Republic sit-in ends, workers declare victory!

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CHICAGO — Workers occupying Republic Windows and Doors declared victory after they unanimously voted to approve a settlement reached after three days of negotiations with the company and Bank of American, its chief creditor.

“The occupation is over,” said Armando Robles, United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers Local (UE) 1110 president. “We have achieved victory. We said we will not go until we got justice and we have it.” UE represents the 250 production workers at the plant.

The settlement totals $1.75 million and provides workers with eight weeks of pay, two months of continued health coverage and accrued and unused vacation pay. Money from Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase, which owns 40% of the company, will be placed in a separate fund to administer the payments.

'This is about more than just money, said UE Western Region President Carl Rosen. 'It's about what can be achieved when workers organize and stand up for justice.'

The workers weren’t able to save the plant, which will close. However, UE Director of Organization Bob Kingsley announced the creation of a new foundation dedicated to reopening the plant starting with seed money from the UE national union and the thousands of dollars of donations to UE Local 1110's Solidarity Fund that have come in from across the country and around the world. The fund will be called the “Window of Opportunity Fund.”

The occupation started Dec. 5 when it was shut down after the company’s main financier, Bank of America, refused to extend a line of credit. The occupation became a symbol of workers across the country struggling with the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression and what’s seen as a failure of the federal bailout of banks and financial institutions. The day the occupation started, the U.S. Labor Department said 533,000 more jobs were lost in November.

The action created a storm of outrage because Bank of America recently received a $25 billion bailout package from the federal government, but decided it wouldn’t go to keep manufacturing operations running. When the company skipped a Dec. 5 meeting with the United Electrical Workers’ union (UE) and Bank of America, the workers unanimously voted to stage a sit-in.

“These workers are to this struggle perhaps what Rosa Parks was to social justice 50 years ago,” the Rev. Jesse Jackson said. “This, in many ways, is the beginning of a larger movement for mass action to resist economic violence.”

The action against some of the most powerful economic forces in the nation generated worldwide solidarity and support including from President-elect Barack Obama, who called the workers’ demands “absolutely right.” Food, money and solidarity messages poured in and area unions, religious and community activists demonstrated daily with the workers.

Many solidarity actions were part of the Jobs with Justice Coalition People’s Bailout Now Week of Actions Dec. 7-13. A group of religious leaders in town for a meeting of Interfaith Workers Justice rallied at the plant Dec. 9.

“We’re here to stand with these workers to support them in their struggle for justice,” Rev. Nelson Johnson told the World. Johnson is co-president and board member of Interfaith Worker Justice and vice-president of the Pulpit Forum in Greensboro, N.C.

“People need to work and this is no time for the banks or the company to betray the interests of the American people who made this [bailout] money available for moments precisely like this one that should directly benefit the workers here,” said Johnson.

The company, maker of vinyl windows for the home construction market, had employed 300 workers at the factory, including 250 unionized production workers, for 45 years. The firm started as a family operation but now the Wall Street behemoths Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase, the nation’s largest bank, have controlling interest in the company.

Republic closed the factory with three days notice when Bank of America refused it a $5 million line of credit. As chief investor, BA has effectively controlled the company’s finances. The abrupt closure clearly violated the federal WARN Act, requiring employers to give 60 days notice of a mass layoff (Illinois state law mandates 75 days) or pay the workers and continue their health benefits for that time.

City, county and state officials called for breaking ties with Bank of America if they don’t release funds so the workers could receive what they were owed. They also called for an investigation into what Bank of America is doing with the bailout funds, perhaps investing in overseas operations but not in the United States.

“The government gave $25 billion to BA. They are supposed to work with businesses to keep them open, not shut them down,” Lalo Munoz, 54, told the World. Munoz, a machine operator, had worked at the plant for 34 years.

Others see the banks and corporations as taking advantage of the financial and economic crisis to break unions, shed worker benefits and pensions. UE spokespersons say Republic, which received millions of dollars in city subsidies, bought a similar plant in Iowa. Speculation is production will be restarted in the non-union Iowa plant. The role of the banks in this decision is not known.

“The workers want Bank of America to keep the plant open and the workers employed,” said UE's Rosen. “There is always a demand for windows and doors. But with Barack Obama’s stimulus proposal, there will be even greater demand for the products made by Republic’s workers. It doesn’t make sense to close this plant when the need is so obvious.'

jbachtell @ cpusa.org