Since 1965, the Republic Windows and Doors Company has been manufacturing vinyl windows and sliding doors in Chicago. Last week, Bank of America informed the company that its line of credit had been canceled due to declining sales, probably related to the housing market collapse. Republic’s management subsequently informed its 250 employees that they were being laid off with literally three days notice, and, according to the bank’s terms, would not receive any severance or back vacation pay.
Normally, this is where it ends. The long-term decline of labor, which isn’t an accident, has left workers with little bargaining power vis-a-vis management. So it came as a surprise when Republic’s employees stood up and fought back:
“Workers laid off Friday from Republic Windows and Doors, who for years assembled vinyl windows and sliding doors here, said they would not leave, even after company officials announced that the factory was closing.
Some of the plant’s 250 workers stayed all night, all weekend, in what they were calling an occupation of the factory.”
Most of the staff are members of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers. Approximately 80% are Hispanic, making an average salary of $14 an hour. They’ve dug up an old-time tactic, currently more common in Argentina than America. They are demanding their severance and vacation pay, as well as criticizing the company for failing to give them the 60 days notice required under federal law for mass layoffs. Workers claim that the management knew about the situation in advance, removing heavy equipment in the middle of the night before Thanksgiving while informing staff that all was well. Subsequent revelations don’t make the company look any better. Workers are also blaming Bank of America, who recently received $25 billion in government bailout funds and refused to comment on the situation other than passing the blame back to Republic:
“Neither Bank of America nor any other third party lender to the company has the right to control whether the company complies with applicable laws or honors its commitments to its employees.”
“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 Sunday…What’s happening to them is reflective of what’s happening across this economy.
When you have a financial system that is shaky, credit contracts. Businesses large and small start cutting back on their plants and equipment and their workforces. That’s why it’s so important for us to maintain a strong financial system. 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.”
Labor, management, and bank representatives remain in negotiations with 60 workers at a time occupying the plant according to planned 8-hour shifts. The workers have been visited by U.S. Representatives Luis Gutierrez and Jan Schakowsky, as well as random people stopping by with food, water, and other supplies.
David Corn, writing in The Nation, puts this developing story in important context:
“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.”
President Obama may be progressive, not progressive, or just right. (And yes, the debate continues on OpenLeft.) The point is, he’s subject to pressure. There’s a famous (if possibly apocryphal) story about a group of party activists who approached Roosevelt with policy suggestions shortly after his election. FDR replied to their demands saying “I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it.” Roosevelt didn’t save capitalism in a vacuum. He faced pressure from local government, the labor movement, and yes Virginia, the Communist Party. What Time called “thunder on the left” helped drag Roosevelt towards the progressive positions we credit him with today.
President-elect Obama’s positive response to the Republic sit-down is an encouraging sign. Government can be as progressive as the public demands it be. Chicago city officials are already discussing canceling all business deals with Bank of America due to these developments. If you’re in the area, you can stop by 1333 North Hickory with contributions of food or messages of support. If not, please at least sign the UE’s petition or donate to their solidarity fund via Paypal.
You voted for change – Now make them do it.