Monday, December 08, 2008

Workers Taking It To The Street...President Elect Agrees With The Workers...

Picketers march in support of workers on the fourth day of a sit-in at the Republic Windows and Doors factory Monday, Dec. 8, 2008 in Chicago. The band of 200 workers demanding severance and vacation pay have become a national symbol for the millions of laid off workers across the country after the company abruptly fired them last week prompting them to occupy their former workplace.
(AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)

Laid-Off Workers Become Symbol Of Mounting Anger
By DON BABWIN, Associated Press

CHICAGO – The nation's grim economy now has a rallying point: Employees at a window-and-door factory that went out of business have taken over the building in a siege that has come to symbolize the woes of the ordinary worker.

The Republic Windows and Doors factory closed abruptly last week after Bank of America canceled the company's financing. Since then, about 200 of the 240 laid-off workers have taken turns occupying the factory, declaring that they will not leave until getting assurances they will receive severance and accrued vacation pay.

But the standoff has also come to embody mounting anger over the government's willingness to bail out deep-pocketed corporations but not average people.

"There's a simplicity and straightforwardness to this particular case that anybody can wrap their head around," said James Thindwa, executive director for the Chicago office of Jobs With Justice, a national coalition of unions, community groups and other organizations.

Apolinar Cabrera, a 17-year Republic employee, lost his job and benefits just as his wife is about to deliver their third child.

"I don't know what to do," said Cabrera, 44, who worked in Republic's shipping department. He has been shuttling between the plant and home so he can check on his wife.

The workers show up in groups of 50 or 60 to occupy the plant around-the-clock in eight-hour shifts.

The union assigns some employees to clean the factory and make sure it's safe. Others take in food donations brought to the door. Outside, they hung a huge American flag, and some are huddled around a fire in a garbage can.

The protest — along with vocal support from President-elect Barack Obama, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, civil rights activists and others — has also created something else: a chance for unions that have been losing members and strength for years to show they still matter.

"I hope it's the beginning of a real fight-back movement," said Leah Fried, an organizer for the United Electrical Workers, which represents the Republic workers, who are mostly Hispanic.

Jobs With Justice organizers said it was time to seize the moment by reviving a tactic — the sit-in — that has not been widely used in the U.S. in decades.

The workers say the company violated the federal law because employees were not given 60 days' notice that they were losing their jobs.

The company did not return calls for comment, but the law allows businesses to close without giving the required notice under certain circumstances, such as if another company that is the sole source of income suddenly goes out of business, according to Mark Johnson, president of Erisa Benefits Consulting in Grapevine, Texas. Johnson said he was not familiar with the Republic case.

In a prepared statement, Bank of America said it had "worked with the company and shared our concerns about the company's situation and its operations for the past several months." But the bank said it agreed that Republic should try to honor its obligation to employees.

Most of the anger over the plant closure has been directed at Bank of America, not the company, which has not sought to evict workers from the building. Fried said the company cannot pay its employees because the bank will not let it.

Blagojevich on Monday ordered all state agencies to stop doing business with Bank of America to pressure the bank into using federal bailout money it received to help the laid-off workers.

"We hope that this kind of leverage and pressure will encourage Bank of America to do the right thing for this business," Blagojevich said outside the plant. "Take some of that federal tax money that they've received and invest it by providing the necessary credit to this company so these workers can keep their jobs."

Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois said he wanted to ask his fellow senators to remind banks that the bailout wasn't to be used for dividends and executive salaries.

"They're for loans and credit to businesses just like Republic," he said.

On Monday, about a dozen protesters, including some former Republic workers, rallied outside a Bank of America branch on the city's West Side, handing out fliers, carrying signs and banging drums. Several tried to enter the bank to deliver their message, but were turned away.

The support generated by the sit-in has surprised some workers.

"We never expected this," said factory employee Melvin Maclin, vice president of the union local that represents the workers. "We expected to go to jail."


Associated Press writers Deanna Bellandi and Caryn Rousseau contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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