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

Publisher Name: 
New York Times

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."

AMP Section Name:Manufacturing
  • 106 Money & Politics
  • 184 Labor
  • 186 Financial Services, Insurance and Banking
  • 201 Executive Compensation