September 2010

Mariya Strauss

Prole Art Threat

The Takeover

It is May, 2002. A print shop near Buenos Aires employs eight men. They are in the middle of printing a new book. The boss sends a mechanic to "pick up" some of the machines. The workers smell a sellout. They surround him. The mechanic leaves, promising to return. He does so -- with eight police cars, eight armored vehicles, two ambulances and a fire truck. The workers hurriedly call other industrial workers, community members, wives, elders, neighbors. Three hundred people show up and enter the shop. Two of the workers prepare to set the machines on fire. Women toss bits of paper down from the second floor so the police can see they are serious about burning the place down. Through their actions, community members send a message to the police: Blood will be shed, but it will be on both sides. The police blink. The armored vehicles, squad cars and ambulances roll out, leaving eight cops on the scene to make sure the workers don't start shipping out merchandise and making their own money. The workers persuade the next door neighbor to cut a hole in the wall, through which the finished books can be shipped out and sold. In this way they make enough to keep their jobs. They no longer have a boss. Eventually the shop becomes theirs.

It is close to Christmas, 2008. Republic, a window and door factory in Chicago, begins to run out of cash. Payroll is late. One evening, after closing, two workers witness a truck roll up to the plant and several managers begin loading machines into it. They call their union, United Electrical Workers Local 1110, to report that the company's assets are being taken. The workers start to suspect that Republic may be shutting its doors. They unanimously decide they will not leave if management tells them to. Days later, Republic's management tells them the company is folding and the workers will not be paid for the vacation time they accrued. Six workers handcuff themselves to the machines while the union gathers food and supplies for them and arranges an agreement with their city council member so that the police will not intervene. No arrests are made. The occupation stretches into days. Republic's management says Bank of America has cut off their credit, so they cannot remain open. The workers demand to meet with Bank of America. Congressman Luis Gutierrez, Mayor Richard Daley, and Senator and Presidential Candidate Barack Obama publicly support the workers. Bank of America meets with the workers and agrees to extend them credit so they can keep the lights on and survive while they look for a buyer for the company.

We have an adversarial system of industrial relations. I grew up in Park Forest and Oak Park, Illinois, where adults left home every morning to go to work in the city and came home on the train to sit on each other's porches and drink beers after supper. It's a lifestyle that depends on the machines in the plant never being loaded onto a truck under cover of darkness. It depends on that not even being a possibility. People can go for years, for decades, living inside a waking dream called the middle class, and then be splashed awake by the reality of their position all at once. That's what happened to the people in Argentina after their economy tanked spectacularly in 2001, and it's what happened to the workers at Republic Windows and Doors.

In Sin Patron (“without a boss”), a book written by Argentina's Lavaca collective and heavily promoted by author Naomi Klein and filmmaker Avi Lewis, the authors narrate the stories of some of the 170 or so worker takeovers of factories that happened after 2001. Lavaca are social and political theorists, ideologues with as romantic a love of worker ownership models as you could possibly imagine. The stories are told in slightly rococo, lofty language, but with precision and a tone of almost unbearable hope.

God, I'm jaded. What's wrong with indulging in a little post-capitalist romantic daydreaming? What's wrong with analyzing these experiments in worker takeovers and concluding that we need more of them? Nothing. Nothing's wrong with it.

Except, as journalist Kari Lydersen notes with sadness, most of the experiments have failed. The Argentine workers and their communities may have discovered the value of working together to achieve a victory over the bad guys of capitalism, but nearly all of those victories fizzled into bankruptcy or closure within a few years. And the personal costs to the workers and their families were excruciatingly high. They lost their savings, risked their lives in some cases, had to survive by hunting game in at least one case, and often had to live in the factories for long stretches.

Their bravery and dignity was undeniable. Lydersen's book about Republic, Revolt on Goose Island, written almost concurrently with the workers’ struggle as the events unfolded, serves as a historical document and tells a riveting tale from beginning to end.

Lydersen’s neutral tone and journalistic voice let the plot take over, but by the end it’s clear she is cheering along with you as the workers manage to actually locate a buyer for the company, re-open the plant, and get their jobs back. But Lydersen is smart. She doesn’t indulge in analysis, or try to apply any “takeaways” from the Republic workers’ actions to other plant closure situations. She does follow them on their speaking tour after the factory occupation, wherein the workers visit town after town experiencing plant closure after plant closure. I felt a numbing chill settle over my sense of hope when she described how desperate other groups of non-union workers are to replicate the Republic workers’ win, and how clearly that just is not going to happen.

Revolt on Goose Island is a braver book than Sin Patron for that reason: Lydersen sees and acknowledges the hard truth that the Republic workers’ success was a blessed event, marked by miraculous developments like Obama’s intervention. She gets that our adversarial system of industrial relations likely won’t allow for many similar victories of humanity over profit. But it happened. It really did happen. Lydersen’s courageous little book won’t let the sneering cynics -- even the one inside my head -- take that away from us.