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US: In Factory Sit-In, an Anger Spread Wide

by MONICA DAVEYNew York Times
December 7th, 2008

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 Corp">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 Muńoz, 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.”



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