Laid-Off Workers Occupy Chicago Factory

Workers and union organizers rally outside of the Republic Windows and Doors factory in Chcago Dec. 6, 2008. Workers laid off from their jobs at the factory have occupied the building since Friday and are demanding assurances they'll get severance and vacation pay that they say they are owed. AP Photo/Brian Kersey

Workers who got three days' notice that their factory was shutting its doors have occupied the building and say they won't go home without assurances they'll get severance and vacation pay.

About 250 union workers occupied the Republic Windows and Doors plant in shifts Saturday while union leaders outside criticized a Wall Street bailout they say is leaving laborers behind.

Leah Fried, an organizer with the United Electrical Workers, said the Chicago-based vinyl window manufacturer failed to give 60 days' notice required by law before shutting down.

"There is one thing that is absolutely clear," U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, a Chicago Democrat, told CBS Station WBBM. "They're owed 75 days of pay. They're owed their vacation time, and they're owed their fringe benefits - including healthcare benefits - during those 75 days."

Gutierrez added that Republic's abrupt decision to shut down is suspicious. He said he has a "very strong belief" that Republic is simply "recapitalizing and reorganizing its production in another state," and called on the Illinois Department of Labor to investigate, according to WBBM.

During the two-day peaceful takeover, workers have been shoveling snow and cleaning the building, Fried said.

We're doing something we haven't done since the 1930s, so we're trying to make it work," she said, referring to a tactic most famously used in 1936-37 by General Motors factory workers in Flint, Mich., to help unionize the U.S. auto industry.

Fried said the company can't pay its 300 employees because its creditor, Charlotte, N.C.-based Bank of America, won't let them. Crain's Chicago Business reported that Republic Windows' monthly sales had fallen to $2.9 million from $4 million during the past month. In a memo to the union, obtained by the business journal, Republic CEO Rich Gillman said the company had "no choice but to shut our doors."

Click to see CBS Affiliate WBBM's coverage of the sit-in.
"Bank of America received $25 billion from the government's financial bailout package. The company said in a statement Saturday that it isn't responsible for Republic's financial obligations to its employees.

"Across cultures, religions, union and nonunion, we all say this bailout was a shame," said Richard Berg, president of Teamsters Local 743. "If this bailout should go to anything, it should go to the workers of this country."

Outside the plant, protesters wore stickers and carried signs that said, "You got bailed out, we got sold out."

"We're angry, we're frustrated. At this point we just don't know which end is up," fired Republic worker Melvin Maclin told WBBM. "We feel mistreated." Maclin said that workers were remaining in the factory not only to make a point, but also to protect the company's remaining assets.

Larry Spivack, regional director for American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Council 31, said the peaceful action will add to Chicago's rich history in the labor movement, which includes the 1886 Haymarket affair, when Chicago laborers and anarchists gathering in a square on the city's west side drew national attention after an unidentified person threw a bomb at police.

(AP Photo/Brian Kersey)
Left, worker Luis Lira sits in the lobby at the Republic Windows and Doors factory on Saturday, Dec. 6.

"The history of workers is built on issues like this here today," Spivack said.

Representatives of Republic Windows did not immediately respond Saturday to calls and e-mails seeking comment.

Police spokeswoman Laura Kubiak said authorities were aware of the situation and officers were patrolling the area.

Workers were angered when company officials didn't show up for a meeting Friday that had been arranged by Gutierrez, Fried said. Union officials said another meeting with the company is scheduled for Monday afternoon.

"We're going to stay here until we win justice," said Blanca Funes, 55, of Chicago, after occupying the building for several hours. Speaking in Spanish, Funes said she fears losing her home without the wages she feels she's owed. A 13-year employee of Republic, she estimated her family can make do for three months without her paycheck. Most of the factory's workers are Hispanic.
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