Detroit honors sit-downers, new and old

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DETROIT — Sit-downers past and present were honored here recently during a “workers’ victory tour” by members of United Electrical Workers (UE) Local 1110 who last December staged a successful sit-down at the Republic Windows plant in Chicago. The workers beat back attempts by the company and its Bank of America financiers to cheat them out of back pay, severance pay and health insurance benefits.

Also honored were Geraldine Blankenship and Olen Hamm, two surviving sit-downers who in 1937 occupied General Motors plants for more than six weeks to win the first United Auto Workers union contract with GM.

The celebration, held at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 58 hall, was sponsored by the Detroit Metro AFL-CIO, Jobs with Justice, United Steelworkers District 2 and other labor and community organizations. The rally also highlighted the importance of passing the Employee Free Choice Act. Renowned jazz performer Bill Meyer, and Detroit Councilperson and Motown legend Martha Reeves provided music.

Referring to the sit-downers, old and new, Metro Detroit AFL-CIO President Saundra Williams, said, “They saw what they had to do, they built a plan and they started a movement.”

Local 1110 President Armando Robles and UE Director of Organization Bob Kingsley retold the story of the Chicago sit-down. Robles explained how it came about.

“Early in December, Republic started to move some of the machinery out of the plant,” he said. “We followed the trailers and found them. Some workers wanted to hook up a tractor and move them back. But we realized this was not a good idea.” Meanwhile the company told the workers not to report to work, announcing the immediate closing of the plant without the required 60 days’ notice. “But we showed up and decided after much discussion to stay at work and not go home,” Robles said.

“We set up kitchen crew, security, clean up committees and had rules about no alcohol or drugs so the sit-down would be orderly,” he said. “We patrolled the plant in shifts to guard the remaining machinery.”

The company reported that Bank of America had refused to extend its line of credit (though the bank had just received $25 billion of taxpayers’ money from the federal government).

The situation spurred an outpouring of support for the workers from organized labor and the faith-based community and a public statement of support by then-President-elect Barack Obama. Finally a meeting was arranged with the company and the bank. UE’s Kingsley described it:

“On one side was the president of the Chicago Chamber of Commerce, who said ‘We have to stop this now before it spreads throughout the country.’ On the other side were representatives of the state of Illinois, Republic and the bank. The bank spokesman was visibly shaken when the state of Illinois said they planned to move their money out of Bank of America. ‘Our good name is being ruined,’ he said.”

After mass picketing at Bank of America offices in several cities, including bank headquarters in Charlotte, N.C., the local branch in Chicago received a call from Charlotte to “cut a check.”

Robles said that when union representatives and the company’s owner met with the bank, the owner wanted his quarter-million-dollar salary included in the loan package, along with payments for his $120,000 car.

In the end, the union won $2.3 million from the company to cover severance and vacation pay and health insurance for the workers, who were entitled by law to 60 day’s notice.

Robles told a press conference earlier in the day that some of the Republic Windows and Doors workers are now going to school for training, others have gotten small jobs, doing maintenance work and the like. Some have gone to see their families in Mexico and some are getting unemployment benefits.

There is a potential buyer for the factory — a California window manufacturer who has a patent for high efficiency “green” windows. He says his company would respect the current union contract. The UE local is keeping the workers updated on the situation.

Responding to a question, Robles said that while his kids don’t exactly consider him a hero for the sit-in, his 12-year-old son was very involved, going back and forth with information, and seeing the place where his father worked.

Both UE leaders gave credit for the victory to the mass support of organized labor and the community.

Robles noted that the Chicago workers’ story has inspired others — jewelry workers in Providence, R.I., occupying a non-union plant, Chicagoans protesting school closings, high school students sitting in to protest mistreatment by their principal.