'We're here and we're not going anywhere," said the protest leader last week, "until we get what's fair and what's ours." With that, 200 laid-off workers began the occupation of the Republic Windows & Doors factory on Chicago's North Side. The company owners, perhaps in violation of federal labor laws, had abruptly closed the plant. They had no choice, they said, citing the credit crunch. The workers claimed they were owed severance and vacation pay, and they were not ending their sit-in until they got it.
It was a throw-back moment. How many times had aggrieved protesters taken action, mounting illegal occupations, despite threats to good order and risks of arrest? Very quickly, protests expanded to target the banks that had left Republic Windows & Doors high and dry. "You got bailed out," picketers chanted at Chicago offices of Bank of America, "we got sold out."
The anger of workers would grow through the week, especially when this local grievance was followed by the Senate failure to rescue auto companies, with unions scapegoated. Hundreds of billions to bail out bankers, nothing for workers? The larger context transformed the Republic Windows & Doors contest into a kind of parable - a window on something larger.
Another parable unfolded last week, across the Atlantic. Before becoming the foreign minister of France, Bernard Kouchner was the founder and head of Doctors Without Borders, one of the most admired human-rights organizations in the world. But Kouchner now shocked his old allies by abandoning the humanist dream of decency-joined-to-power when he declared, "There is permanent contradiction between human rights and the foreign policy of a state, even in France." When an idealist accepts a role of political power, he inevitably joins the ranks of realism. "To lead a country," Kouchner explained, "obviously distances one from a certain Utopianism."
The words from France were like a warning to the ardent supporters of Barack Obama. Don't expect so much. Power compromises; power corrupts; power is not so powerful; etcetera. Yesterday's "change" is today's utopianism.
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Meanwhile, however, Obama was displaying something else. Within a day of the occupation of the window factory in Chicago, the president-elect was asked about it at a news conference. One imagines the reporters' pencils poised to write down the predictable reply, something along the lines of, "Whatever the workers' grievance, no good purpose is served by unauthorized take-over. . . violation of property rights. . . law and order must be first. . . etcetera." But that is not what Obama said. Instead, without hesitating, he declared, "The workers who are asking for the benefits and payments that they have earned - I think they're absolutely right. . ."
As if anticipating the failed rescue of automobile manufacturers, he added firmly, ". . .and understand that what's happening to them is reflective of what's happening across this economy."
Obama's unambiguous affirmation of the trespassers had an instant consequence. Now politicians and civic figures had cover, and a legion of them leapt to the defense of the laid-off workers. In the past, American society has drawn a bright line between acceptable protests launched in the name of civil rights and unacceptable demands made in the name of economic rights, but Obama blurred that line with a simple statement: Workers have a right to what they have earned. That transparent truth trumped the usually controlling categories of legality, procedure, and decorum.
Family members joined the workers in occupying the plant. Their determination was redoubled. After six days, the Bank of America and J.P. Morgan Chase restored the financing that the company needed to meet its obligations to the workers. A deal was made, and the occupation ended. The workers left the factory chanting, "Yes, we did."
And where does that leave utopianism? A few rescued workers are not the US manufacturing base, which remains at risk. The constraints on Obama become clearer by the day, but so does what makes him different. His gut instinct is aligned with his supremely cool analysis. He is capable of choice and action. But among the various factors he is prepared to weigh in making policy, nothing ranks higher than simple fairness. That transparent truth defined the president-elect last week - a window and a door at once.