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Giant Victory for Chicago Workers

La Raza, News Report, Fabiola Pomareda, Translated by Suzanne Manneh Posted: Dec 12, 2008

Traduccin al espaol

Editor's Note: The workers takeover of a Chicago factory sent a message to the entire country in a time of economic crisis. Spanish-language newspaper La Raza reports from Chicago.

CHICAGO No justice, no peace! shouted activists, union members, religious groups, and youth outside the Republic Windows & Doors manufacturing plant on Division and Halsted Streets on the north side of Chicago.

Since Friday, Dec. 4, about 240 workers, supported by the United Electrical Workers Union (EU), were stationed inside the factory, peaceful but resolved.

These men and women demanded that the company compensate them with the vacation and severance pay owed to them after their abrupt lay offs. Pink slips had been sent to their homes three days earlier, in violation of the federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act.

The WARN Act requires that employees be given at least a 60-day notice when a plant with more than 100 employees is closing. The company argued that their financial backer, Bank of America, had eliminated their credit line, so the plant was unable to pay its employees what it owed them.

Armando Robles, president of the EUs Local 1110, said, "We are America and we are going to fight for our rights. My colleagues and I decided to stay here from the moment we knew that our boss wanted to walk all over us.

Great Solidarity

Outside the plant, a group of workers eats barbecued chicken that someone has brought for them, one of the many examples of the communitys support and solidarity. Next to them, activists have put up a giant inflatable rat that represents a banker, with a cigar in his mouth and pockets full of dollars in his hands as a symbol of greed.

Much of the protest was directed at Bank of America, which cut off the factorys credit line according to company managers, forcing the company to shut down and lay off its employees.

Well Organized

Inside the plant, two workers guard the glass doors leading to the interior, where for more than six days workers have slept, ate, prayed and waited.

The workers say they are well organized: while some remain at the factory sit-in in eight-hour shifts, others go home to rest. They estimate that about 80 percent of them are Latino. The rest are African Americans, they say, before the arrival of several boxes of pizza interrupts the conversation.

Shock and Anger

Demetrio Martinez, a 42-year-old native of Puebla, Mexico, spent eight years working for Republic, where workers earned an average of $13 per hour.

"We started to suspect that something was happening because there started to be a lot of breaks," he recounts. Martinez has a wife and two sons, who are 15 and 18 years old. He doesnt know how he is going to support his family now that he has been laid off. "For now, he says, we dont have any plans. All of this came as a shock.

Another shock for the workers was the cancellation of their health insurance. Employees were told that their health insurance would remain intact until Dec. 15, but it was cancelled last week, the union said.

"People are very angry. Many were hoping they could go to the doctor one last time to get the medications they need, but their insurance was cut and now they wont be able to," says Melvin Maclin, a factory worker and vice president of the local union.

The Bank Responds

On Tuesday, Bank of America sent a letter to the company promising to give additional "limited" credit to "help resolve workers grievances, but it is not obliged to pay Republic employees or give additional loans."

Days before, the company had issued a statement explaining that in 2006, owner Richard Gillman had bought another company that was in trouble and tried to make improvements, but its sales fell by 80 percent as a result of the construction industrys unprecedented decline.

Gillman said that in several talks with Bank of America, the company had presented a plan to discontinue paid vacations and close the company gradually, but the plan was denied.

Reaching an Agreement

There has been a lot of pressure from local politicians such as U.S. Congressman Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., U.S. Senator Richard Durbin, D-Ill., and even Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, a day before he was arrested for alleged corruption.

Representatives of the union, the company, the bank, the workers and JP Morgan Chase bank, which owns 40 percent of the company, sat down to negotiate for nearly three days and 20 hours and finally reached an agreement on Wednesday night.

The workers who had remained inside the factory came to a unanimous agreement stipulating that they will be paid $1.75 billion in compensation, vacation and two months of expanded health insurance.

Congressman Gutierrez announced that within a week each worker would receive about $6000.

The Big Picture

Its clear that these workers have been an example to many others across the country who face layoffs and company closures as the recession worsens.

"Whats happening with Republic Windows is happening across the United States, including on 26th Street (in Chicago), where many small businesses are closing due to a lack of credit," says Rev. Jose Landaverde, of the Mission of Our Lady of Guadalupe church in La Villita.
Adam Kader, director of Chicagos Interfaith Workers Rights Center, notes that the city has seen other cases of WARN Act violations, such as Jays Potato Chips in 2007 and Heinemanns Bakery in 2005, which ended with a trial in the workers favor, although Kader says the business still didnt pay the workers what they were owed.

But no one remembers the last time workers had overtaken a plant in this country.

"I think they are doing the right thing," President-elect Barack Obama said at a press conference this week.

Photos by Fabiola Pomareda / La Raza

Related Articles:

Chicago Workers to Rest of Country: 'Dont Let It Die'

Laid-Off Chicago Workers Should Hold Their Ground

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