There's something inevitable, as well as heartening, about the workers' occupation of Republic Windows and Doors that began on Dec. 5 and ended today in victory. After all the talk about the nation being ensnared in "the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression," laid-off employees at the small Chicago firm seized upon a tactic not widely used in the United States since Franklin Roosevelt was in the White House. During the late 1930s, thousands of workers -- in dozens of factories and a few department stores -- sat down on the job, forcing their employers to grant them union contracts and higher wages. It was the most dramatic moment in an organizational drive that made labor a powerful force in the American economy and a pillar of the Democratic coalition ever since.
But don't expect history to repeat itself. Seventy years ago, most sit-down strikes took place at huge auto and rubber plants -- then essential cogs in the industrial base upon which the whole economy depended. The biggest occupation took place at the General Motors plant in Flint, Michigan, during the winter of 1937; it lasted for six frigid weeks. In contemporary Chicago, the same tactic was successful in only six days. But labor will have to heed other lessons from the past if it hopes to regain something of its past glory.
Although they were breaking the law, the sit-down strikers held the upper hand; there was never a chance GM would go bankrupt or shift production to a country where wages were lower and unions didn't exist. In contrast, the employees holding down the fort at Republic Windows and Doors only demanded the vacation and severance they are due under the union contract. "They're staying because … these workers have nothing to lose at this point," explained an organizer for the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers -- known to labor people as the UE. The tactic may not seem particularly novel to the workers; many are immigrants from Latin American countries in which factory occupations occur more frequently than in the United States.
The sit-downers of 2008 did have one advantage over their militant forerunners: unambiguous political support from leading Democrats. FDR, despite his pro-labor reputation, made no public statement about the Flint strike; in private, he urged the warring camps to negotiate a settlement. The president left the messy details to the governor of Michigan, liberal Frank Murphy, who urged GM wage-earners to vacate the plant but refused to order the National Guard to force them out.
This time around, however, leading Democrats stood by the occupiers from the start. President-elect Barack Obama asserted, "The workers who are asking for their benefits and payments they have earned … are absolutely right. What's happening to them is reflective of what's happening across this economy." FDR never said anything so supportive about striking workers. Before he was arrested, Gov. Rod Blagojevich of Illinois ordered his state to "suspend doing any business with Bank of America" until the financial giant restored a line of credit to Republic that should allow the firm to fulfill its contractual obligations. The local congressman, Luis Guiterrez, helped pressure both corporations to do the right thing.
This is a happy development for anyone who cares about the health of the labor movement. In U.S. history, unions have rarely advanced without the support or at least friendly neutrality of powerful politicians. Corporations seldom agree to bargain with labor unless they have no alternative. A liberal government can pass laws that require employers to behave responsibly -- and condemn firms that betray the common good.
But even sympathetic politicians will soon turn away from unions that lose the backing of the public. During the early Cold War, the officials of some labor organizations -- including the same UE that represents workers at Republic -- belonged to the Communist Party and refused to denounce the Soviet Union. Democrats shunned them, and the mainstream of the labor movement treated them as pariahs. Attacked by Red-baiting congressmen and competing unions, the UE’s membership quickly shriveled.
Today's labor movement expects the new president and his majority in Congress to enact the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) which will, in theory, make it easier to organize new members. But it is one thing to side with laid-off workers demanding pay they deserve and quite another to help unions gain enhanced power that could threaten the control and profits of a company like Wal-Mart upon which thousands of communities depend.
To make that leap, labor needs to recover the kind of moral vision that once convinced thousands of workers to spend their winter next to cold machines, awaiting a military assault that, thankfully, never came. Their vision went under the name of "industrial democracy." Seven decades later, unions in the Obama era will need something better than "nothing left to lose."