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Labor & Worker Rights Mon Oct 19 2009

Looking Back at the Republic Factory Takeover: A Conversation with Author Kari Lydersen

Almost one year ago -- on December 5, 2008 -- 250 workers who had just been laid off from their jobs at the Republic Windows and Doors factory on Chicago's Goose Island secured their place in labor history. The workers refused to leave the factory until they received what was theirs: 60 days of federally mandated severance pay and compensation for accrued vacation time. While workers were told that Bank of America had cut off the factory's line of credit, the bank had received $25 billion in federal bailout money before the Republic closed.

Furthermore, for more than a month, workers had noticed management quietly emptying the factory in the middle of the night -- a corporate scheme that ended with Republic CEO Richard Gillman being held on $10 million bond and accused of stealing factory equipment and attempting to set up a new operation in Iowa.

While the story of the Republic workers isn't making headlines across the world or in Chicago's newspapers as it did nearly one year ago, journalist and author Kari Lydersen is doing her best to keep their story alive and archived well in history. Her latest book, Revolt on Goose Island: The Chicago Factory Takeover, and What it Says About the Economic Crisis, was published in June and details the workers' story.

Mechanics sat down with Lydersen, a staff writer for the Midwest bureau of The Washington Post and a frequent contributor to several other publications, including the Chicago Reader (where she recently had two great cover stories) and In These Times. Over drinks at Argo Tea, she discussed her book, the factory takeover and its lasting impact.

At the beginning of the occupation, Lydersen was asked by New York-based Melville House Publishing to write a "live book" on the takeover. This meant she would contribute notes and interviews to the blog Moby Lives before the book was actually published, letting people read her thoughts as the story unfolded.

Lydersen had been covering the story for the Post as well as People magazine, which ended up not running a piece on the takeover. While the takeover received a large amount of media attention, Lydersen wanted to give context to the story in her book.

"I think a lot of the media coverage -- especially the quick stuff, right as it was happening -- was basically leaving out all the background. It was sort of framed as, 'These workers were told they were going to lose their jobs in three days and they just wouldn't take it and stayed in the factory.' And in reality, they knew for several weeks that something really fishy was up and probably it was going to close," she says. "And also they had been kick out the previous union, then they had been battling with the owner to get different contracts, so there was a lot of organizing and strategizing leading up to the occupation. I kind of compare it in my mind to Rosa Parks. Not necessarily the exact struggle -- just the fact that Rosa Parks was portrayed as this spontaneous thing when in reality it was very thought out and planned."

Workers at the Republic had previously been represented by the Central States Joint Board (CSJB), a union that Lydersen notes in her book is known for its ties to organized crime. After years of misrepresentation, in November 2004 workers voted in Local 1110 of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE), an independent union that was key to helping the workers organize the takeover. Without UE, Lydersen is certain that the Republic takeover could have never happened.

"That other union (CSJB) was one that would do literally nothing for workers," she explains. "Even more mainstream unions...still most of them wouldn't have done this because it was illegal. It was a more bold and creative tactic that you don't usually see major unions using."

As the story progressed and Lydersen dug up more research, she began to see a connection between the Republic's story and other takeovers in Argentina. In her book, she specifically mentions the factory takeovers that followed Argentina's 2001 economic collapse, where she writes, "Tens of thousands of workers took over idle factories that had made everything from auto parts to leather to chocolate and ran the companies themselves, raising money to fix broken equipment and finding eager customers in a country enamored of populist struggle."

"Right when it happened, a lot of people were saying this hasn't happened since the thirties, which wasn't really true because ...those were strikes and this company was already closed," Lydersen says.

After a six-day sit-in at the factory, negotiations finally came to a close when Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase lent $1.75 million to the company. This wouldn't keep the factory open, but it meant a victory to the workers, who would receive their deserved compensation. With almost unparalleled public support and timing, Lydersen says that this victory might not have happened even one year earlier.

At a time when thousands of other workers were facing similar situations -- going to work everyday in fear of layoffs -- the Republic workers' story and actions resonated deeply with the public and several high-profile politicians, she says. Asked at a press conference about the situation, President Obama publicly supported the workers, as did Reverend Jesse Jackson, Representative Luis Gutierrez and former Governor Rod Blagojevich, who made his last public appearance at a rally for the workers and whose own arrest later overshadowed some media coverage of the workers' victory.

"It resonated with people who wouldn't have normally identified with 'working class,'" Lydersen says. "This shows a whole larger shift in people's view of themselves within the economic system."

Even with a victory, many other factors led to a more nuanced story that Lydersen wanted to explore, including the issue of Tax Increment Financing districts, as reported in the Reader, and a new hope for the factory. In February 2009, Kevin Surace, CEO of Serious Materials, acquired assets to the factory with hopes of hiring all the workers back and creating a socially conscious business that manufactures energy-efficient building materials.

So far, Lydersen says that 17 workers have been hired back, though Surace is hopeful to hire more back as federal stimulus dollars kick in. "There were just so many wrinkles to the story, that's what partly made it a fun story to cover," she says.

While UE played a key role in the Republic's story, Lydersen notes that even non-unionized workers can learn something from their story.

"I think a lot of the more militant struggles over the past few years have been non-union immigrant workers," she says. "The UE wasn't a traditional union, which is partly why they were able to do what they did, so I think there's hope for anyone. I mean, the odds are pretty slanted regardless, but I don't think it requires being in a union. But it requires organizing, so that can be done through workers' centers or through any number of new or different models that are out there. But it definitely takes people sticking together and organizing."

Lydersen hopes her book is one starting point for people to rethink several issues, including this country's economic structure and the responsibility different organizations owe to the public and to workers across the world in any number of jobs.

"These workers, if they hadn't had this victory, they would just be one example of all the tens of thousands of workers that are out in the cold completely," she says. "So, not everyone can have this kind of victory that Republic Windows had, so I think it really drives home that there really does need to be a safety net."

See and hear Lydersen discuss her book two times this month -- Wednesday, October 21 at 6pm at 57th Street Books, 1301 E. 57th St., and Tuesday, October 27 at 6pm at the Chicago Cultural Center, 77 E. Randolph St.

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