Every now and again, American workers issue a blunt reminder to the bosses, and to themselves, that the steady and moderate tone transmitted by their nation's great public-relations dream-machine can never fully lull them to sleep.
The factory occupation at Republic Windows and Doors in Chicago on December 5th emerged as the most salient of recent reminders, no doubt owing to the widespread opposition to the federal bailout of Wall Street. For radicals and trade-unionists and the 260 rank and filers of UE Local 1110 who, to be sure, lost their jobs, the sit-in must be counted a victory.
After six days, the factory workers finally stood up with their demands met—a modest severance and back-pay, and a two-month extension on health insurance, all of which was, of course, already legally theirs—while a languid US labor movement got a visible confidence boost.
So egregious was Republic's dealings with its workers, and ludicrous Bank of America's handout, that even the New York Times and otherwise hard-nosed Democratic leaders were forced to cast their lot with the union. And herein lies the real strength of the factory occupation: in ripping to shreds the rationale of an "economic stimulus" package which only further siphons wealth into the hands of the ruling-class, which makes not the slightest concession to public interest, and whose most outstanding (and rather predictable) consequence was simply the consolidation of the banking industry.
Just one day after the occupation ended, another droplet of wealth was drawn back by workers. On December 11th, following a protracted and often violent fifteen-year battle with Smithfield Foods, the 5,500 workers at their Tar Heel, North Carolina pork-processing plant, the largest meatpacking plant in the world, voted in a union.
The significance of this victory cannot be overstated. North Carolina is perhaps the most consistent and unflinching upholder of the "right to work" laws, provisions to Taft-Hartley which make even more difficult labor's efforts to organize. Since 1994, when the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) first ventured into the plant, workers who had expressed an interest in joining, or who had spoken out against the dangerous conditions of the line, had been summarily intimidated and humiliated. David Bacon, writing in The American Prospect, characterized the 1997 union election as one "where the idea of voting freely became a farce in an atmosphere of violence and terror." And two years ago, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents raided the plant and arrested dozens of workers, making perfectly clear to immigrant and native workers alike the consequences of independent behavior. Apparently the lesson wasn't learned.
After decades of retreat, of concessions and labor-management alliances, what accounts for these two episodes of labor boldness?
Is the tide finally starting to turn, however slowly, for the American working-class? A quick glance at the woeful standing of the UAW, on whose hunched posture rests the fate of hundreds of thousands of workers and retirees, or the business and company-unionism of the SEIU, whose president cannot so much as yawn without affirming the virtues of "partnership," suggests that, even for the tiny chunk of workers who are organized, the future remains quite bleak. But then rarely has labor's strength ever been measured by the firmness of its leaders' handshake.
In the cases of Republic and Smithfield, that strength was determined generally by labor's relation to the broad struggle and militancy for immigrant-rights. It is no accident that the most visible and publicly-supported factory occupation in decades, its sit-inners mostly Latino, took place in Chicago. It was there that 2006's nationwide May Day rallies in support of undocumented immigrants took on historic dimensions, mobilizing a half-million demonstrators and leaving in its wake a newly heightened consciousness of what was already a vanguard of the Latino working-class. The campaign at Smithfield was waged similarly, by an active rank and file with deep ties to community organizers, churches, worker centers—in short, along the lines of "social-movement unionism," a strategy which very likely contains the key to prying open the union-busting South.
As part and parcel of this reciprocal battle—as both a showing of class struggle and the fight for immigrant rights—the 136 workers at the Stella D'Oro bakery in the Bronx have taken to the streets in one of the more bitter and desperate labor contests in recent New York memory. The mostly Latino, mostly woman, workforce, members of Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers, and Grain Millers International (BTCGM) Local 50, have been on strike now for more than four months over their employer's refusal to renegotiate their contract, an effort to ultimately crush their union.
Stella D'Oro's owner, Brynwood Partners, a "buyout" equity firm who in 2006 acquired the cookie and biscuit makers from Kraft Foods, has instead threatened to slash workers' already low wages by a quarter over the next five years; eliminate four holidays, Saturday premium-pay, and all sick-days; reduce paid vacation by a week; and make health insurance all but unaffordable.
By the lofty standards we socialists often unrealistically project, the struggle at Stella D'Oro is a rather marginal one, and all the more so perhaps for British comrades. But its relevance, if not to be found chiefly in the material protection of the strikers, or in the increased level of class-consciousness and dignity a victory would grant them, is this: that each expression of class struggle, however few and far between, must increasingly bring into tow questions which transcend mere bread and butter.
Factory occupiers can't sit without making apparent the moral and economic bankruptcy of finance capital. Labor can no longer organize without throwing its weight behind immigrant rights. Auto workers, in their fight against further givebacks, must necessarily drag into the public spotlight the case for green transportation and the need for industrial nationalization.
And workers at Stella D'Oro, even if their battle doesn't stretch beyond the streets of the Bronx, must invariably find themselves arrayed alongside the entire American working-class against a criminal and utterly inefficient system of corporate healthcare. In a period defined by its lack of insurgency, that is something of a consolation.