It's the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), and a handful of factory workers in Chicago may be giving the declaration new meaning.
The workers at the Republic Window and Door company began occupying their factory on Friday when Republic abruptly shut down the small factory, and declined to pay workers vacation and severance pay due them. The shutdown came about not because there was no business -- there are orders waiting to be filled. The shutdown came after Bank of America refused to extend credit to the company. Bank of America has received billions of bailout dollars designed to get the bank to make loans -- loans that could help the real economy of Main Street.
This story has gotten a lot of play in the media, and the workers have received support from President-elect Barack Obama, the state of Illinois, and various elected officials although the company has fewer than 300 workers. Their act of resistance resonates deeply with people fed up by a mismanaged economy and a mismanaged bailout -- fed up that protecting Wall Street speculators has come ahead of protecting the ordinary men and women who make things we actually need and are struggling to support their families.
During the economic collapse in Argentina, as factories shut down, the workers took matters one step further. They occupied factories abandoned by financially strapped owners -- and then they began operating the factories themselves. They discovered that they didn't need a lot of highly compensated executives to manage things. And when they didn't need to pay inflated executive salaries and keep a raft of speculators satisfied with ever-growing profits, they could pour their earnings back into the plant and into employee salaries and benefits. When police tried to evict them, the neighbors and other workers joined forces to protect them -- and sometimes elected officials backed them up.
Many people are pinning their hopes for a just and sustainable economic recovery on the coming Obama administration, and President-elect Obama's expression of support for the workers is encouraging. But the changes he promises and we so desperately need will come about only if grassroots movements press for real economic change.
The Republic factory sit-in could launch an economic human rights movement that takes off where Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. left off when he was assassinated supporting striking Memphis sanitation workers. It could build on Article 23 of the UDHR, which says that all people have the right to work and to form and join labor unions, and Article 25, which says all of us have a right to a standard of living adequate for health and well-being.
This new movement -- especially if it joins forces with the likes of the Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign -- could become a powerful force for reorienting our society toward serving, sustainably, the needs of ordinary people.