29 June 2009

Fighting Back in Hard Times: The Power of Organized Labor Action

Laid-off Republic Windows and Doors factory worker Maria Gonzalez holds a picket sign outside the factory in December 2008 in Chicago, Ill. About 250 workers demanded severance and vacation pay owed to them.

The Legacy Lives On
By Kari Lydersen / June 28, 2009

Just months after laid-off workers occupied the Republic Windows and Doors factory in Chicago, their action inspired a similar revolt halfway across the country.

On December 5, 2008, 250 laid-off workers occupied Chicago’s Republic Windows and Doors factory, refusing to leave until paid for accrued vacation time and two months of federally-mandated severance. These demands, which might have been ignored by media in more stable economic times, thrust the unionized workers onto the national stage as the country’s financial system and economy unraveled.

Five days later, bailed-out JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America—the latter of which had cut off a line of credit to the company—reached a settlement with the workers, and the occupation ended. But beyond their monetary demands, the predominately Latino workers were delivering a clear message to Washington: protect workers’ rights.

Workers in Rhode Island were listening, as In These Times Contributing Editor Kari Lydersen makes clear in the following excerpt from her new book, Revolt on Goose Island: The Chicago Factory Takeover, and What it Says About the Economic Crisis. After the Colibri Group—which manufactures high-end lighters, pens and cigar-cutters—unexpectedly shuttered a factory outside of Providence in mid-January, some of the 250 workers laid-off there decided to fight for exactly what Republic workers had fought for.

* * * * *

The Colibri Group was formed in 1928 to make mechanical cigarette lighters—a novel invention at the time. The company became a leading manufacturer of high-end lighters, pens, cigar-cutters, cuff links, and other accessories engraved and encrusted with gems. Until recently, its headquarters and two factories in Rhode Island employed a diverse, largely immigrant workforce who spoke at least six languages: English, Spanish, Portuguese, Hmong, Chinese, and Haitian Creole.

But gem-encrusted pens and $100 lighters are the kinds of luxuries most people cut down on during rough times, so it is no surprise that the economic crisis hit Colibri hard. The company suffered several waves of layoffs over the past year. On December 22, 2008, 52-year-old Alda Bonin and a number of other workers were laid off. “Merry Christmas,” she told her manager. She didn’t mean it sarcastically, but the ill-timed move couldn’t be ignored.

Bonin is a skilled jewelry mold-maker and kept her own tools at the factory, so she told the manager she needed to collect them. “Don’t worry about it,” she was told. “The layoff is only temporary, you’ll get your job back in early February.” Just two years earlier, Bonin had been laid off from another flailing jewelry company, so she was skeptical. She lives about a mile from the factory, and on January 15, when she happened to see her former co-workers walking by in tears, she feared the worst.

She quickly got on the phone and learned that her former colleagues had arrived at work to see a sign saying the plant was permanently closed. CEO Jim Fleet had sent an e-mail the previous night, but since many workers didn’t have internet connections at home, they had showed up in the morning none the wiser. About 280 workers had lost their jobs, in addition to the previous layoffs.

State of decline

As at Republic, it seemed Colibri officials had known the company was likely to close. They had desperately sought new investments or a merger over the past year, to no avail. The company had lost $10 million in both 2007 and 2008. But Bonin is furious that they still waited to tell workers until the last minute.

“They started laying off people a little bit at a time,” she remembers. “There was hardly anybody in the place. I just wish I was told the truth from the beginning. When they laid off my group, they already knew. So to be told that I was coming back to work, I was deceived.”

The Manhattan-based finance company Founders Equity was the majority owner of Colibri. Colibri declared bankruptcy, being $28 million in debt and owing $6 million to vendors. The workers’ healthcare was terminated immediately, and their chances of getting new jobs looked very grim.

Even before the economic crisis, the state’s historic jewelry industry had lost many jobs because of cheaper foreign labor. The crisis meant a severe downturn in demand for jewelry. And other local industries weren’t faring much better. The state’s unemployment rate for January 2009 was 10.3 percent, higher than the national rate of 7.6 percent that month.

The afternoon of the closing, employee Emilio Blanco, a Dominican immigrant, was at home feeling lost and dejected. He had worked at the company for 22 years, since he was 24 years old. He had done “everything” there, from welding to stone-setting, and he was raising two kids on his income. “I gave them so much, my whole life, and then they just closed the doors on us like we were animals,” he said. “I felt like my heart was on the floor.”

‘An amazing moment of solidarity’

The workers had no union to turn to, so Blanco called an advice program on a Spanish-language radio station. The DJ gave him the number for Fuerza Laboral (Workers’ Power), a grassroots advocacy organization with just two staff members. Director Greg Pearson asked if Blanco could get 10 workers together for a meeting. Twenty-one people showed up, and the Colibri Workers for Rights and Justice was born.

On February 3, they drew 250 people to a protest outside the factory, in a snowstorm. On February 6, the Republic workers came through Providence on their Resistance tour, with an event at the Open Table of Christ United Methodist Church. About 50 Colibri workers attended and then met with Robles and Meinster for three hours. The Colibri workers were game for a sit-in or similar direct-action tactic of their own.

“It was an amazing moment of solidarity and awareness,” said Pearson. “They took the workers through what the process is. Republic had a union, Colibri didn’t have any union. Republic got three days’ notice, these workers didn’t get any notice.”

Bonin was highly impressed with Robles and the Republic action. “I thought these people had a lot of strength and confidence in themselves, they were brave and powerful to do this,” she said. “When you stick together as a group, you do have more power, you do have more hope.”

While many of the Republic workers had experience and training in organizing and direct action thanks to the union and other Chicago campaigns, almost all the Colibri workers were new to the realm. But they dove right in.

A campaign is born

Since the Colibri factories were already vacated and shuttered, it was too late for an occupation. Instead, they decided to fight through public pressure for their WARN Act pay and accrued vacation time, plus severance pay based on seniority: one extra week for each year of service, a benefit that had been given to workers laid off earlier.

Since Colibri was in bankruptcy, as at Republic targeting the company itself would likely not be fruitful. So in a page taken from the Republic playbook, they designed a campaign to pressure Founders Equity and the two banks that were secured creditors: Sovereign Bank and HSBC, a bailout recipient.

During a court hearing, former Colibri toolmaker and Vietnam veteran Mike Masi told bank officials, “Banks have insurance. We don’t. Banks can wait to be repaid. We can’t. For some of us, both wage-earners in the household were working at Colibri and now we are left with zero income. Others of us struggle with health issues and greatly depended on our health insurance, which was cut off as well.”

Fuerza Laboral launched a national campaign. Seventy workers rallied at Founders’ Manhattan headquarters. They marched on the state capitol. They spearheaded a national letter-writing drive. On March 12, the Rhode Island House of Representatives unanimously passed a resolution supporting the workers and calling for legislation to create a stronger version of the WARN Act on a state level.

The city council also passed a resolution of support; the workers brought flowers in thanks. And an attorney working pro bono filed lawsuits regarding WARN Act violations.

On March 19, an auction of Colibri’s assets was scheduled. A crowd of about 150 potential buyers was expected, and the auction would be held at Colibri’s former headquarters in Providence. The workers figured this was their moment.

They gathered at 9:30 a.m., and police were already lining the street. The workers marched and chanted, waving signs reading RISE TOGETHER, STAY TOGETHER. Teenagers came with musical instruments, and someone said they should dance. Bonin alone started dancing, but felt foolish that no one was joining her, so she grabbed another Colibri worker known as a comedian and the two twirled and dipped as the crowd cheered.

Police forced the workers to clear the way when cars drove in for the auction. The first few times the workers complied. Then a group of them sat down in the road and refused to budge. They were quickly arrested.

“Seeing the police pulling my friends off the ground, handcuffing them, making them lay down, it was upsetting and emotional at the same time,” said Bonin. “But I felt we needed to keep on going for them.” Groups of workers sat in the road and got arrested two or three more times over the next few hours.

In all, 14 people were brought to the station and charged with disorderly conduct, including Pearson and about 10 workers. The auction did go on but turnout was low. After the protest, Bonin headed to the station to check on her co-workers. She was relieved to see them coming out three hours later with smiles on their faces.

As Emilio Blanco left the station, his voice was hoarse from all the chanting and cheering, but he was in good spirits. “We’re fighting for our rights, we won’t stop until we get paid,” he said. “This is very important to set an example for other compañeros.”

His friend Yannary Sarit, 32, had worked at the company for almost five years and was ready to take their story to Washington, D.C., on the coming weekend for the National People’s Action (NPA) conference, an annual convergence of community and activist organizations. This was her first time taking part in activism, but her appetite was whetted.

“I thought this was the land of opportunity, but they closed the doors on us,” Sarit said. “The American Dream is a myth. We worked so hard for them, and then this. But if we keep fighting, things are going to change.”

Workers’ payback

Bonin was balancing between hope and cynicism about the likelihood of getting their jobs back, but she saw larger meaning in the struggle, regardless of the outcome. By the evening after the protest, she was exhausted and stretched out on the couch watching TV, but her adrenaline was still running. She was looking forward to the next day’s strategy meeting and an ongoing fight for justice.

Since the layoff she had sent out résumés, but she hadn’t heard a word back, not even a note to say her résumé had been received. The jewelry industry will not recover for a long time, she figures. After being laid off twice within a few years, she is ready for a career change. She wants to go back to school to become a medical assistant. The money Colibri owes her would be a big help in launching this dream.

“Even if we don’t get the money, I feel like I’ve accomplished something with that group of people,” she says. “What we’ve accomplished already is that another employer won’t end up doing what they did to us.”

This article is excerpted from Revolt on Goose Island: The Chicago Factory Takeover, and What it Says About the Economic Crisis, published by Melville House Publishing, June 2009. For more information about the book, click here.

[Kari Lydersen, an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist writing for publications including The Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive. Her most recent book is Revolt on Goose Island.]

Source / In These Times

Thanks to Diane Stirling-Stevens / The Rag Blog

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