Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Class Warfare: Exhibit B

One of the few signs of hope for working people in the U.S. last week was the triumph of the workers at Chicago’s Republic Windows and Doors.  For those who didn’t follow the story, let me give a brief summary before noting the arrogant sense of entitlement of our nation’s wealthy elite–an arrogance which apparently has neither limits nor shame.  Republic Windows and Doors is one of those places in America that is dwindling:  A factory that actually makes things, useful things rather than military hardware or fluff, not part of the ever expanding service industry of low paid drudge work or the financial sector whose fraud keeps impoverishing more and more people globally.  The Wall Street Bailout of $700 billion was supposed to help companies like Republic by freeing up the credit markets for payroll loans, credit lines, etc. But Bank of America sat on the money that was supposed to already go to Republic. As a result, Republic had to close its Chicago factory, putting all the workers out of work.

Federal law requires that workers be given six months notice before any plant closing, but the workers of Republic Windows and Doors received only 3 days warning! They got no severance pay or back pay or pay for vacation days not taken, etc.–all in violation of both their union contract AND the law.  The workers of Republic decided not to cooperate.  They staged an old-fashioned sit-in, occupying the factory in shifts, supported by their union and several other unions, the neighborhood (churches and synagogues and other groups brought meals to workers and marched in their pickets).  They targetted not only their bosses at Republic, but Bank of America.  Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D-IL), yes, the same jerk who is now indicted for trying to sell Obama’s open senate seat to the highest bidder, among other corruption charges, did the right thing this time:  He not only stood with the workers, he told Bank of America that if they didn’t honor the workers’ claims, the state govt. of Illinois would not do ANY more business with them.

Bank of America caved and the workers won a partial victory.  They didn’t get their jobs back, and a working factory, but they DID get the back pay, etc. owed to them–which will help them until they (hopefully) can find other jobs in this poor economy.  This is the good news.  But the rest of the story is beginning to unfold:  Bank of America has given at least a partial explanation of why it hesitated to honor the workers’ claims:

Republic’s CEO demanded that Bank of America use money designated for the workers, against both law and morality, be used first to pay the CEO’s car payments on his BMW and his Mercedes-Benz. The arrogance and sense of entitlement is staggering: this rich guy who will be fine without his factory is demanding that money that he OWES to his workers go to pay for his two luxury cars!

Similar remarks have been heard throughout this economic time of troubles:  A CEO of one failed finance company saying that he was still owed his multi-million dollar year-end BONUS because if he had not been CEO the company would have done WORSE!  The executives of the failed insurance giant AIG used federal bailout money (taxpayer dollars) to fund a luxury resort conference!  Citigroup (which owns Citi-Bank) had to receive $10o billion in taxpayer money, but it still felt entitled to use several millions to have its name placed on a sporting stadium and to be a corporate sponsor of the Rose Bowl and Tournament of Roses Parade!

All this is a result of the “Greed is Good” culture fostered by Reaganomics.  The actor, Michael Douglass, said the line, “Greed is Good” playing a greedy Wall St. tycoon in the 1980s movie, Wall Street. In interview after interview to this day, he has remarked that he always believed he was playing the villain–but would have young businessfolk come up to him and say how that film inspired them to go into finance!  But, according to people like Senators Richard Shelby (R-AL), Bob Corker (R-TN), Jim DeMint (R-SC), Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-TX), Mitch McConnell (R-KY), and, in a horrible bi-partisan moment, Blanche Lincoln (D-AR)!, it is the labor unions which are the problem! Right.

Hear that sound: It is the deep rumbling of populist economic anger.  When it shortly reaches the level of a roar, the arrogant elites of this nation will be in DEEP trouble.

Let me be clear:  Most Americans are not closet Communists.  They do not resent the wealthy for BEING wealthy, especially if they have earned rather than inherited it (or stolen it by means of corruption).  The majority of Americans have no desire for everyone to make the same money.  Sarah Palin to the contrary, we are well aware that we have elected Barack Obama as president–an economic centrist and NOT a Lenin or a Ropespierre or a Che Guevera.  Most Americans admire those with wealth who do good things with it, such as Bill Gates (If his business practices were better known, he might be less admired), or (especially) Bernard and Audre Rappaport.

The building populist anger (and we in the churches need to be sure this is directed in nonviolent ways) is aimed at the corrupt and those who seem to hate the poor and the middle class, those who object to good wages and benefits for blue-collar workers, but see ANY attempt to bring responsibility to the wealthy as communistic.  That anger, that outrage, is long overdue.  Anger at injustice has a proper place in the work of love and justice.  The anger is dangerous, however, and might erupt in harmful ways.  The rich should heed the warning, now, before it is too late.


December 14, 2008 - Posted by | economic justice, labor

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