Quickly overshadowed by Blagojevich developments in Chicago last week was an orchestrated, publicized and cheered factory seizure by activists from a radical labor union. The Republic Windows takeover deserves continued attention, however, as first, a crime, and as second, indication that ’30s-style sit-down strikes may return as attacks against the rule of law and the economy.

Thankfully, Walter Olson of the Manhattan Institute has cast a critical eye at the events in an article in City Journal, “Windows on the Future? — A radical union’s action in Chicago could be a sign of things to come.” The lead:

On December 5, badly hurt by the long housing slump and having maxed out its line of credit with Bank of America, the Republic Windows and Doors factory of Chicago announced that it would close and lay off its employees. In response, most of its 250 workers refused to leave the factory floor and announced through their union—the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers (UE)—that they would occupy the premises until they received severance pay. In the days that followed, activist supporters, including local left-wing and interfaith groups, waged a spectacularly successful public campaign: more than 4,000 news stories on the action have appeared so far on Google News, typically taking a tone highly favorable to the union cause. Support also came from local Chicago and Illinois politicians, including the city’s most celebrated public official of all, president-elect Barack Obama. Fielding a question about the plant occupation two days after it began, Obama declared his support for the workers: “I think they’re absolutely right. . . . if they have earned these benefits and their pay, then these companies need to follow through on those commitments.”

Summarizing at his Point of Law blog, Olson adds:

  • You’d have had trouble guessing from a lot of the coverage, but it’s far from clear that the window factory owners owed any severance at all under the terms of the federal WARN (plant-closings) act. And it’s abundantly clear that the actual targets of the protest, the two banks, owed nothing.
  • The whole point of this sort of illegal action is to resolve by force a dispute that would otherwise be consigned to the ordinary processes of law — put differently, to make sure the action’s targets never get their right to a day in court to put forth their (quite possibly meritorious) defense. When Chicago and Illinois officials jumped in to arm-twist the targets into settling, they endorsed this way of resolving disputes. That may come as little surprise given the reputation of Chicago governance. But why should anyone feel secure in locating a politically sensitive business in that city (or state) from now on?

The purportedly objective media wrote favorable articles, and some columnists went further, Olson notes: “Boston Globe columnist James Carroll, applauded the illegal action and left-leaning Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson called for more of the same: ‘Barack Obama means to build a more equitable nation, but it would help him in that task if more workers sat down.’” Olson asks: Does Obama agree?

We certainly think the same question should be posed in confirmation hearings for the next Secretary of Labor (praised prolifically by Meyerson just yesterday). A nominee’s views of sitdown strikes and factory seizures warrant a full airing.

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