By Rev. Aaron McEmrys, Interfaith Worker Justice Board member and minister of the Unitarian Society of Santa Barbara
[NOTE: This post originally appeared on Inspired Faith, Effective Action, the blog of the advocacy and witness staff group of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations. Check out the original post here. Keep reading for a first-hand account from the Republic Windows factory occupation and to find out how faith leaders supported the workers' struggle.]
On Dec. 10th, the workers at Republic Windows & Doors voted to
accept a $1.75 million settlement that will cover eight weeks of pay
owed under the WARN Act, unused vacation days and two months of
care coverage. The settlement marked the end of a six-day factory
occupation. Last Tuesday, Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ) board members
visited with and prayed over the workers. Below is a reflection by Rev.
Aaron McEmrys, an IWJ Board member and Minister of the Unitarian
Society of Santa Barbara.
Inside Republic Windows and Doors
in Chicago, Illinois, that strange place where they send their Senators
to the White House and their Governors to jail – I got to pray with the
I was far from my home in sunny Santa Barbara for my first meeting as a member of Interfaith Worker Justice’s board of directors. IWJ is a network of people of faith from many different traditions that works to educate, organize and mobilize religious communities around issues and campaigns that will improve wages, benefits, and conditions for workers, and give voice to workers, especially workers in low-wage jobs. The other UU on the board is Susan Leslie, UUA director for congregational advocacy and witness. Together we bring an ‘institutional’ and ‘field’ perspective to the work.
We were doing all the usual things that happen at Board meetings – reviewing programs, talking about funding (or the lack thereof) and charting the course ahead – when we heard that the workers at Republic Windows and Doors had asked us to come down to their plant to pray with them.
I can understand why those folks might be in a praying mood.
About a week ago the owners of their company announced that they were closing their doors for good, saying that orders for doors and windows had dropped off. They gave their two hundred and fifty employees just three days notice - even though the law requires sixty. They also withheld the pay the workers had already earned, over a million dollars worth, I am told.
The company claimed they couldn’t pay the workers because their bank, Bank of America, refused to extend them any more credit. Talk about adding insult to injury - this is the very same Bank of America that had just been given 25 billion dollars of taxpayer bailout money!
Let’s take a quick look at the scoreboard:
- Republic Windows and Doors = closes Chicago location, doesn’t pay workers, buys new factory in Iowa where they won’t have to pay workers fair wages and benefits.
- Bank of America = receives 25 BILLION dollar bailout, paid for by the American people.
- Republic Employees = fired with three days notice and have their wages stolen three weeks before Christmas!
Enough was enough.
The workers occupied the plant. Following the example of the famous autoworker strike of 1936, the workers of Republic Windows and Doors simply sat down and refused to move!
They’d already been there for five days by the time we went to pray with them. They “work” in eight hour shifts, and are very well-organized, with cleaning crews, food crews and everything else they need to stay in there indefinitely. Nobody gets in or out except them - and, on this occasion – us.
We arrived at the plant and stepped out into a very cold grey rain that got even colder after you’d been standing in it for a while. There were already lots of folks gathered there: union members, people of faith and other well-wishers who’d been standing in the rain and would keep on standing in the rain for as long as necessary.
We started singing, and as IWJ’s Kim Bobo led us in “This Little Light of Mine” and “We Shall Not Be Moved” the rain and the cold seemed to fade far into the background. Some of the workers came out to say hello to the crowd and an enormous cheer went up. Everyone wanted to let the workers know that no matter how alone they felt we were all right there with them.
After a brief press conference (for the few remaining press crews who had not been diverted to cover the Governor’s latest and most breathtaking act of corruption), we clergy were ushered inside the plant.
The first thing I noticed was a plain white sign that said, “5 Days and Still Strong!” written on it in black magic marker – and then we were whisked in through the double doors leading into the plant proper.
Republic’s production floor is a big one any day,
but with all the machines shut down it seemed even bigger, emptier and
more cavernous. But it was warm and bright after the relentless chill
outside – at least nobody had cut the power on them yet.
We all went our own ways, shaking hands and talking with the workers, many of whom didn’t have a ton of English but held out hands warmly and said, God bless you…God bless you…God bless you.” I speak plenty of English, but those were pretty much the only words I could find too.
movies heroes are always portrayed as being special somehow –
brilliant, powerful, beautiful, fearless, larger than life – but that’s
not how life really is. The heroes I have been fortunate enough to meet
in my life are never like that – they are always so normal. So
ordinary. Just…people, like anyone else.
And those are exactly the kind of heroes I met on Republic’s factory floor. Just ordinary folks. And they were far from fearless, in their eyes and in their hands I could feel anxiety and fear as well as hope – and it was the hope that kept them going in spite of everything. Courageous people are not those who feel no fear (those people are fools), but those who keep on in spite of their fear – and those are the people I met in Republic – truly courageous people.
They are just ordinary people, the kind of people I might not even notice on a crowded sidewalk – unless they were clearing up my dishes at a restaurant or cleaning my hotel room. And this is my loss.
Ordinary people. But there they were, a couple hundred folks, mostly Latino and African American - occupying their factory and refusing to budge. And they aren’t just doing it for themselves – just to get what they are owed. It was so clear, visiting with them, that they understand themselves to be taking a stand for everybody! They are standing up for everybody who gets treated like dirt, whose wages are stolen and whose rights are denied. They are standing up against a system that bails out millionaires while families lose their homes and children go to bed hungry. What an incredible gift they are giving.
The workers moved together, into the center of the circle formed by we clergy. We laid our hands upon them and prayed. Some of the prayer was spontaneous and aloud – and much of it was silent.
I will always remember the texture of the fleece and t-shirts under my hands, and the human warmth beneath that. I will always remember the prayers – of courage, hope, love and healing - I will always remember the sound of breathing and the taste of tears. Words cannot possibly describe what happened in that little circle, but I will never forget what that inexpressible something felt like. We were together in that moment – and our circle was so much bigger than we were – somehow expanding to include all those who stood outside in the rain… and even farther than that…the circle stretched even farther than that…. and with such warmth and love and connectedness flowing through my body I opened my eyes and, through my own tears, saw that almost every face was wet.
This, I thought, is what is possible for us! These are my sisters and brothers, every single one of them. In that moment it was impossible to imagine letting harm come to them, to these good, brave – ordinary people!
I do not know what will happen now. I know that negotiations continue. I am optimistic that, at the very least, these workers will get the pay that was stolen from them. But is that enough?
What the workers at Republic want is not just a paycheck – they want their jobs! Good, decent, reliable jobs. They want to go to work every morning and build windows and doors. They want to buy Christmas presents for their kids and to know where they will be living next month. They want to work hard, to be treated with respect and to know that everything will be okay.
Is that so much to ask?
I don’t know how things will work out for those workers – those heroes – I prayed with yesterday in Chicago, but I do know this. They are not alone. How many workers, how many factories, how many children, how many hopes and dreams and futures hang in the balance in these troubled times?
And so as far as I am concerned, any conversation about bailouts that does not include provisions for the ordinary heroes all around us is unconscionable, unjust, and downright sinful. We must do everything in our power to support our sisters and brothers at Republic Windows and Doors - and everywhere else our people need us.
The one thing those folks needed to hear from us more
than anything is that they are not alone – and that’s what we told
them. Now we need to prove it, come what may.
See Interfaith Worker Justice to learn more about this struggle and how you can support these workers and the faith community’s partnership with them.
Read There is Power in Union (PDF): A UU Guide to Worker Justice, by Rev. Aaron McEmrys.