Bob Simpson

Bob Simpson
Oak Park, Illinois, United States
August 05
Retired history teacher and former web production guy
Webtrax Studio
So who is this guy? Well, my name is Bob “Bobbo” Simpson.I am a retired teacher and former web production guy. I am also 1/2 of the Carol Simpson labor cartoon team.

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JANUARY 6, 2012 8:21AM

A Better Class of Criminal

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In the  Batman film, The Dark Knight, arch-villain The Joker blows up the Gotham City Hospital which disappears into a fireball of smoke and flames. Most film goers probably didn’t realize that this was not a model or a computer generated image. The film crew actually exploded part of an abandoned factory only a few blocks from where I live. It was the old Brach’s Candy plant on Chicago’s West Side, a major landmark to anyone who travels on the CTA Green Line out to the Austin neighborhood or on to Oak Park and Forest Park. 

What is left of the Brachs’ Candy factory lies crumbling along Cicero Avenue, frequented only by the homeless, the professional junk scavengers, the graffiti artists and the urban adventurers who love to risk life and limb clambering around abandoned buildings. Brachs is only one example. Today most of Chicago’s former industrial glory is a Machu Picchu of weedy rusting ruins or has been plowed under to grow a crop of yuppie condo buildings.

Twas not always thus.­­  

Brach’s Candy once employed a multi-ethnic workforce of 3700 people. Founded in 1904 as a small neighborhood candy store by Emil J. Brach, it soon became part of that “Stormy, husky, brawling, City of the Big Shoulders” industrial empire that Carl Sandburg wrote about in his poem “Chicago“. Built from the blood, toil, tears and sweat of a largely immigrant working class, this industrial empire brought dazzling fortunes to the few, and after many bloody strikes and protests, a modest living for the many.

I first saw Chicago’s thriving industrial empire in January of 1975 as we drove along I-90 toward my new home on the North Side of the city. In the frigid gray dawn, the glowing blast furnaces of Gary, Hammond and Chicago’s Southeast Side had me wondering if perhaps the fires of Dante’s hell had escaped their infernal boundaries. Although I had been born in a big city, the sheer power and scope of Chicago’s industry turned me into just another hayseed from the sticks, gawking in undisguised shock and awe.

But the City of Big Shoulders has always had its dreams and in the 1970′s a small band of working class rebel dreamers was imagining a Chicago industrial democracy instead of a Chicago industrial empire.

Although the campus protestors had grabbed most of the 1960′s headlines, there had also been a working class rebellion that stretched from the coal fields of West Virginia to the oil refineries of Richmond, California. Rebel workers led wildcat strikes and fought not only corporate control, but often the cobwebbed dictatorial leadership of their own unions. There was bloodshed. Two California farmworkers were gunned down while doing picket duty in California’s San Joaquin valley. Miners for Democracy leader Jock Yablonsky was murdered. Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated while supporting a strike by Memphis sanitation workers. ILGWU organizer Rudy Lozano was assassinated near his home in South Side Chicago. There were others as well, but the death toll never reached the levels of the 1930′s labor wars.

Chicagoland’s working class rebels were located at workplaces like U.S. Steel’s South WorksStewart-WarnerGM Electro-MotiveDanley CorporationPullman-StandardWisconsin Steel and International Harvester. They were led by savvy visionaries like Ed SadlowskiAlice PeuralaFrank LumpkinJim BalanoffCarole Travis, and Rudy Lozano. These Tom Paines of labor were allied with numerous community groups and local progressive organizations. Some had been civil rights activists and anti-war protestors. They had an influence beyond their modest numbers and represented a social unionism that had not been seen in Chicago since the radical days of the CIO in the 1930′s.

They fought racist and sexist discrimination in hiring and promotion. They fought for better training and worker education. They took on brutal supervisors and production speedups. They demanded more worker control over work schedules and an end to forced overtime. They organized for higher pay and for safer working conditions.They organized one of the first union alliances with the environmental movement.

There was talk about how to bring real democracy to the workplace and how to democratize an American economy dominated by corporate ownership. There was a cautious optimism about liberating American industry from the stranglehold of corporate dictatorship and that the American working class could someday share center stage in a new movement for global social justice.

Don’t get the wrong idea. These were not flower children in hardhats. They were down to earth practical realists who understood that the middle class lifestyle achieved by some blue collar workers had not come with a lifetime guarantee. They thought that ALL working people deserved a nice house, a comfortable social safety net, and enough time and money to get some fun out of life while still putting the kids through college.

Sure you could call an uneasy truce in the class war, but you knew that sooner or later Corporate America would go for your jugular and you’d better be ready with a legion of smart brave people who were in it for the duration.That meant breaking down barriers of race and gender and building a solidarity community based on respect and deeply held human values.

Pretty heady stuff for a life-long socialist such as myself and I was soon caught up in the high spirits of their many fundraisers, rallies and picketlines.

Then the shit hit the fan.

When Ronald Reagan fired 11,000 striking air traffic controllers in 1981, Corporate America knew that Uncle Sam had their back. Scarface Al Capone had partnered with Eliot Ness.

What followed was a brutal class war launched with the enthusiastic support of Washington. It was a two pronged strategy. One was to buy out manufacturing companies, sell them off in pieces, strip their assets and milk them of their profits to buy still more companies. As for investing in new technology and worker training to compete in a global market? Forget it. This wasn’t the “invisible hand of the market”. This was a smash and grab robbery.

The other half of the strategy was a jackboot in the face of the U.S. labor movement.

Plants were shut down and their production re-opened in desperately poor countries, some of whom were ruled by Washington-backed terrorist dictatorships. Thousands of high paying union jobs went down the corporate garbage chute. Companies then extorted concessions from what was left of their U.S. workforce by threatening to move where both labor and human life were cheap. Throughout the 1980′s workers fought a series of bitter strikes just to hold on to what they had. Most went down in agonizing defeat. Decades worth of labor progress was wiped out overnight.

In Chicago, working class dreams were set aside and replaced by a desperate rearguard battle for survival.  Chicago lost 3,000 of 7,000 companies in the 1980s and 150,000 basic manufacturing jobs. Communities like Chicago’s Southeast Side and West Side suffered an economic devastation that still awaits a recovery in 2011.

One of the those battlefields was the Brach’s Candy factory.The attack on the plant was led a Swiss corporate raider named Klaus Jacobs who purchased the company in 1987. His leadership proved disastrous as he fired experienced management, laid off workers by the hundreds and displayed an appalling ignorance about the basics of the candy business.

Chicago’s largely black West Side could not afford to lose the 3700 jobs or the 80 million dollars in wages they generated. Teamsters Local 738 which represented the production workers and the Garfield/Austin Interfaith Action Network (GAIN) which represented the surrounding commmunity joined forces. They brought in Dan Swinney of the Center for Labor and Community Research (CLCR). Swinney, a former lathe operator with a talent for crunching numbers and building broadbased coalitions, helped come up with an innovative plan called the High Road Future for Brachs:

An effort by managers and employees to buy the company, as well as a proposal to own the manufacturing facility jointly with Klaus Jacobs. Jacobs rejected both proposals.

Proposals for significant changes in the organization of production, worker participation in management, profit sharing, and the building of an effective relationship with the local community and the city. We proposed that the company let contracts for goods and services to local companies where feasible, expanding the market for existing businesses and creating the opportunity for business start-ups.

There were appeals from 80 organizations as well from local and state politicians. A former Brach’s CEO even joined the campaign. But Klaus Jacobs didn’t give a horse’s ass about the West Side of Chicago or its problems. He refused all offers and eventually shut down the plant.

It was coldblooded economic murder in the first degree.

On a leaden November day in 2003, I stood with several hundred union members and Brachs supporters in a muddy vacant lot for one final rally. There were militant speeches, lots of fist raising and fist shaking and none of it made a damned bit of difference because the 14 year battle to save Brachs Candy was over. I left early. I’d paid my respects to the deceased and it was time to go back and “fight like hell for the living”.

In The Dark Knight, The Joker informs us, “That this city deserves a better class of criminal and I’m going to give it to them.” Well we got our better class of criminal, but it wasn’t the tragically talented Heath Ledger in grease paint and a fright wig. Our better class of criminal came dressed like Klaus Jacobs and they didn’t need a collection of shivs or barrels of explosive ammonium nitrate to wreak their havoc.

Ironically, this "better class of criminal" was supposed to become our saviors. They were going to lead working class people out of the slavery of manufacturing and into a glittering Brave New Economy of hi-tech financial and technical services.

How did this shiny new service economy work out? More than 1/3 of Chicago’s black children still live in poverty. A world class hi-tech medical complex towers over a West Side where infant mortality is worse than in some Third World countries. Gleaming new office towers poke through the low lying clouds next to Lake Michigan as school kids get shot on their way to class.

And did you notice how the financial services industry  brought the world to the brink of a new Great Depression?

With that sterling record of accomplishment, I think Americans ought to start making stuff again. It pays better and the time is certainly right. Our planet is dying and we need to retool fast. We’ve shown the world that we know how to make gas guzzlers, nuclear missiles and junk food. How about making stuff that we can actually be proud of and that people really need.

Let’s figure out how to do sustainable green manufacturing that can be the economic engine for rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure and replacing our rotting social safety net. Let’s pay tribute to the working class rebels of the 1970′s and make sure these new green enterprises come with a union label, meet the highest global standards of socially responsible excellence and aren’t controlled by a pack of soulless corporate autocrats. In short, let’s get it right this time.

Oh shit…I almost forgot. I have a message for Bruce Wayne too. Lose the silly bat suit and the ­Lamborghini­. Come down from your penthouse and invest your millions in an economy that actually works for working class people. As for the Batmobile, use it to research the next generation of sustainable transportation. Gotham will thank you for it.

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Great column, Bob! Thanks for helping to keep #LaborHistory alive! Many of us lose track of the fact that not all Labor struggles and history took place 100 years ago. Keep spreading the word, thank you!
BTW, the Carol Travis mentioned in the article is the daughter of Bob Travis, a leader of the 1937 Great Flint Strike that changed the course of US history. The apple doesn't fall far from the tree as they say in South Side Chicago.
Great history lesson--thanks.
This isa great post. We can only hope and pray that some manufacturing will eventually come back to the US; the service economy is a dead-end. And somehow, we do need to change corporate culture in the US. It's now a given that only a patsy would make a business decision because it's the right thing to do. That has got to change.
"Scarface Al Capone had partnered with Eliot Ness." Another partnership, that took place 50 years before Ronald Reagan's infamous firing of the striking air traffic controllers, was the partnership of organized crime with organized labor. That is a fact that is not mentioned in your well-written post.
Excellent work, Bob! Thank you.
This is first post of yours that I have read. I remember that candy factory. Yes, it is bit of a metaphor, isn't it? I look forward to reading more of your work about the history of working life in Chicago. "Fight like hell for the living." Exactly.
There was a little of the old fire there again with a handful of factory occupations a while back. But I'm sure good ol' Rahm wouldn't let that happen again. They went up a level to find a new breed of fuckfaces to run the show--or are the Daleys still really pulling the strings?

As for the "green future," I do not believe it will look any different than the old future for working people. OWS had it right. People should have poured into the streets to join them. Now it's the long way round, and that will not be easier. Never is.

Patience. As the price of oil rises inexorably, manufacturing will return. But don't hold your breath.
damn, this made me cry and I have no idea why. Very nice though.
Thanks for posting this - am sharing on FB!
Allow me to summarize: In the insatiable desire to make a profit Corporate America decided to locate their manufacturing operations in Illinois. Flash forward 30 years later and Corporate America has decided to leave Chicago for greener pastures.

I suppose its fitting that this story revolves around a candy manufacturer because as the saying goes “you can’t have your cake and eat it too”. If you decide to be business friendly, corporations stay and if you decide to tax and over-regulate, corporations will leave. Illinois and America has clearly chosen the latter and as a result they can expect more of this behavior from Corporate America. Oh by the way, if Corporate America is so bad, you should welcome its departure from your state.
Terrific background, prognosis and prescription, Bob. This piece needs much wider readership. I'm putting it on Facebook, for starters.
Thanks for educating me, and others, on a very important subject.
Excellent article, Bob. We need more working class (and middle class?) heroes. Rated for fine reporting and heart.
Some people apparently believe that taxes (which pay for the infrastructure business needs) and regulation (which favors honest businesses over the criminal variety) are a Bad Thing and were the cause for the closure of Brachs. If one man can destroy a company that is made up of thousands of workers and managers, than maybe we need stronger regulations and laws, not weaker ones.
Oh my superheros and a great story. Who could ask for more?
To Littlewillie:,Organized crime partnered with corporations, small businesses, politicians like Richard Daley and Richard Nixon, unions, the CIA and doubtless many other American institutions. Even conservative hero Ronald Reagan dealt with organized crime during his days as president of the Screen Actors Guild. However the influence of the crime bosses in organized labor is minimal these days, not at all like when I first became involved with the labor movement in the 1960's.
Excellent piece, Bob, I am glad I made you one of my favorites. I always loved Brach's candy!

When Joseph Schumpeter called capitalism "creative destruction" he meant that change was built into it and that technological innovations and revolutions in management and manufacturing processes would always have a destabilizing impact on communities -- which is why, by the way, he said that if you wanted the benefits of dynamic capitalism you'd better also build in a social safety net to take care of the human damage done by capitalism on both grounds of justice and prudence so as to fend off the inevitable social revolts when peoples lives and communities are steamrolled over.

But isn't it funny that it's Newt Gingrich of all people who is helping us see the difference between a "creative" capitalism built around innovation and competition and productive investments IN productive enterprises and the kind of "destructive" looting done by Bain and other Vulture Capital outfits that merely use capital as a crow bar to pry open existing enterprises in order to pillage them of their value on behalf of a very small population of investors.

Some, like Johnny Fever above, will never accept that we can bring human values to free market capitalism other than the Social Darwinian survival of the fittest kind of "metrics" that says whatever the "market" decides is right. But as your excellent piece suggests, there may be other more human and humane ways of approaching the free market that lets us have our candy and eat it too.
Awesome post! You're absolutely right-we need to start making things again. This has been drilled into me by my father, who started a meter manufacturing company that's a leader in water conservation.
Well done Bob! I absolutely loved this essay.