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2008-12-10

Workers Win Offer from BofA in Chicago Factory Sit-In

Guests

Juan Gonzalez, Democracy Now! co-host and New York Daily News columnist.

Mark Meinster, an organizer with United Electrical Workers.

Raul Flores, a 25-year-old plant worker who had worked at Republic for eight years.

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For the past six days, hundreds of laid-off union workers have refused to leave the Republic Windows & Doors plant, staging a factory sit-in seldom seen in this country since the 1930s. The factory was closed last week after the factory owners said Bank of America cut off the company’s line of credit. On Tuesday, the workers won a victory: Bank of America offered loans to the firm to resolve the pay dispute. We speak with a factory worker and a union organizer. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: One day before Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich was arrested, he was at the Republic Windows & Door factory in Chicago expressing support for the laid-off workers who have occupied the closed factory.

For the past six days, hundreds of union workers have refused to leave the plant, staging a factory sit-in seldom seen in this country since the 1930s.

The workers say they won’t leave until the factory is reopened or they receive severance pay and accrued vacation time. The factory was closed last week after the factory owners said Bank of America cut off the company’s line of credit.

On Monday, Governor Blagojevich ordered state agencies to stop doing business with Bank of America until it uses some of its federal bailout money to keep the factory open.

    GOVERNOR ROD BLAGOJEVICH: So unless and until they do that, we, the state of Illinois, will suspend doing any business with the Bank of America, and we hope that this kind of leverage and pressure will encourage the Bank of America to do the right thing for this business, take some of that federal tax money that they’ve received and invest it by providing the necessary credit to this company so these workers can keep their jobs.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: On Tuesday, the Republic Windows & Doors factory won a victory: Bank of America offered loans to the firm to resolve the pay dispute. In a statement, the bank said it was “prepared to provide a limited amount of additional loans to Republic to help fund a comprehensive resolution of Employee Claims.” Labor organizers say the sit-in will continue until a resolution is reached.

The factory sit-in has attracted attention and renewed a discussion about the federal government’s bailout of the banking industry. On Sunday, civil rights leader Jesse Jackson met with the laid-off workers.

    REV. JESSE JACKSON: These workers must be congratulated for having the courage. In the great tradition of Dr. King, in the tradition of Cesar Chavez and the tradition of Rosa Parks, your sitting down in many ways allows America to stand up, workers all around the nation who are now facing massive layoffs. It’s your job. It’s your plant. Stay there and fight for them ’til justice comes, and justice will come.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, Democracy Now!

co-host Juan Gonzalez has been covering this story from the ground in Chicago for the New York Daily News. He is joined in the Chicago studio by Raul Flores, a twenty-five-year-old plant worker who worked at Republic for eight years, and Mark Meinster, an organizer with United Electrical Workers.

Juan, you visited the plant yesterday. Can you describe the scene to us? And what is the latest news?

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Sharif, the plant has become a magnet now for the labor and progressive movement from around the city and actually from the Midwest, as people come to visit and to show support, bring supplies to the workers, food, a truckload on Monday night of toys that were brought for the workers for their children for Christmas.

And it’s gotten enormous attention in the media, both nationwide and here, a sympathetic criticism, for the most part, as — because not only Bank of America, but also JPMorgan Chase — it hasn’t gotten as much attention, but JPMorgan Chase invested several million dollars in the plant in early 2007 and actually had a member on the board of directors until just this past summer. So two of the major banks that have benefited from the federal bailout have been — have connections and involvement with this plant.

And we’re joined now by one of the workers who has been sitting in. Raul Flores, welcome to Democracy Now!

RAUL FLORES: Thank you for having me.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Raul, tell us, your decision of the workers on Friday to do this. You had been getting signs for a while that something was up at the plant and that they were possibly going to move to some other part of the country.

RAUL FLORES: Well, yes, sir. That started fifteen days ago. When we get out of the work on Friday, we went home. When we came back on Monday, one whole line of production was gone. All the machines, everything was gone. So we said, if this time we get out of the building, on Monday, when we come to pick up our checks, nothing’s going to be here.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And so, your decision then to occupy the plant, because the supervisors were not giving you — after they announced that they were closing, they would not give you any of your vacation pay, any of the money you were owed. Even the WARN Act, the federal law that requires a sixty-day plant notice, was not being implemented.

RAUL FLORES: Well, they just told us last Tuesday that they will now shut down the company. And on Friday, when we got there, they just told us that there were no money for us, that our vacation that we already earned, that we’re not going to get paid for that. So we said, “That’s our money. We already worked for that money. They still owe us a week of work.” So we decided to stay, because we say, “That’s our money. We worked for that money. We’re here to make our jobs. We’re not going to steal nothing from nobody. We’re just here to work.”

JUAN GONZALEZ: And, Mark Meinster, you’re an organizer with the United Electrical Workers. The union represents the workers. When your union heard that these workers were deciding that they were not going to leave the plant, what was the reaction among the officials?

MARK MEINSTER: The union has been behind these workers 100 percent. And, you know, we had started preparing for an occupation. Raul said that we learned about fifteen days ago that they were taking out machines. So that’s when we started preparing for this type of action. And there’s been no hesitancy at all, I have to say, among the leadership of our union in supporting the workers in this struggle.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, talks have been going on for several days between Bank of America, the union, and as well as Congressman Luis Gutierrez, who’s taking a lead role in trying to reach a settlement. There were some hopeful signs, but now, apparently, nothing’s been moving in the last few days.

MARK MEINSTER: Well, we’ve had three — we’ve had two meetings so far. We’ve got another meeting scheduled for this afternoon. We’re getting closer to an agreement. We’re hopeful we’ll get to an agreement. We need to meet today, because there are some issues that still need to be ironed out at the table. But I will say that the parties, at this point, are working in good faith to come to an agreement. So we’re hopeful that by today we’ll have an agreement here.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, I understand that the amount involved, in terms of the money owed to the workers, is roughly about 1.8, two million dollars.

MARK MEINSTER: It’s somewhere between one-and-a-half million and two million dollars, depending on how you calculate the vacation.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And so, there’s been some indication that the bank is willing to at least produce sufficient loans for the company to pay off that amount of money?

MARK MEINSTER: That’s right. But there’s some important details, you know, that we have to iron out to make sure that the workers actually get the money. What we don’t want to see happen and what we won’t let happen is that there’s an arrangement made, there’s a bankruptcy declared, and then all of a sudden we’re back to square one.

The whole problem here is that the workers are owed the money under the law, but under our bankruptcy laws, workers take second position to any secured creditors, like JPMorgan Chase or Bank of America or GE Capital, who owns the machines here. And so, we don’t want to see that happen. We won’t let that happen. So we need an agreement to ensure that that doesn’t happen. And I think the parties are going to work in good faith to make that happen. But, you know, we’re going to dot every “i” and cross every “t.”

JUAN GONZALEZ: And, Raul Flores, have you been surprised by the enormous outpouring of support that you’ve gotten?

RAUL FLORES: Yeah, yeah, yeah. All the community is with us, you know, so we got to thank everybody. If it wasn’t for them, this couldn’t be happening. You know, they make us strong.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And in terms of the spirit among the workers — I know you’ve been alternating in shifts, those who are staying inside the plant every night.

RAUL FLORES: Yeah.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And what lessons have you learned in terms of a future involvement in the American labor movement?

RAUL FLORES: That we have to be united. United we stand.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And in terms of the impact that your struggle has had for other workers, have those who have come to support you — have they told you the inspiration that you’ve given to them through your struggle?

RAUL FLORES: Well, we hope that everybody learns something out of this, not just us, but everybody out there. We’ve got to learn something out of this. So I hope — my hope is that this doesn’t end here. This is the start of something.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And, Mark Meinster, I understand there’s a protest planned outside of Bank of America this afternoon by the supporters of the workers to try to keep the pressure on the bank to reach a settlement?

MARK MEINSTER: Yeah, one of the great things about this struggle is how people all over the country have taken it on as their own. And so, the entire labor movement here in Chicago organized a protest for today at noon downtown, outside of the bank. There’s another protest — there are other protests around the country happening, as well. So, yes.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And interestingly, the intersection of these two big stories, Governor Blagojevich, his last public appearance was on Monday, when he appeared in front of the plant, and all day yesterday in all the TV shows across the country, the only photo that they had of the Governor was as he stood in front of the plant. They kept playing it over and over again, with the workers of Republic in the background. Unfortunate that it was that way, but it also gave additional attention to your struggle, didn’t it?

MARK MEINSTER: Sure, it gave, you know, some attention to this. We’ve had a lot of attention, frankly. I think that this thing has really struck a chord in the American public. And, you know, I think the media understands really where the country is at, in a sense, and so that’s part of why they’ve been covering this story so much.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us, Raul Flores and Mark Meinster, and we’ll continue to follow the struggle of the workers at Republic, as the rest of the country watches with great interest what happens there. We’re going to take a break. And when we return, you’ll be going back to New York to Anjali and Sharif in our New York studios.

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