a seat at the table – rather than saying we are going to take the table. Unless we get much more creative as well as more militant and bold, we aren’t going to advance. It’s time we say enough is enough and mobilize and really take a stand. Hopefully (Republic Windows) will become a beacon. People are ready for this.”