Worker “Occupations” in 3 States Yield Successes, but Counterattack Begins

In the last few months, workers in three different states—at the Serious Materials factory in Chicago, at a Century Aluminum factory in Ravenswood, West Va., and at AT&T’s regional headquarters in Atlanta—have engaged in “occupations” that quickly produced small results for those workers. These actions—one an actual factory occupation, the other two highly visible encampments outside company facilities—have underscored the enormous potential of direct action to give workers leverage in negotiating with employers.

But just as Congress quickly outlawed the type of auto industry sit-down strikes that were so effective during the 1930s, anti-union groups are now advocating measures to counteract the success of these recent protests. The backlash has begun: Last week, a Georgia State Senate Committee passed SB 469, which would ban picketing outside of the home of CEOs and give a company the right to ask a judge to force protesters—whether union or nonunion—to stop picketing outside of any business.

If these members do not stop picketing after a judge’s order, the courts could fine individuals $1,000 a day. Any organization or union that sponsored the protests would be fined $10,000 a day. The bill could severely limit the ability of unions and other groups to bring aggressive anti-union employer actions to the public’s attention.

Three actions, with varying successes

Last month, workers in Chicago made headlines for occupying their plant for a second time to protest its abrupt closing (the first time was in December 2008, when it was operated by the Republic Windows and Doors company). Workers there won a short-term victory when the owner of the plant agreed to keep the plant open for 90 days and help the workers search for another buyer of the plant.

At around the same time, a group of retired United Steelworker union members had been camping out on a median strip in front of the shuttered Century Aluminum plant (the union calls it an “occupation”). Veterans of the famous early 1990s Ravenswood lockout—now in their 60s, 70s and even 80s—protested the company’s move to cut off retiree healthcare benefits. (To learn more about the famous 1990s Ravenswood lockout, I highly recommend Kate Bronfenbrenner and Tom Juravich’s book Ravenswood: The Steelworkers’ Victory and the Revival of American Labor).

In February 2009, Century Aluminum had shut down the plant, laying off 651 workers. Then in January 2011, Century Aluminum told its retirees that it would end all retiree healthcare—even for those not old enough to qualify for Medicare.

After learning that Century Aluminum was seeking $20 million from the state of West Virginia to re-open the smelter in Ravenswood, retirees—inspired by the Occupy Wall Street movement—decided to occupy the space in front of the plant to make it known that they wouldn’t let it be re-opened until their healthcare benefits were reinstated. They camped out from mid-December to last Friday.

The public action attracted attention to the actions of Century Aluminum. West Virginia Governor Earl Ray Tomblin announced that if the company wanted to re-open the plant it had to first restore healthcare benefits. Last Thursday, the company announced a deal with the union in which they would restore retiree benefits to all workers.

“It is notable that the retiree committee, with support from politicians in their state and local community, were able to come together with the company to find a solution for an increasingly difficult issue across America,” said United Steelworkers International Vice President Tom Conway in a press release. “It’s a settlement that will work for our retirees by giving them some stability and decent levels of health care coverage.”

600 miles to the south, in Atlanta, AT&T workers continue to protest on the sidewalk in front of the company’s headquarters. The “occupation” by Communication Workers of America (CWA) union members and Occupy activists began on February 13, after AT&T announced it would lay off 740 workers in the Southeast and likely shift the union work out to nonunion contractors.

In the three weeks since then, the encampment has grown from 13 tents on the first day to 23 tents, and attracted wide community support. The action is now starting to see some results, both good and bad.

“The company has announced that they are working to reduce the number of layoffs,” says CWA Local 3204 President Walter Andrews. “We won’t know the extent of the effectiveness until the 31st of the March.”

CWA Local 3204 President Walter Andrews believes the Georgia bill was introduced in response to the AT&T occupation.

“If we did what we are doing, CWA would be fined $10,000 a day and each member would be fined $1,000 a day. It’s taking away our first amendment rights. We know that we could fight this in the courts, but we both know that could take years and what will happen in the meanwhile,” says Andrews.

SB 469 also contains a provision aimed at hurting private-sector unions in the “right-to-work” state of Georgia. The bill would require union members to recertify every year that they wanted union dues deducted from their paychecks. “That would kill us,” says Andrews.

Full disclosure: The United Steelworkers Union is a sponsor of In These Times.