Tag Archives: Republic Doors and Windows

Kari Lydersen on the Republic Windows and Doors Strike.

 

Kari Lydersen's new book helps us understand the Republic Windows and Doors strike and its larger meaning.

Kari Lydersen's new book helps us understand the Republic Windows and Doors strike and its larger meaning.

The Republic Windows and Doors strike captured the attention and imagination of people around the world. 

Coming after Barack Obama’s election and just before former Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s federal indictment on corruption charges, the factory takeover by about 250 workers came at a time when the economic downturn was just starting to gather steam and when public revulsion at bank CEOs’ more than generous share of government largesse was hitting its peak. 

In short, the timing was auspicious for the wider public to be sympathetic to workers refusing to be shown the door on essentially no notice. 

The ultimate meaning of the event is less clear, and will be borne out in the months and years to come. 

Washington Post reporter, prolific freelancer and friend Kari Lydersen was there from the strike’s inception to its resolution and subsequent company bankruptcy proceedings and workers’ tour. 

Her coverage of the events through a “live book” -this was essentially two months of extensive blogging-has led to the publication this month by Melville House Publishing of Revolt on Goose Island: The Chicago Factory Takeover, and What It Says About the Economic Crisis.  

This is Lydersen’s third book, and each has been different from the other.  Out of the Sea and Into the Fire was a collection of dispatches that looked at the intersection of environmental, immigration and social justice issues in the United States as well as Central and South America.   Shoot an Iraqi, which she co-authored with Wafaa Bilal, covered the month long experience of the artist Bilal as he did a performance installation that fused technology, art and memory.  

Revolt on Goose Island is a more straightforward expository account of the strike, its multi-level background, the action itself, and subsequent reverberations.  Impressive not only for the sheer fact of having been reported, written, edited and published just about half a year after the strike transpired, the work provides useful context and is a helpful tool to put the strike in a broader understanding of the current moment. 

Lydersen’s pro-worker sympathies-her final acknowledgment goes to “Chicago’s countless labor and immigrant rights activists who have taught us so much and continued the city’s proud history of struggle”-do not stop her from either from trying to contact management or from explaining the immediate and longer-term build up to the strike.  

In turn, she looks at the history of Goose Island itself, Chicago’s history of labor action, the role of immigrants in the current labor movement, the company’s moves to liquidate its holdings on Goose Island, the bank’s history and role in the bailout and the workers’ decision to do something about it.  

Lydersen notes the open discussion about whether the strike was a spontaneous product of workers’ being frustrated with this final indignity-an analysis that is similar to the “Rosa Parks was tired” way of thinking-or whether it was the result of careful planning, and chronicles both the same type of actions Republic owners took with other companies it bought and the ripple effect the strike had on workers in the Colibri Group in Rhode Island when faced with similar circumstances.

In short, Revolt on Goose Island is a highly useful primer on what some say could be the spark to revive a moribund labor movement that has been on its heels for nearly three decades or just a blip on the global capitalist scene.  To her credit, Lydersen does mark the distinction between the Republic workers’ action and the automotive workers’ sit-down strikes more than 70 years ago.  The former was fighting essentially for a severance package guaranteed by law, while the latter was striking for a reasonable wage and benefits package. 

Revolt on Goose Island is not without some minor flaws.  

Some of the statements Lydersen makes do not seem supported by the fact; she says Cleveland has a “relatively healthy rate of unionization” when it is not even 2 percent above the national norm 12.4 percent, for example.   Although generally cleanly written and containing lots of physical description, the book at times contains too many colloquial expressions and the insertion of detail feels a bit deliberate.  

On the whole, though, these problems are far less significant than the thoughtful and detailed book Lydersen has generated in remarkably short time.  While the ultimate meaning of the strike on Goose Island has yet to be determined, Lydersen has already provided useful with a work that both documents the events and gives us a helpful tool for that assessment process.

The Shocking Origins of America’s New First City.

Harold Platt gives shocking backstory to Chicago and Manchester in this massive and highly worthwhile book.

Harold Platt gives shocking backstory to Chicago and Manchester in this massive and highly worthwhile book.

Chicago has been in the national news constantly in recent weeks.

Between being Ground Zero for Barack Obama’s presidential transition, the home of arrested and defiant Gov. Rod Blagojevich, and, last month, the site of the nation’s highest-profile labor action at Republic Doors and WindowsCarl Sandburg’s City of the Big Shoulders has filled the nation’s airwaves and contributed significantly to the depletion of whatever remaining lumber exists on the planet.

Those interested in learning more about America’s New First City have plenty of writers from which to choose. 

From Upton Sinclair to Nelson Algren to Richard Wright to Mike Royko to the much loved and recently departed Louis “Studs”  Terkel to current masters like Aleksandar Hemon and my former teacher Alex Kotlowitz, Chicago has been a much-chronicled City on the Make, to lift from Algren’s essay by the same title.

Today, I’d like to offer another, less well-known contribution that sheds a lot of light on the city’s development as well as its continual capacity for reinvention: Loyola University History Professor Harold Platt’s Shock Cities: The Environmental Transformation and Reform of Manchester and Chicago

Full disclosure: I have contacted Platt and shared my positive thoughts about his work over a breakfast with him and my father.  Platt and I have also discussed a project on which we might collaborate.

The work is meticulously researched and, once one gains some steam, enthralling reading.  The shock in Platt’s title refers to cities whose development augurs a new age for the country in which it is located.   He effectively compares and contrasts the impact of industrialization and various reform movements in England through looking at Manchester and in the United States by examining Chicago’s development.

The product of many years of research, Shock Cities contains a provocative argument about the role of elites in shaping political change, the significance of the physical environment in that process, and the potential for reform movements that vary according to each country’s democratic rhetoric and practice. 

Anyone who watched the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf Region in 2005, for example, cannot help but wince while reading Platt’s descriptions of the plans generated and ignored repeatedly in mid-19th century Manchester to prevent similarly destructive flooding-destruction, of course, of which poor people bore the disproportionate load.  Platt’s description of how upper class members steered sewage systems to their neighborhoods and then advocated an ethos of cleanliness is similarly poignant.

The book is not all depressing, though.

The descriptions of the reform movements is uplifting.  Familiar characters like future Nobel Prize winner Jane Addams  appear, cutting her spurs fighting pollution and the ward bosses as well as establishing the settlement house movement with women like Florence Kelley and Julia Lathrop, who later had a public housing development named after her.

Platt also talks at length about the emerging field of public health, which took hold in Chicago toward the late nineteenth and early 20th century.

In addition, Chicago lovers will find plenty of juicy nuggets to chew.  To give just a few examples, a host of people who are now better known for having their names on streets and/or schools-beer brewer Michael Diversey, entreprenuer William Ogden, and attorney and horseback rider Paul Cornell immediately spring to mind-fill the book’s pages. 

To do this kind of research about a single city would be impressive enough for one book, but Platt’s ability to conceive and then successfully execute his comparative framework  is, well, shocking. 

So … the next time you need an escape from Blago, Burris and the Politics of Hope, consider settling into Shock Cities.  At 500 pages, it will undoubtedly take a while to wade through, but is more than worth the effort.