Solidarity pours in for Chicago workers occupying factory, Obama says demands are 'absolutely right'

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CHICAGO (Updated) – Solidarity is pouring in for 250 workers who have been sitting-in for three days at Republic Windows and Doors, including from President-elect Barack Obama. The company closed abruptly Dec. 5 because Bank of America, its chief investor, refused to extend a $5 million line of credit. BA recently received a $25 billion bailout from the federal government.

The workers are owed $1.6 million in vacation and severance pay and health benefits the company refuses to pay. They started sitting in Dec. 5 after the company didn’t show for a meeting with the union and BA.

“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 said Dec. 7 while announcing his new Veterans Affairs director. “What’s happening to them is reflective of what’s happening across this economy.”

The National Rainbow PUSH Coalition led by Rev. Jesse Jackson delivered a truck of food for the workers Dec. 7. A line of union and community activists joined the workers in passing the food into the factory where it was divided up.

Jackson told the angry workers it was “wrong to bail out the banks and not the workers” and hailed their courage and example for the labor movement. “You have followed in the great tradition of Dr. King, Cesar Chavez and Rosa Parks to fight until some answer comes,” he said.

Jackson noted there has been “too much silence and not enough resistance for too long. Workers need to start to show resistance to fight for jobs, health care and justice.”

“If workers don’t take a stand we’ll all be out of a job,” Robert Simpson, president of Chicago Coalition of Black Trade Unionists told the World. “We in CBTU have been saying this for years. It’s about showing some solidarity and coming together to keep these jobs.”

Simpson added, “It would be a big mistake if we didn’t do something to save the auto industry – saving millions of jobs, health care and pensions, the whole nine yards. It’s time for the labor movement to come together.”

Simpson said he thought the action by the workers and the solidarity they were getting “sends a signal of concern to the incoming Obama administration of what’s happening out here. He saw for himself during the campaign the suffering people were enduring. We are fighting for things he has said he will do. The people will be supporting him.”

James Thindwa, director of Chicago Jobs with Justice told the World the failure of Republic and Bank of America was an important lesson, “If the free market is failing, then workers need to run the plants.”

“We are very heartened by the wonderful acts of solidarity,” said Luis Lira, who was standing security at the factory entrance. Lira, 39, has been working at Republic for 16 years. “It’s surprised us. We never thought we would get all this support from the rest of the world.”

Meanwhile many of the workers, who are represented by United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE), feel the company has ulterior motives for shutting the plant down. Ron Bender, a second shift worker noted Republic held “monthly town hall meetings to communicate with the workers. These ended in August and then they started removing equipment and materials from the factory.”

“A few weeks ago the removed an entire production line. Today it’s in storage in a lot on the south side. We want to know why they did this,” said Bender.

The workers are determined to stay until they get everything owed to them. Donald White said, “With all the publicity, we hope it’s a wake up call to all the companies. We need to give workers more power and maybe we can keep our jobs.”