Last year, the workers of Republic Windows and Doors successfully brought back the sit-down tactic, providing one of the few sunny spots in the unrelenting gloom that is the American labor movement. The maneuver seems to be catching on as factories close and jobs become vulnerable. Last week, unionized workers at Hartmarx Suits in Chicago -- where Obama gets his impeccably tailored threads -- voted to stage a sit-in if the factory isn’t sold to someone who will preserve their jobs. On Friday, textile workers in Rochester, New York, also voted to occupy their plant. And earlier this year, in another display of militancy, non-union workers in Rhode Island reacted to their jewelry plant’s surprise closing by obstructing the entrance to the bankruptcy sale, an action which resulted in multiple arrests.
After the Republic Windows victory, labor gleefully speculated that this display of worker activism might augur a return to the fighting spirit of the movement's heyday. They might have been right.
"In plant closing cases I think it is a good tactic to use," says Leah Fried, an organizer with UE local 1110, the Republic union. "If [these actions] are any indication, I think there is going to be more in the future."
That may be so, and it's certainly heartening to see proof that organized labor still has a pulse outside of D.C. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. All of these actions have been reactive attempts to preserve jobs, not aggressive attempts to organize new workers. Further, the sit-downs have all taken place in the moribund manufacturing sector. The few unions that are still expanding haven’t engaged in anything so sensationalistic.
TAP editor Harold Meyerson predicted this trend when I interviewed him (for a different publication) in January:
The sit-downs the autoworkers did in Flint Michigan in 1937 were what built industrial unionism; you could say that the Republic Windows sit-in is almost the coda, the ending to a kind of unionism. ... It was a great tactic and I was glad to see it, but honestly you cannot imagine in the current context this tactic being repeated, except in the same cause -- give us our severance.
If these tactics preserve jobs, then the fading industrial unions should keep at it. But until we see hotel workers or nurses engaging in direct action to unionize thousands of their fellows, we won’t have an aggressive movement to match the days of yore.