Chicago Workers Forcing Management’s Hand


Making a new New Deal: Sitdown Strike in Chicago
By John Nichols / December 7, 2008

Much has been made about the prospect that Barack Obama’s presidency might, due to economic necessity and the president-elect’s interventionist inclinations, be a reprise of the New Deal era.

But there will be no “new New Deal” if Americans simply look to Obama to lead them out of the domestic quagmire into which Bill Clinton and George Bush led the country with a toxic blend of free-trade absolutism, banking deregulation and disdain for industrial policy. Just as Roosevelt needed mass movements and militancy as an excuse to talk Washington stalwarts into accepting radical shifts in the economic order, so Obama will need to be able to point to some turbulence at the grassroots.

And so he may have it.

After the Bank of America — a $25-billion recipient of Bailout Czar Hank Paulson’s “Wall Street First” largesse — cut off operating credit to the Republic Windows and Doors company, executives of the firm announced Friday that they were shutting its factory in Chicago.

Instead of going home to a dismal Holiday season like hundreds of thousands of other working Americans who have fallen victim to the corporate “reduction-in-force” frenzy of recent weeks — which has seen suddenly-secure banks pocket federal dollars rather than loosen up credit — the Republic workers occupied the factory where many of them had worked for decades.

Members of United Electrical Workers Local 1110, which represents 260 Republic workers, are conducting the contemporary equivalent of the 1930s sit-down strikes that led to the rapid expansion of union recognition nationwide and empowered the Roosevelt administration to enact more equitable labor laws. And, just as in the thirties, they are objecting to policies that put banks ahead of workers; stickers worn by the UE sit-down strikers read: “You got bailed out, we got sold out.”

“We’re going to stay here until we win justice,” says Blanca Funes, 55, of Chicago, who was one of the UE members occupying the Republic factory over the weekend for several hours.

Most of Republic workers are Hispanic and they want answers from the Bank of America and the company.

According to the UE, the workers hope “to force the company and its main creditor to meet their obligations to the workers.”

“Their goal is to at least get the compensation that workers are owed; they also seek the resumption of operations at the plant,” explains the union. “All 260 members of the local were laid off Friday in a sudden plant closing, brought on by Bank of America cutting off operating credit to the company. The bank even refused to authorize the release of money to Republic needed to pay workers their earned vacation pay, and compensation they are owed under the federal WARN Act because they were not given the legally-required notice that the plant was about to close.”

UE is an independent union that is not affiliated with the AFL-CIO, although its roots go back to the militant labor organizing of the 1930s that gave rise to the groundbreaking Congress of Industrial Organizations.

Some of the solidarity of old has been on display in Chicago this weekend, as UE members have been supported by unions that are affiliated with both the AFL-CIO and the Change to Win coalition of major unions.

Recognizing the absurdity of taxpayer-funded bailouts that enrich banks that in turn cut credit for American manufacturers, Richard Berg, president of Chicago’s powerful Teamsters Local 743, said. “If this bailout should go to anything, it should go to the workers of this country.”

Invoking Chicago’s rich record of labor struggle — from the Haymarket Martyrs in the 19th century to the steel industry organizing of the 1930s — American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31 regional director Larry Spivack hailed its latest expression.

“The history of workers is built on issues like this here today,” Spivack told union members at the plant.

Spivack’s right.

But it is not just the history of workers that turns on struggles such as this. It is the history of presidents and the United States.

Barack Obama will not be the new FDR, and this coming period will not see a “new New Deal” unless labor is inspired to fight once more to keep workers on the job, plants operating and American manufacturing industries muscular enough to survive in the global market. Then, the proper demands can be made on an Obama administration to back up not just unions but their expanding membership.

If the right history of this time is written, it will be said that the new New Deal began in Chicago — not just because Obama comes from the city but because workers there chose to stand up by sitting down.

For updates on developments in Chicago, UE website.

Source / The Nation

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6 Responses to Chicago Workers Forcing Management’s Hand

  1. Well I’m glad I took a chance on you making a post or two since I usually enjoy what you select.

    This one really hits hard; I’ve never liked banking with B of A, but my husband is a ‘die-hard’ customer. Finally after they tried to screw us a couple times by ‘changing the interest rate tune’, he finally saw what I did and we closed our account about 4 years ago.

    This angers me

  2. Just got this off the web-site I follow – Mish's Trends:

    Illinois Threat to Bank of America Is Dangerous, Critics Say

    Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich’s threat to halt the state’s dealings with Bank of America Corp. over a shut-down factory in Chicago extends a “dangerous” trend of politicians meddling with commerce, a former general counsel of the Federal Deposit

  3. Oh yes, a post script – lending to a company that's about to go bankrupt, is WHAT'S BEEN GOING ON FOR SO DAMNED LONG THIS IS WHY WE'RE IN THIS MESS NOW!

    Just look at the history of 2008; how many companies had lines of credit; got huge loans, slam-dunked that money into employee paychecks, and then filed for bankruptcy.

    How many times has Standard & Poors

  4. Well I guess you know that the governor and his assistant were arrested by the FBI this morning – lots of stories on that one – ouch!!!

    However, just found good news on US News:

    Chicago Factory Workers Win Their Battle, Sort Of
    December 09, 2008 05:27 PM ET | Liz Wolgemuth | Permanent Link | Print

    The Chicago factory workers who staged a sit-in after being laid off

  5. And another article pertinent to the topic/post:

    Bank offers credit to Chicago factory to pay workers’ claims

    The creditor of a Chicago plant where laid-off employees are conducting a sit-in to demand severance pay said Tuesday it would extend loans to the factory so it could resolve the dispute, but the workers declared their protest unfinished.

    By MICHAEL TARM

    The Associated Press

    PREV of NEXT

    Protesters are turned away by a security guard after trying to enter a Bank of America branch on Chicago’s West Side Monday. They were showing support for union workers staging a sit-in at their former workplace.
    Enlarge this photo

    PAUL BEATY / AP

    Protesters are turned away by a security guard after trying to enter a Bank of America branch on Chicago’s West Side Monday. They were showing support for union workers staging a sit-in at their former workplace.

    CHICAGO — The creditor of a Chicago plant where laid-off employees are conducting a sit-in to demand severance pay said Tuesday it would extend loans to the factory so it could resolve the dispute, but the workers declared their protest unfinished.

    A resolution seemed nearer as Bank of America officials, who yanked the plant’s financing last week, said the bank sent a letter to Republic Windows and Doors offering “a limited amount of additional loans” to resolve its employee claims.

    About 200 of the 240 laid-off workers had responded to their three days’ notice of the plant closing by staging a sit-in and vowing to stay put until assurances they would get severance and accrued vacation pay.

    Their protest has come to symbolize the plight of laid-off workers nationwide as the economy crumbles.

    Lawmakers in Illinois singled out Bank of America for criticism, blasting the Charlotte, N.C.-based company for cutting off the plant’s credit after the bank itself received $25 billion from the government’s bailout package.

    Word of Bank of America’s loan offer came as the bank, union representatives and Republic held talks in Chicago on the fifth day of the sit-in.

    Leah Fried, an organizer for the United Electrical Workers, which represents the Republic workers, said it was too early to know whether the sit-in would end soon. Workers would have to vote to end the action, but she said there was no such deal as of Tuesday night.

    Workers are surprised their protest has drawn intense nationwide interest, including expressions of support from President-elect Obama.

    “I never thought this would get so big,” said Ricardo Caceres, 39, an assembly-line worker taking part in the sit-in. “I am proud of my brother and sister workers.”

    Bank of America officials on Tuesday sided at least in part with the disgruntled workers, expressing concern for what they said was “Republic’s failure to pay their employees the … claims to which they are legally entitled.”

    The loan would be designed only to enable Republic to pay laid-off workers, said bank spokeswoman Julie Westermann. There was no question of offering a loan large enough to reopen the factory, she said.

    Asked whether the bank sympathized with the laid-off workers, Westermann said, “Of course we do.” She added that bank officials were ready to begin the loan-approval process if talks concluded with an agreement.

    advertising

    Republic officials did not return messages Tuesday.

    Without the severance and vacation pay, Caceres said, he and many of his fellow workers risk falling behind on mortgage payments and even losing their homes.

    Fried said most of the workers made about $30,000 a year at the plant, which she said was barely enough to feed and house their families.

    “They’ve had rough times, and that fuels a desire to say, ‘Enough! We can’t be kicked around anymore,’ ” she said.

  6. And another update:

    By Andrew Stern

    CHICAGO (Reuters) – Laid-off workers whose sit-in at their closed factory came to symbolize Main Street’s resentment of the Wall Street bailout accepted a settlement on Wednesday that provides them the severance they asked for and two months health care coverage, the parties involved said.

    The workers occupying Republic Windows and Doors agreed to the deal worked out after days of negotiations that would provide each with about $7,000, putting an end to the sit-in that began on Friday.

    The total cost of $1.75 million was covered by a loan of $1.35 million provided by Bank of America Corp and $400,000 from JPMorgan Chase & Co, both creditors of Republic, said U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, who helped mediate the negotiations.

    Each of the more than 200 workers will be paid eight weeks salary, all accrued vacation and receive two months paid health-care, Gutierrez said. The workers, given just three days notice of the plant’s closing last week, had demanded severance covering the legally mandated two-month notice period plus the vacation pay.

    “This money will only be used to pay the workers the benefits they are owed under the law, and it will not, under any circumstance, be used for corporate bonuses, luxury cars or any other perk for the owners of the plant,” Gutierrez, an Illinois Democrat, said in a statement.

    The workers’ plight became a media sensation, with food donations pouring in and hundreds of protesters gathering outside Bank of America’s Chicago headquarters, where negotiations among the parties were held this week.

    Bank of America, which bore the brunt of the criticism, said Republic was unable to operate profitably and had lost $10 million over the past two years, during which time the bank said it had lent the company the maximum amount it could.

    In July, JP Morgan wrote off $5 million in loans and a $7 million investment that gave it a 40 percent stake in Republic, and resigned its seat on the company’s board, a spokesman said.

    President-elect Barack Obama and other politicians have voiced support for the workers’ cause, arguing the Wall Street bailout was not serving its purpose of loosening credit for Main Street businesses. Bank of America has tapped the bailout for $15 billion and JP Morgan for $25 billion.

    (Additional reporting by Deborah Charles and Michael Conlon; editing by Todd Eastham)

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