Building occupations came back in style this winter break. Workers at the Republic Windows and Doors Factory and students at the New School University staged building takeovers and both groups won almost all of their demands. The success of these actions is an important example of the effectiveness of radical, direct actions, which can be faster and more empowering than working through legal or institutional channels. Both stories are inspirational and point the student and labor movements in a new direction.
On December 2, workers at the Republican Windows and Doors Factory in Chicago learned that their employer had declared bankruptcy and the factory would be closing. The workers were clearly not given the 60 days advanced notice of the layoff, required by the WARN Act. The workers were not paid for their accrued sick and vacation days, and were facing the cancellation of their health benefits on December 5th. The workers were understandably angry at this course of events, and on December 4th decided to occupy their factory, demanding $1.5 million in vacation and severance pay, and an extension to their health care. Their anger was also targeted Bank of America, which despite receiving about a $25 billion bail-out package from the federal government, refused to give Republic a loan to pay their workers. Chanting “They got bailed out, we got sold out”, the workers occupied the factory for six days until December 10th, when Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase agreed to pay $1.75 million to give the workers their back pay and extend their health benefits for two months.
A week after the workers in Chicago won, students affiliated with Students for a Democratic Society and other radical groups, staged a similar action at the New School University in New York. They occupied one of their major campus buildings and demanded the resignation of their embattled president, Bob Kerrey. Widely regarded as autocrat, Kerrey received a no confidence vote of 98% of the faculty just days earlier. The students other demands included the creation of a socially responsible investment (SRI) committee, amnesty for all participants in the occupation, a new and better library, an autonomous student space, the democratic selection of a new provost — Kerrey had recently appointed himself — and student and faculty input on the board of trustees. At about 3 A.M. on December 19, after holding off riot police for hours, the approximately 150 students inside voted to end the occupation. They received almost all of their demands, including amnesty, a promise of a new library and quiet study space, student and faculty votes on the selection of a new provost and on the board of trustees, and the establishment of a SRI committee. Though Kerrey did not resign, many doubt he will last much longer than the spring semester.
These actions show the potential power of students and workers who are united and willing to take radical action. With their similar actions, workers in Chicago and students in New York were able to win swift and solid victories that could have taken months to achieve through legal or institutional paths, if they won at all. Though such actions have become less common in the United States in recent years, they have continued strong in Europe and around the world. For example, during the recent riots in Greece over the police murder of Alexandros Grigoropoulos, more than 800 campuses around the country were occupied. Additionally, students throughout Europe staged building takeovers to protest the Israeli invasion of Gaza. With the current economic crisis, such actions can again become useful and relevant.
Tenant groups in Boston have begun eviction blockades to prevent police for forcible removing people from foreclosed houses. As more factories close, people are evicted, and budgets are slashed, those affected need to resist and take action. Foreclosed houses should shelter the needy. Bankrupt golf courses should be plowed and planted. Time of crisis are opportunities to strengthen our communities and build a more just America.
As long as we are willing to act!