Friday, December 12, 2008

On the Republic Window Sit-In

The occupation of the Republic Window and Door factory in Chicago has ended.

Certainly this has been an inspiring event. One hopes the sit-in will inspire even more inventive methods of fighting for working people.

However, we must also take into account what was “won”. The workers received the monies owed them. They lost their jobs. The employer had taken monies from the Republic plant and bought a competitor in Iowa.

That’s a victory? Perhaps in the present conditions it is. But it’s rather sad to crow success when you are getting what’s legally owed you.

Now the UE union - perhaps the best union in the US - is discussing restarting the factory perhaps as some sort of cooperative. While one wishes the workers the best, would this be an improvement? They will still be subject to the laws of supply and demand. How will they be successful when the former company wasn’t? As the downturn continues will they cut their own wages? Cut their own hours? Or perhaps just lay themselves off.

Cooperatives or worker owned businesses may be more “fair” for the workers than a privately held company like Republic Window. Can’t fault them for trying, right?

But ultimately you can’t wish justice or fairness - or seek room for fairness - in what is a fundamentally unfair society. Even a cooperative business must accept the logic of capitalism or perish.

An example of this contradiction is the famous Mondragon Cooperatives of the Basque country of Spain. These cooperatives we established in the 1940s and consist of more than 80,000 worker-owners. They were a huge inspiration for the 1970s cooperative movement here in the US as well as many anarcho-syndicalists who have long argued for “self-management” .

But the Mondragon Cooperatives have to function within the system. They thrived under the fascist dictatorship of Franco. They have also expanded, buying factories in Poland. But the Polish workers are not owners as the Basques are. This year the Polish employees of Mondragon went on strike and the Mondragon Cooperatives moved to break the strike and the workers’ unions.

I’m raising the problems of the Republic sit-in not to belittle the efforts made there. Nor is it a call to workers to sit on their hands or become isolated academics. The point needs to be made that UE is trying to replicate past strategies - sit-ins, cooperatives, etc. which are tired. Inspiring or not, the strategies have serious flaws. They are focused on the immediate and have no long term vision or goal.

Perhaps with a little class consciousness, some radical understanding of how capitalism functions, the workers at Republic Windows could have inspired a much more radical and powerful workers movement - one to abolish capitalism.

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