Employee siege becomes a symbol
Firm's takeover opens window on workers' woes
CHICAGO - The nation's grim economy now has a rallying point: Employees at a window-and-door factory that went out of business have taken over the building in a siege that has come to symbolize the woes of the ordinary worker.
The Republic Windows and Doors factory closed abruptly last week after Bank of America canceled the firm's financing. Since, about 200 of the 240 laid-off workers have taken turns occupying the factory, declaring that they will not leave until getting assurances they will receive severance and accrued vacation pay.
But the standoff has also come to embody mounting anger over the government's willingness to bail out deep-pocketed corporations but not average people.
"There's a simplicity and straightforwardness to this particular case that anybody can wrap their head around," said James Thindwa, executive director for the Chicago office of Jobs With Justice, a national coalition of unions, community groups, and other organizations.
Apolinar Cabrera, a 17-year Republic employee, lost his job and benefits just as his wife is about to deliver their third child. "I don't know what to do," said Cabrera, 44, who worked in Republic's shipping department.
The workers show up in groups of 50 or 60 to occupy the plant around-the-clock in eight-hour shifts.
The protest - along with vocal support from President-elect Barack Obama, Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, civil rights activists, and others - has also created something else: a chance for unions that have been losing members and strength for years to show they still matter.
"I hope it's the beginning of a real fight-back movement," said Leah Fried, an organizer for the United Electrical Workers, which represents the Republic workers.
The workers say the company violated the federal law because employees were not given 60 days' notice that they were losing their jobs.
The company did not return calls for comment, but issued a timeline of its discussions with Bank of America through a public relations company.
Republic said it presented a plan for an "orderly wind down" to Bank of America in October, including its intention to end manufacturing in January 2009.
On Nov. 25, Republic said, it requested "permission" from Bank of America to issue vacation pay to its employees, but said the next day the bank "rejected" that request.
"The company wished to pay but was not allowed to make that payment according to the instructions of the bank," said Tom Figel of Lake Effect Communications, the company retained by Republic.
In a prepared statement, Bank of America said it had "worked with the company and shared our concerns about the company's situation and its operations for the past several months." But the bank said it agreed that Republic should try to honor its obligation to employees.