What a difference five years make! In 2008, when a few hundred union workers at the Republic Windows and Doors factory in Chicago voted to occupy their plant instead of submitting meekly to being laid off, theirs was a rare act of courage in a cold winter of crisis for organized labor. Five years on, as some of those same workers cut the ribbon on their own cooperatively-run business last week, it was yet another bold step by innovative workers in a season of daring by labor.
It's no easy thing to sign a lease, buy equipment and open a business with a group. Starting a coop is risky, just like walking off a low wage job. Asked why he and his fellows had decided to start a co-op, veteran window maker "Ricky" Maclin told me it was because they were tired of their lives being in someone else's hands. In the last five years, two different owners for two different sets of reasons had tried to lay them off. Now Maclin and his partners are owner/operators of a cooperative company called New Era and a similar sort of determination and defiance is being seen in city after city, from fed up workers who are taking to the streets.
Fast food workers went on strike in Milwaukee this week, the fifth city to see low wage workers walk out in one-day protests. Before Milwaukee it was New York, Chicago, St. Louis and Detroit. From state to state, fed-up workers are walking off the job and into the history books.
There's plenty to be fed up about. The same people slashing services are talking about an economic recovery, but if this is the economy in recovery, workers seem to have no place in it. Politicians and pundits are doing ok - in fact, for anyone with a stock portfolio, the economy's in the pink. But that old supposed pact between Big Labor and the Democrats is clearly broken. Labor unions invested millions in helping Democrats win the last election but they're getting nothing back - at least nothing that helps working people live and rear families and eat.
Wages remain rock bottom, millions are more or less permanently out of work and those that are working are working harder, for more bosses, in less secure workplaces, with nothing in the way of benefits.
No wonder people are embracing new tactics. And surprise surprise, those tactics work.
By occupying their plant the first time, the New Era workers won back pay and time for a new owner to be found. By occupying a second time (in February 2012), when those new owners threatened to liquidate, they won a chance to form a cooperative and make a bid on equipment.
Now their company's name is seeming especially apt: New Era Windows. Are we entering a New Era for labor, in fact? The last time the labor movement embraced sit-down strikes and worker occupations it was the 1930s. For most of the last century, industrial unions viewed autonomous worker co-ops as a threat. Today the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) will be representing the New Era workers and The United Steelworkers of America is working with the Basque co-ops of Mondragon to open industrial size co-ops in the US.
Likewise, until recently, trade unions refused to support ambitious strikes by low-wage workers in predominantly non union industries, especially strikes led by women, and immigrants and community organizations. The one-day stoppages around the country by retail and fast wood workers this season are targeting non union chains like McDonald's, Burger King, Taco Bell, and TJ Maxx. Community groups are leading the way (although many are funded by the SEIU). They're demanding a meaningful raise - to $15 and hour- and the real right to organize a union without attack. So far, they're succeeding in staging one day walk outs without dire reprisals from management. That's a jaw-dropping thing, helped by visible community and church group support. And while the one day strikes may be involving only a minority of workers so far, they are clearly building support as the wave of actions shows.
What happens next? Strikes and co-ops are two different ways to respond to the finance-driven crisis of job losses and low wages. The first aims to build power at the bargaining table, the second to compete in the market. The outcome's unsure, but just like that first occupation at Republic, the experiments themselves have unleashed new potential.
It just goes to show what can happen when workers lead the way, and when, as Jim Hightower would say, those who say it can't be done, get out of the way of those who are doing it.
In this video from Raise MKE and Wisconsin Jobs Now! workers describe what it's like living on a low wage and why they've had enough. Today's low wage buys only about 70% of what it bought in 1968 and the majority of jobs created in this so-called "recovery" have been low-wage jobs. What's that like to live on? As one woman puts it simply, "Living on a low wage sucks!"