Editor's note: Nelson Lichtenstein teaches history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he directs the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy. He is the author of "Walter Reuther: The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit." Christopher Phelps teaches at Ohio State University at Mansfield and is writing a history of strikes in American social thought.
Nelson Lichtenstein sees parallels and differences with a famous sit-down strike in 1936.
(CNN) -- The factory occupation by 200 workers at Republic Windows and Doors in Chicago, Illinois, recalls one of the most storied moments in American history, when thousands of Depression-era workers took over their own workplaces, seeking union recognition and better wages.
The pivotal battle began on the morning of December 30, 1936, when shop activists shut down a General Motors factory in Flint, Michigan, to restore the jobs of three of their workmates fired by the company. From the windows, they sang in rowdy camaraderie:
When they tie the can to a union man,
Sit down! Sit down!
When they give him the sack, they'll take him back
Sit down! Sit down!
When GM agreed to recognize the United Automobile Workers, all sorts of workplaces, from dime stores to shoe shops, caught the spirit. Pie bakers, seamen and movie projector operators sat down. Even before Flint, there had been occupation strikes at Hormel in Austin, Minnesota; Goodyear in Akron, Ohio; and Bendix in South Bend, Indiana. As often as not, they won.
There are big differences between those events and the occupation at Republic Windows and Doors. The Chicago workers already have a union. They seek severance pay, not a raise. Theirs is a protest, not a strike. Rather than disrupt production, they refuse to vacate a closed plant. And their numbers are minuscule in comparison to the half-million American workers who sat down in 1936 and 1937.
Some of the underlying issues, however, are the same: preservation of jobs, economic fairness and the meaning of democracy itself. Even if this occupation is quickly settled, it has exposed perfidy and dramatized justice, as did the sit-downs of the 1930s.
Factory occupations are rare because they violate the everyday laws of property, and for the most part American workers are law-abiding people.
They occur only when workers feel morally aggrieved, when they sense that ownership has itself violated the law, when the boss has become the outlaw in their eyes and in that of the community as well.
This was the case in the winter of 1936-37 when corporations such as GM and U.S. Steel defied the newly enacted Wagner Act, which President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed to encourage labor unionism and raise purchasing power.
Just a couple of months before, tens of thousands of autoworkers poured out of factories to cheer Roosevelt as his motorcade made a slow tour of Flint and other industrial cities. "You voted New Deal at the polls and defeated the auto barons," organizers told workers after FDR's smashing re-election victory. "Now get a New Deal in the shop."
Will history repeat itself? The Chicago factory occupiers, overwhelmingly Latino, don't have much clout, but they rightly sense that the national mood is with them.
Just as FDR once told reporters, "If I worked in a factory, the first thing I would do is join a union," so too has President-elect Barack Obama declared the Republic workers "absolutely right" in their quest for remuneration. More importantly, Obama observed that the Republic factory closure "is reflective of what's happening across this economy."
Indeed, it is not just that workers are suffering during a severe recession, but that the owners of capital, both large and small, are morally compromised in the crisis that besets the nation.
Bank of America, the giant lender, played a large role in the Republic factory closure when the bank, noting a decline in Republic's sales, cut off the company's line of credit. In normal times, this would have been considered prudent banking practice, but just last month Bank of America received $25 billion in a financial bailout meant to keep loans and credit flowing.
But Main Street managers have dirty hands as well. According to the union, the owners of Republic Windows and Doors failed to give their workers a legally required 60-day notice that they would close. And the Chicago Tribune reports that in the weeks before the factory shutdown, people with apparent ties to Republic formed a corporation that bought a similar plant in western Iowa.
It is hardly surprising that Republic's workers have laid temporary claim to the factory in which some have given decades of their lives. Its owners and creditors have forfeited their own claims, both moral and legal, to rightful stewardship.
As Sen. Robert Wagner said in response to the 1937 sit-downs, "The uprising of the common people has come, as always, only because of a breakdown in the ability of the law and our economic system to protect their rights."
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Nelson Lichtenstein and Christopher Phelps.