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The Surprising Support for the Chicago Factory Standoff « The Washington Independent

A standoff now playing out in Chicago, where workers are occupying a factory that abruptly shut down last week, is an almost unbelievable turn of events for the labor movement.

For the first time in decades, public sympathy seems to be on the side of workers, not management. Employees of Republic Windows & Doors began a sit-in Friday. They’d been told their employer was closing down because Bank of America wouldn’t extend it enough credit to keep going.

Yes, that would be the very same Bank of America, recipient of federal bailout money.

Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich — who is having a very bad day today, as Matt notes — on Monday stepped in on behalf of workers, ordering state agencies to quit doing business with the bank until it uses some of that bailout money to save the factory. President-elect Barack Obama has been the most high-profile supporter, saying on Sunday that the workers are “absolutely right.”

He’s a former community organizer. Those people live for this sort of thing.

But the bigger point is the change in attitude toward the little guy, the one who actually makes something for a living that people use, like windows and doors. Contrast the support for the factory workers with the early 1980s, as the steel industry collapsed. Back then, and not entirely without cause, steelworkers were seen as overpaid employees who had enjoyed cushy jobs and exploited union rules while their industry failed to compete internationally. Workers who thought they were signing up for lifetime jobs were told to retrain and find new skills in an increasingly global economy.

It went beyond just that. I was a reporter covering the Monongahela Valley of Pittsburgh in the late 1980s, and I saw first-hand the pain caused by the aftermath of the collapse of a once-great industry. Long after the steel industry was written off, its workers continued struggling to rebuild their lives, even though no one seemed to particularly care. I always remember that Mike Stout, a former steelworkers’ union official, kept a list of all the suicides and stress-related deaths linked to layoffs and shutdowns. It was a long list.

William Serrin, a former labor reporter for The New York Times, spent a lot of time in the Mon Valley back then, and he wrote about this in his book: “Homestead: The Glory and Tragedy of an American Steel Town.” It’s still worth reading, to understand how American industry often throws away the people it once relied upon — and how no one really notices.

The early 1990s saw another economic slowdown – but it was characterized quite differently, because it affected white-collar workers as well. Downsizing became a new catch phrase, and magazine trend stories regularly featured the job market travails of the professional class. Never mind that, in reality, a closer look at the statistics showed that blue-collar workers still were losing their jobs in greater numbers. The downsizing of corporate America was the storyline, the focus of attention.

Which brings us back to Chicago, where more than 200 unionized employees want the severance and vacation pay they are owed. No one seems to be pointing the finger at them, the way auto workers have taken the blame for much of Detroit’s woes. Maybe it’s because the auto industry has had labor and other troubles for years, and because plenty of consumers don’t buy its cars.

Workers at Republic Windows and Doors just showed up for work every day. Less than three weeks before Christmas, they found their livelihoods taken from them, courtesy of a bank that just got bailed out with taxpayer money. It’s not hard to see why the workers are garnering sympathy, rather than condemnation.

The Washington Post called the standoff “a throwback to tactics hardly seen since the 1930s” – and noted that union and labor leaders say those tactics could become more common, if the economy continues to worsen.

What’s happening in Chicago is more than an isolated case. It’s a dramatic sign that things are changing. Banks that take government money, then hoard the cash and starve small businesses, aren’t necessarily going to get away with it. A standoff in Chicago has the potential to spread the whole way to Wall Street. Maybe, finally, someone will take notice of what happens to people’s lives after their jobs disappear and the factory doors are locked.

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