Raising the stakes at Republic

December 9, 2008

Lee Sustar and Nicole Colson look at another hectic day in the growing solidarity movement for workers occupying the Republic Windows & Doors plant in Chicago.

DAY FOUR of the Republic Windows & Doors factory occupation in Chicago saw another surge in labor solidarity--plus a rare boost from the media and politicians trying to outdo one other in showing support for the struggle.

Just hours after the Chicago Tribune published a December 8 report apparently verifying workers' suspicions that production had been moved from their now-closed factory to a nonunion facility in Iowa, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich arrived at the plant just north and west of downtown Chicago.

The governor announced that state agencies would suspend their business with Bank of America (BoA), which triggered the closure of Republic's plant by cutting off its line of credit.

"During these times of economic turmoil, we must ensure that workers' rights are protected," Blagojevich said, adding that the Illinois Department of Labor would file a complaint in federal court if negotiations between the factory's owners, the workers' union and BoA officials didn't provide the approximately $1.5 million that workers are owned under federal and state law as well as their union contract.

The Republic occupation has drawn activists and supporters from around the area
The Republic occupation has drawn activists and supporters from around the area (Kirstin Roberts | SW)

The 250 workers, members of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) Local 1110, are demanding that BoA either resume making loans to Republic to reopen the plant or help the company make good on its obligations to workers. The workers are angry that BoA received $25 billion in taxpayer bailout, but won't lend to viable companies.

Blagojevich vowed to help. "We're going to do everything possible here in Illinois to side with these workers," he said.

Also on hand was Sen. Dick Durbin. "Over the last several weeks, we have been debating in Washington how to spend hundreds of billions of dollars," he told reporters afterward. "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."

Soon after the politicians' limos left the plant, a scene more familiar to labor activists took shape. Amid the forest of mobile TV satellite feed dishes, some 20 burly members of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 150 installed giant inflatable rats on either side of the plant entrance and took up positions near the door.

Local 150 Business Manager/President Jim Sweeney explained the motivation for this delegation in one word: "Solidarity." Why the large delegation? "We heard they [management] were going to try to move them out," he explained, adding that his locals' members would be on hand for the duration of the occupation.

For Sweeney, the struggle "summarizes where we are as a movement," he said. "We've come full circle. Seven percent of the workforce is unionized [in the private sector], and we're back to sit-down strikes like in Flint, Michigan," he said, referring to the famous factory occupation of 1936-37 that forced General Motors to recognize the United Auto Workers.

"We need a catalyst," Sweeney said. "And this may be what starts it for the American worker again."

Alongside the operating engineers, a delegation of more than a dozen nurses from Cook County Stroger Hospital stood behind their banner, carrying signs in support of the Republic workers and chanting, "The workers united will never be divided."

"This is important, because this is a form of union-busting," said Diane Ellis, the chief steward for the National Nurses Organizing Committee at Stroger. "Their contract was violated. Workers' rights were violated, when the company just shut them out. It's happening to them today, and it could happen to us tomorrow. You've got the fat cats walking away with the money and leaving all the workers here with nothing."

As the chanting resumed, union members, community activists and students threaded their way through the reporters crowding the building foyer, making now-routine deliveries of food and beverages. Cameras crowded the inner door to the plant, as journalists strained to capture images of workers seated near stacks of recently manufactured windows as a handful of children played nearby.

MEANWHILE, ANOTHER group of politicians assembled to turn up the heat on BoA.

At a press conference at City Hall, Alderman Ricardo Muñoz announced a proposed ordinance that would shift city funds from Bank of America to other banks, require City Council approval for any BoA underwriting or marketing of city bonds, and force the bank to bring any proposed zoning changes on property directly to City Council.

"Under the law, the City Council has the authority and responsibility to take into account the interests of Chicago and its residents when deciding which banks to do business with," Muñoz said. "Bank of America profits handsomely from the business it gets from the City and other governments. We have a right to demand that workers are treated fairly."

Following a three-hour meeting on Monday afternoon between union, company and bank representatives, it was announced that no settlement had been reached and the sit-in would continue. A new round of talks was slated for the next day--and if the workers don't get satisfaction, a big protest is planed for 12 noon the following day at BoA's Chicago-area headquarters.

Will BoA buckle under the pressure? "Obviously, there's tremendous public support for the workers here, and for the sense that workers need to have jobs," said Carl Rosen, western region president for UE. "I think there is a lot of pressure on the bank with regard to this, but banks have their own agendas, and they're not the peoples' agenda." He added, "Anyone who has the ability to let Bank of America know they want something done should go ahead and do that."

Activists did do that in the largely Mexican-American community of Little Village. After a picket at BoA's large 26th Street branch organized by the March 10 immigrant rights coalition and other groups, participants made their case against BoA in a press conference.

According to labor organizer and journalist Jorge Mújica, immigrants rights activists supported the Republic workers not only because they are mostly Latino immigrants, but because they are literally fighting the same institutions.

"There are dozens of shops that have closed down in the last month and a half," Mújica said. "Why? Because of the same reason--lack of money, lack of credit, lack of resources....So we are going to demand from Bank of America to keep open the line of credit from Republic, but also to open up the credit for 26th Street, so we don't keep losing more jobs."

Ricardo Caceres, a 15-year worker at the plant and a union shop steward, used the press conference to remind the media that the boss shut the plant on two day's notice as the holidays loomed--and to express gratitude to the solidarity movement that's sprung up. "I want to say to your organizations, unions and communities, thank you so much for everything--for the food, and your support," he said.

One of the speakers at the press conference was Rev. José Landaverde of Our Lady of Guadalupe Mission, a church centrally involved in the local movement against immigration raids and deportations.

"People are losing their jobs because businesses are closing, and the banks won't support the needs of small business and the workers," he said as he walked the picket line. "They just want to support themselves. And this we see also with the government, with the Bush administration and the Obama administration. It's about saving Wall Street and the banks, but it's not saving the peoples' economy."

FOR REPUBLIC'S managers, the objective seems to be saving themselves at workers' expense. Confirmation came on Monday that--as workers suspected--Republic is not, in fact, shutting down operations, but planning to move production to Iowa under a new name, "Echo Windows & Doors."

Reports indicate that Echo would be nonunion, pay only $9 an hour, and offer workers limited benefits and no vacation pay for the first three years--a drastic cut compared to the average $14-an-hour wage and health and retirement benefits that Chicago Republic workers had been getting.

According to the Chicago Tribune:

People who apparently have ties to the financially strapped Republic Windows formed a limited liability corporation in Illinois last month, Echo Windows & Doors, that has bought a similar plant in western Iowa.

Sharon Gillman, who shares an address with Republic President and CEO Rich Gillman, is listed as an officer of Echo Windows & Doors LLC, which was incorporated in Illinois on November 18, according to secretary of state records.

Neither she nor Rich Gillman could be reached for comment on Sunday. A secretary who answered the phone at the Iowa plant purchased by Echo said Rich Gillman was not in on Sunday, and that she did not know when he would be in.

An "echowindows.com" Internet domain has been registered, but no content has been placed on the site. The administrative contact on the domain registration is Amy Zimmerman--the same name as the vice president of sales and marketing at Republic...

Echo Windows officials told employees at the former TRACO manufacturing plant in Red Oak, Iowa, on Thursday that the workforce would be doubled from the current 50 employees because they have production orders lined up.

None of this surprises Melvin Maclin, vice president of UE Local 1110, and Ron Bender, a union shop steward.

"I don't think they want to stay here, period," Bender said. Maclin added, "It was never the owner's plan to save the plant. And the bank was aware of it. I don't know that for a fact, but it seemed like the bank was aware of what's going on. They were just running a game."

Whatever Republics' owners and BoA had planned last week, it's a different world now. By trying to add to the misery of laid-off workers by stealing their severance pay, they've managed to demonstrate to the world the inequity and double standards of the Wall Street bailout.

And now they've discovered that workers are capable of demonstrating something else--resolve, struggle and solidarity in what has become a classic battle for workers' rights.

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