Republic Workers Target Bank of America

A big labor rally was set for Bank of America’s Chicago headquarters at 12 noon December 10 after negotiations failed to resolve issues that led workers to occupy the Republic Windows & Doors plant five days before.

According to an Associated Press report yesterday afternoon, during talks between the workers’ union, Republic management and Bank of America (BoA) officials, the bank had agreed to finance Republic’s payment of severance and vacation pay that management had illegally failed to provide for workers–a move that sparked the occupation.

But officials from the union, the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE), said there was no deal–and that even if there was, workers would have to vote on it before it could be accepted.

So the December 10 protest was on–and judging by the continued strong and spirited turnout of supporters at the plant the day before, it will be sizeable.

Just one mobile TV van was on hand for a noontime press conference–most reporters hurriedly left the plant to cover the arrest of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (who had been at the factory himself less than 24 hours earlier). But there was just as much energy as ever, thanks to a large delegation from the Interfaith Worker Justice committee. Rev. C.J. Hawking vowed to hold daily noontime rallies at the plant for the duration of the struggle.

The press conference itself morphed into a send-off rally for the UE negotiating team as it left to meet with BoA and management representatives. “Today we are united,” said Armando Robles, president of UE Local 1110, which represents the Republic workers. “We are America,” he added, to especially loud cheers. Like a large majority of Republic workers, Robles is a Latino immigrant, and his declaration had added resonance.

Also speaking at the press conference was Rev. Nelson Johnson, a leading African American minister in Greensboro, N.C., and survivor of the Ku Klux Klan massacre of anti-racist activists in that city in 1979.

“I don’t believe that the American people would have $25 billion dollars go to a bank while workers who need the support of that money are standing outside on the street with nothing in our pockets,” Johnson said, alluding to Bank of America’s share of $700 billion in government money used to bail out the financial system.

“We are joining with thousands and with millions all over this country, and we ought to keep doing it. We ought to spread the word in city after city–that wherever this kind of thing happens, the people ought to take possession of the use of their own money.”

Another call to action came from Dennis Williams, director of Region 4 of the United Auto Workers (UAW).

“As many of you know, the United Auto Workers are going through a struggle in Congress while they give billions and billions of dollars to banks, they’re afraid to help out the workers of this country. This is symbolic–this is the United Auto Workers, how we started,” he said, alluding to the historic role of the UAW sit-down strikes of 1936-37 that launched a wave of similar struggles that established mass industrial unions for the first time. “These workers are standing up for justice for all workers.”

Despite the UAW’s hard times–the union has agreed to take another round of major concessions as part of the government’s auto industry bailout–Williams brought with him a check for $5,000 for the workers.

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WILLIAMS WAS one of a number of prominent labor leaders who have made their way to the plant to officially show their support. But unions have mainly been represented by a range of union organizers and rank-and-file members.

On Tuesday, one of them was Greg Cameron, a repair worker at AT&T, currently on leave to be a staff organizer for International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 21.

“I hate to see these people suffer short term to help us long term, but I really think this is going to help us,” Cameron said. “This really opens peoples’ eyes. There is a confluence of events–the economy, the bailout and a new president coming in that’s decidedly different from George W. Bush. The whole thing is the dawn of a new day, and hopefully, this is going to be the spark that’s going to get people to pay attention.”

Mary Zerkel, a staff member at the American Friends Service Committee’s Chicago office, made a similar point. “It seems like the historic moment is right,” she said. “People, I think, are fed up. They’re upset about the bailout and the money that went to Wall Street. They’re saying, ‘This is ridiculous.’

“Bank of America was given a huge amount of money. Why can’t they extend the same rights to these workers. Who’s going to bail out the workers, finally?”

With this grassroots support from below, and the support of politicians like President-elect Barack Obama from above, there’s heavy pressure on Bank of America to hand over the cash needed to settle workers’ claims. Documents have surfaced showing that BoA refused to work with Republic’s management to restructure its debt.

Yet even though Republic’s main owner, Rich Gillman, was reportedly aware that the plant would have to close by January, he still refused to provide workers the 60 days notice of closure (or the equivalent in pay) as required by the federal WARN Act.

Instead, he gave the workers just a couple days’ notice that their jobs and health insurance were gone–less than three weeks before Christmas. And as the Chicago Tribune reported, his relatives and former Republic personnel have already purchased a nonunion window manufacturing plant in Iowa.

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SUCH METHODS are nothing new to members of manufacturing workers’ unions. Plant cutbacks and closures eliminated more than 3 million manufacturing jobs, even during the economic recovery of 2002 to 2007.

What’s different at Republic Windows is that a group of workers is fighting back–and they have captured the imagination of everyone who wants to see an end to the employers’ one-sided class war.

In this climate, even the corporate media has been compelled to exposed the union-busting that passes for “labor relations” in the U.S.

“The folks that are participating in this have a pretty clear recognition that there’s not a satisfactory remedy to be found at the National Labor Relations Board, the Department of Labor,” said Rich De Vries, a business agent at Teamsters Local 705, who assisted UE in getting Republic workers their first contract through that union.

“There’s not a satisfactory grievance or arbitration process that’s going to solve their problem,” he said. “So they’ve chosen to engage in direct action. That’s the significant thing here.”

Having gained such widespread support by taking a stand, many Republic Workers and their supporters are thinking beyond winning vacation and severance pay–that is, finding a way to keep the plant open and save some 250 jobs.

Is it possible? As union shop steward Ricardo Caceres put it, “That’s the million-dollar question.”

LEE SUSTAR writes for the Socialist Worker.





LEE SUSTAR is the labor editor of Socialist Worker