Main Street sits in to stand up

As it tends to, history seems to be repeating itself as 240 laid-off workers at Republic Windows and Doors in Chicago revive a decades old tactic — a sit-in siege of their factory. Without warning, their employer closed shop last week when the Bank of America, which received $25 billion in the government bailout package itself, abruptly cancelled the factory’s financing. The workers occupied their plant for five days, demanding severance and vacation pay, and angrily said they would not leave until they were assured of their benefits. Facing increasing public pressure from the sit-in, the Bank of America today agreed to extend loans to the factory to resolve the workers’ claims but not enough to reopen the factory.

The Chicago workers’ sit-down protest has become a symbol of growing anger on the part of average workers who see the government’s willingness to bail out deep-pocketed corporations but failing to bail out devastated working families. More than 60 years ago, it was a sit-down protest that heralded a new era in labor organization and auto industry prominence when workers at GM’s Fisher Body plant in Flint, Michigan, famously staged a 44 day sit-in there. The occupying Flint workers faced the Michigan National Guard’s machine guns pointed at them from Chevrolet Avenue, and freezing weather with no heat as GM cut electricity to the plant to force the workers out. The workers stood their ground and the sit-in ultimately ended with recognition of the union and the United Auto Workers (UAW) first contract with GM in February of 1937.

Today, the fate of the Big Three automakers is in the hands of Congress and the White House who are fiercely debating a $15 billion dollar taxpayer bailout of the industry. Broadly speaking, the government’s rescue plan would give $15 billion in emergency loans to the industry which is facing bankruptcy and crushing job losses, and require government oversight by a ‘car czar’ named by the President. A CBS News poll this week show that while the public is evenly divided over the need for the bailout, most believe that government should have a say in how the companies are managed if a bailout happens.

Labor, economists and some politicians, including Governor Corzine, rightly believe that allowing the auto industry to close shop would have unacceptably extreme social and economic costs for all working families. According to the nonpartisan Economic Policy Institute (EPI), allowing the industry to fail could mean losing 3.3 million jobs in the first year alone, as the impact ripples through other industries that support and serve the Big Three. More than 400,000 of those jobs lost would be in Michigan alone. EPI also notes that tax losses and increased government payments would exceed $150 billion in the first three years following bankruptcy of the Big Three.

However, a rescue plan for the auto industry is only one piece of a Main Street recovery puzzle. This week, hundreds of labor groups and economists have called on President-elect Obama to support a $900 billion dollar stimulus package, including $225 billion in infrastructure spending and $125 billion in state aid over the next two years focused on helping average Americans. With a serious recession seeming to be inevitable, a recovery program with a $900 billion dollar “floor”, including funds for research and development of new technologies, health care, poverty reduction, green technologies, rebates for low- and middle-income taxpayers and education, is critical to keeping working families from drowning.

Bailing out corporations without bailing out homeowners and all Americans is grossly unfair and completely unwise. On every street in America we are hearing and seeing the very real human stories and impact of the current economic meltdown. Jobs lost, homes foreclosed upon, no health care, hungry children, a nearly overwhelming sense of fear about the future, and a recession rivaled only by the Great Depression.

This is a good time for history to repeat itself. Responding to the Great Depression, government invested in the American people directly with massive public works and jobs programs and the development of a real safety net, including Social Security and unemployment insurance. A bold rescue plan, which invests in people and jobs, is the right way for our country to stand up. Main Street sits in to stand up