President-elect Barack Obama put himself on the side of the workers at the Republic Windows and Doors factory Sunday:
"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 at a news conference announcing his new Veterans Affairs director. "What's happening to them is reflective of what's happening across this economy.
Also see below:
In Factory Sit-In, an Anger Spread Wide â€¢
"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.
"Number two, I think it is important for us to make sure that, moving forward, any economic plan we put in place helps businesses to meet payroll so we are not seeing these kinds of circumstances again,'' he said. "Have we done everything that we can to make sure credit is flowing to businesses and to families, and to students who are trying to get loans? And to homeowners who have been making payments on their homes but are still finding their property values so depressed that it becomes very difficult for them to make the mortgage payments?
"That's where the rubber hits the road and that's going to be the central focus of my administration."
In Factory Sit-In, an Anger Spread Wide
Sunday 07 December 2008
by: Monica Davey, The New York Times
Chicago - The scene inside a long, low-slung factory on this city's North Side this weekend offered a glimpse at how the nation's loss of more than 600,000 manufacturing jobs in a year of recession is boiling over.
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. Their sharpest criticisms were aimed at their former bosses, who they said gave them only three days' notice of the closing, and the company's creditors. But their anger stretched broadly to the government's costly corporate bailout plans, which, they argued, had forgotten about regular workers.
"They want the poor person to stay down," said Silvia Mazon, 47, a mother of two who worked as an assembler here for 13 years and said she had never before been the sort to march in protests or make a fuss. "We're here, and we're not going anywhere until we get what's fair and what's ours. They thought they would get rid of us easily, but if we have to be here for Christmas, it doesn't matter."
The workers, members of Local 1110 of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, said they were owed vacation and severance pay and were not given the 60 days of notice generally required by federal law when companies make layoffs. Lisa Madigan, the attorney general of Illinois, said her office was investigating, and representatives from her office interviewed workers at the plant on Sunday.
At a news conference Sunday, President-elect Barack Obama said the company should follow through on its commitments to its workers.
"The workers who are asking for the benefits and payments that they have earned," Mr. Obama said, "I think they're absolutely right and understand that what's happening to them is reflective of what's happening across this economy."
Company officials, who were no longer at the factory, did not return telephone or e-mail messages. A meeting between the owners and workers is scheduled for Monday. The company, which was founded in 1965 and once employed more than 700 people, had struggled in recent months as home construction dipped, workers said.
Still, as they milled around the factory's entrance this weekend, some workers said they doubted that the company was really in financial straits, and they suggested that it would reopen elsewhere with cheaper costs and lower pay. Others said managers had kept their struggles secret, at one point before Thanksgiving removing heavy equipment in the middle of the night but claiming, when asked about it, that all was well.
Workers also pointedly blamed Bank of America, a lender to Republic Windows, saying the bank had prevented the company from paying them what they were owed, particularly for vacation time accrued.
"Here the banks like Bank of America get a bailout, but workers cannot be paid?" said Leah Fried, an organizer with the union workers. "The taxpayers would like to see that bailout go toward saving jobs, not saving C.E.O.'s."
In a statement issued Saturday, Bank of America officials said they could not comment on an individual client's situation because of confidentiality obligations. Still, a spokeswoman also said, "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."
Inside the factory, the "occupation" was relatively quiet. The Chicago police said that they were monitoring the situation but that they had had no reports of a criminal matter to investigate.
About 30 workers sat in folding chairs on the factory floor. (Reporters and supporters were not allowed to enter, but the workers could be observed through an open door.) They came in shifts around the clock. They tidied things. They shoveled snow. They met with visiting leaders, including Representatives Luis V. Gutierrez and Jan Schakowsky, both Democrats from Illinois, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
Throughout the weekend, people came by with donations of food, water and other supplies.
The workers said they were determined to keep their action - reminiscent, union leaders said, of autoworkers' efforts in Michigan in the 1930s - peaceful and to preserve the factory.
"The fact is that workers really feel like they have nothing to lose at this point," Ms. Fried said. "It shows something about our economic times, and it says something about how people feel about the bailout."
Until last Tuesday, many workers here said, they had no sense that there was any problem. Shortly before 1 p.m. that day, workers were told in a meeting that the plant would close Friday, they said. Some people wept, others expressed fury.
Many employees said they had worked in the factory for decades. Lalo Muñoz, who was among those sleeping over in the building, said he arrived 34 years ago. The workers - about 80 percent of them Hispanic, with the rest black or of other ethnic and national backgrounds - made $14 an hour on average and received health care and retirement benefits, Ms. Fried said.
"This never happens - to take a company from the inside," Ms. Mazon said. "But I'm fighting for my family, and we're not going anywhere."