After a week of lawmakers working out the auto industry bailout, a Chicago company that makes things Americans actually want to buy tried to quietly go out of business, telling their employees they could forget their insurance and vacation pay. Refusing to let the company walk out on their union contract, workers took a stand, and sat down.
In operation since 1965, Republic Windows and Doors, manufacturers of energy-efficient building materials, abruptly closed its Chicago factory last week, giving workers only three days notice. Though the factory itself has shut down, workers are still coming in, occupying the building in a sit-in. By the fourth day of the peaceful protest, union members could count on support from all over the country, including the nation’s next president.
At the heart of their demands is basic workers’ rights. The company has said it will not pay for benefits, such as insurance and paid vacation, owed under a union contract with United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) Local 1110. Federal law also requires the company give workers at least 60 days notice prior to the shutdown. The company claims they cannot pay the benefits because Bank of America will not release the necessary funds.
Outside the building, a 12-foot tall inflatable rat wearing a suit, smoking a cigar, and clutching two money bags swayed in the cool Chicago breeze. Inside the entryway, posters with expressions of solidarity from teachers, doctors, and other types of workers scrawled all over them hung on the walls, bearing greetings from as far away as Hartford, CT.
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) talked to the workers sitting in the plant this morning. Speaking with reporters on his way back to Washington, Durbin said he will bring his concerns back to Capitol Hill.
“Over the last several weeks we have been debating in Washington how to spend hundreds of billions of dollars. We have been sending billions of dollars to banks like Bank of America. The reason we sent them the money was to tell them they have to loan this money to companies just like Republic,” he said. He added that Congress will “remind them that the taxpayers’ dollars flowing into these big banks are not for dividends; they’re not for executive salaries. They’re for loans and credit to businesses.”
Bank of America has secured $15 billion of the U.S. Treasury’s $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program. In acquiring Merrill Lynch, they stand to get $10 billion more from the same program. Meanwhile, Bank of America’s CEO Kenneth Lewis received more than $16 million in compensation in 2007 and more than $25 million in 2006. Just last month, Bank of America almost doubled its investment in China Construction Bank, spending an additional $7 billion to increase its share in the Chinese financial institution to more than 19 percent.
Durbin’s former partner in the Senate expressed solidarity with the workers this weekend. President-elect Barack Obama was asked a question about the Republic situation at his Sunday news conference.
“When it comes to the situation here in Chicago with the workers who are asking for their benefits and payments they have earned, I think they are absolutely right,” Obama replied. “But it’s also important for us to make sure that the plans and programs that we design aren’t just targeted at maintaining the solvency of banks, but they are designed to get money out the doors and to help people on Main Street. So, number one, I think that these workers, if they have earned their benefits and their pay, then these companies need to follow through on those commitments.”
A meeting planned between workers, owners, and Bank of America Friday fell through when no one from the window company showed up. A second meeting is scheduled for today at 4 p.m CST.
A press conference was held this afternoon at Chicago’s City Hall featuring more than a dozen local aldermen, Cook County President Todd Stroger, Cook County Commissioner Mike Quigley, Rev. Jesse Jackson, and other Illinois leaders. Though local leaders admitted they couldn’t force Bank of America to loan Republic the money it needs, they pledged to do what they can to compel the bank to take action.
Ald. Joe Moore announced that he and his colleagues in the Chicago City Council would be introducing an ordinance to force the city to divest from Bank of America and its subsidiaries. He also promised to oppose any municipal zoning changes requested by the bank.
“Bank of America is thumbing its nose at Congress and American taxpayers,” said Moore. “We can certainly refuse to do business with a company that has so little regard for the welfare of our working families.”
Ald. Manny Flores said that a fair amount of Chicagoans’ taxes, including locally controversial funding programs called Tax Increment Financing Programs, or TIFs, have gone to Bank of America. He also said that because JP Morgan is a minority holder in Republic, the city should consider divesting from them as well.
“We need to be sure these dollars are going into the real economy,” Flores said.
Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich has made a similar divestiture plea to state agencies. Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan announced an investigation into the legality of the factory’s closing on Friday.
The main objective for the union is to recover pay and benefits owed by the company. Armando Robles, a worker at the plant up until it closed last week as well as the president of UE Local 1110, said he didn’t even think his most recent paycheck would be worth more than the paper it’s printed on.
“What we want is what we deserve,” he said. “Probably our last check is going to be not valid.”
Robles said that he would also like to see the company up and running again, but not with the same management.
“We don’t want to support the company that steps on us,” he said. “If the government would help us find some way to help us to make the company work and start running again, we would be able to work.”
Though he wasn’t present, the influence of Obama was felt. One union worker chimed in with a “Si, se puede” during a quieter moment of the press conference. Carl Rosen, president of UE’s Western region, noted Obama’s previous statement of support.
“Come January, there is going to be a new day in Washington. Our elected officials in both parties better pay attention to what is going on in America,” he said.
Henry Tamarin, president of Unite Here Local 1, which represents the workers who have been on strike against the Congress Hotel in Chicago for the past five years, expressed solidarity with UE 1110 at today’s press conference and put the situation in a larger context.
“Is this going to be a top-down recovery?” he asked about the financial bailouts in Washington.
In a press conference this past weekend, Rev. Jesse Jackson noted the national resonance of the worker-led occupation of the factory.
“Workers standing up in Chicago may make workers stand up across the country,” he said. “It’s going to cost more to abandon them than to employ them.”
Robles also sees his actions as extending beyond Chicago.
“We have to do everything we can to make justice… all around the country and all around the world,” he said. “In the end, what makes [international companies'] capital is the workers.”
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