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Before Sit-In, Workers Beat Racial Tensions

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Before Sit-In, Workers Beat Racial Tensions

Former employees of Republic Windows and Doors celebrate. (Photo by Kim DeFranco/fightbacknews.org)

A sit-in by laid-off employees of a Chicago window company this month sparked international attention. Republic Windows and Doors had closed with only a few days’ notice and blamed a bank that had received billions of federal bailout dollars. The employees were members of a union, the United Electrical Workers. They fought for a severance payment and became symbols for hundreds of thousands of U.S. workers facing layoffs. Their efforts required overcoming long-standing racial tensions in their ranks. We sat down with two of those workers to hear how they did it.

More: Sit-In Captures Labor Movement’s Imagination.

MACLIN: My name is Melvin Maclin.

CABRERA: My name is Apolinar Cabrera. After working together for years at Republic, Maclin and Cabrera consider themselves almost like family. But some of their union brothers and sisters have had a harder time getting along. Maclin says company downsizing over the years increased tensions between some Latino immigrants and African Americans at the factory.

MACLIN: Some of the guys, the black guys, they were getting laid off. They felt that they were being discriminated against because they were black. And at one point they were considering calling immigration, because they were saying things like, “This person that is working here still isn’t even a legal citizen.”

For his part, Cabrera says some Spanish-speaking employees suspected the African Americans were getting special treatment.

CABRERA: They get a chance to communicate with the management. When layoffs come, maybe they get a chance to stay in the plant [instead of] being laid off.

Amid another round of layoffs last winter, the union’s executive board sat down with all the stewards to address the tensions. Maclin says that meeting led them to remind all workers about an agreement the union had negotiated for layoff fairness.

MACLIN: When you follow the contract properly, then it’s based on seniority at the plant. It doesn’t matter whether you have papers or not. You are here working for all of these days, months and years, and that should count.

The window factory isn’t the only place where competition for jobs breaks along ethnic lines.

BRONFENBRENNER: There’s a black-and-brown divide out there in the workforce.

Former union organizer Kate Bronfenbrenner heads labor education research at Cornell University. She says some news media widen the divide.

BRONFENBRENNER: Lou Dobbs keeps turning up every night, you know, “Immigrant workers are taking jobs away from white workers and black workers.” But the labor movement brings them together. Because when they organize, they find their common issues -- arbitrary supervisor power, the idea that the employer is not giving you notice, taking the money in their own pocket. That’s where workers come together.

The Chicago workers came together after the company announced it was closing without the 60 days’ notice required by federal law. About 200 people—that’s nearly all of the remaining workforce—responded to a union call and filed into the factory’s cafeteria. They voted to sit in.

UNION ORGANIZER: So what we are going to do is we are going to stay here until we get a response from the bank...

Maclin and Cabrera say the occupation all but erased the black-brown tensions.

CABRERA: We knew during the week that we needed to stay together to fight and win this situation for our families.

MACLIN: When we first decided to do this, we all thought we were going to jail. But for me to see a lot of people standing up, willing to occupy the plant, concerned that there could be immigration issues...

He means a raid and deportations.

MACLIN: ...that just raised my respect for them even (more). It’s to the ceiling.

Five days later, Maclin and Cabrera gathered behind another co-worker, who announced the results.

UNION LEADER: The occupation is over. We have achieved victory.

The union could not keep the plant open or save the jobs. But a $1.75 million settlement gave each worker about $6,000.

I’m Chip Mitchell, Chicago Public Radio.

More: Sit-In Captures Labor Movement’s Imagination.

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